Why Bribes, Rewards, and (Certain Types of) Praise Don't Work
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but having five kids of my own has led me to believe that desperation is the mother of invention, or at least desperate mothers see a necessity to invent. When parents are in a bind, they often resort to a bag of bribes to tame their kids. So what’s wrong with that? Well, quite a lot, actually…
Bribes and Rewards
From time to time we’ve all used bribes, rewards, threats, and ultimatums to change our children’s behavior. Why? Because they work so well! What kid won’t study if he gets $15 for every A he receives? And what little one won’t behave if promised a treat in the checkout lane? I’ve even used the “invoking a higher authority” ploy, calling on the power of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Great Pumpkin. Well, maybe that’s stretching it a bit, but I have fallen back on the “wait until your father gets home” trick.
While practical and effective, these little maneuvers teach our children that the answers to their problems lie in the outside world, not within themselves. They learn to be guided by external beacons, not internal ones. What happens when they are older and those external beacons are nowhere in sight? “Mom and Dad won’t be home for another couple of hours! Just enough time to cruise adult websites and smoke a joint.” Don’t we want our kids to do the right thing when no one is watching them and not just when there’s something in it for them?
The solution lies in helping our children develop inner police officers that keep them aligned with their moral compasses. We can do this by ditching the bribes, rewards, and other parental tricks and teaching them to make appropriate choices on their own, starting when they’re young.
For instance, if your preschooler enjoys going shopping with you but throws a tantrum in the grocery store, take her to the car, drive her to a friend’s house (a very good friend—one with whom you can return the favor), and then go back and finish your shopping. Tell her, “I’m sorry Jenny, but I can’t have you behave like that in the grocery store, because you’re disturbing others and making it difficult for me to finish what I have to do. But, don’t worry, I’ve spoken with Mrs. Walker next door, and she’s agreed to take care of you until I get back. Goodbye.” Then stick to your guns. Drop the kid off and be very nonchalant. “Gee Hon, I wish there was something I could do, but I’m not convinced that you won’t have another tantrum. You’ll be fine.”
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