When You Offer Your First Bribe
It usually happens when you least expect it. You’ve been saying for years you would never be that parent. But somewhere in between desperation and urgency with the foresight of a pending disaster, it slips out: your first bribe. “If you do what I ask, I’ll give you/take you/buy you…” When the only bargaining chip left is negotiation, a parent can feel like they don’t have another choice.
We make our kids believe we’re the ones with all the power. We make the decisions. We choose. But in an instant, a child can throw themselves on the floor in the middle of the supermarket aisle screaming and wriggling because she didn’t get something she wanted – and suddenly a little behind-the-back payoff by a parent doesn’t sound so terrible if it gets her to behave.
Sometimes bribing your child is more planned, in the case of getting them to brush their teeth, read a book or just finish their vegetables at dinnertime. Facing these and other circumstances at home, day in and day out, can exhaust a battle-weary parent. And science has proven: incentives work! (So what if they are really “bribes.”) But how do you set up the right reward, let’s call it, which offers children enough pleasure to do what you want them to do, while still making them feel independent and accountable?
If offered too often, children could learn dependency and develop poor expectations for life in general. Unfortunately, the real world does not always hand you a cookie when you’ve made a good choice. If presented frequently in times of desperation – like when they’re writhing in front of the in-laws – kids might learn it gets them what they want and bad behavior is reinforced. Here are a few things to consider before starting negotiations with your little one:
- 3 years old and under: Young children in the toddler stage live minute to minute with fleeting thoughts, decisions and actions that make up their life, hour to hour. Punishing them with a consequence that doesn’t come in the same minute in which they had an offense is almost useless. Likewise, promising them a reward for their good behavior now that doesn’t come until later is usually completely forgotten and pointless. Sometimes all it takes is a little positive reinforcement – clapping, cheering and smiling at their good behavior – right in the moment to encourage them. Don’t waste your bribes on the under-3 set who might not fully grasp the concept of a “deal” struck with mom and dad.
- 4-6 year olds: Use caution when bargaining with the preschool set. These youngsters are now old enough to understand cause and effect, and will use their basic negotiation skills to try to get what they want. The good news is that their skills in reasoning, patience and stamina have evolved to a point of being able to strike a deal with mom and dad they actually have the power to follow through on over the span of a day or week. They’re eager to be rewarded for their good behavior so be mindful to offer incentives before they misbehave and you’re back in that place of desperate promises you might regret later on.
Even as adults, we thrive off the idea that good things can come to those who behave, work and excel. Work to prevent supermarket tantrums and unruly behavior altogether so you never find yourself in between a rock and a hard place with only a bribe left to negotiate with. Don’t underestimate the power of extrinsic motivation, but there is something to be said for letting good behavior be its own reward.