How Bribing Your Kids Hurts You—and Them

Libby Kane

How do you reward your kids?

When they do something without even being asked, do they get a toy to add to their collection? How about a new video game, or a dollar here and there?

All of the above methods have something in common: They reward kids with money or material goods. Obviously, this kind of reward can get expensive. But less obvious are the problems it can cause for your children both now and for their future success.

We spoke to experts and parents to figure out exactly what’s so wrong about buying your child’s cooperation—and what to do, if not that.

The Problem With External Rewards

“When children primarily seek external rewards, they develop the potential to pick and choose what they are willing to do,” explains Liz Rampy M.Ed., LPCI, a kindergarten teacher and therapist. “They can quickly become complacent with the prizes offered, and often expect to receive larger rewards for doing the same thing. Even very young children are capable of asking a version of, ‘What’s in it for me if I do this?,’ or ‘I did this, now what do I get?’”

By all accounts, when kids get too used to external motivation, it can damage their ability to self-motivate, a skill that serves them well as adults. And in fact, studies have shown that internal motivation is much more powerful than any other kind.

One famous example of this concept is the Magic Marker Study from the 1970s. Researchers had children who liked markers draw pictures either for rewards, for nothing or for a surprise reward that they didn’t expect. The group drawing for a reward showed lessening interest in the markers during free play periods, and even produced lower-quality drawings than the control and surprise group. It seems that knowing they would be rewarded worked against the children, and even made something they had previously loved less fun.

Don’t get us wrong–we aren’t ignoring the ease brought about by a well-placed reward. (Fine, a bribe.) The question is, how can we get those same results, while still fostering internal motivation in our children?

We dug around for some ideas.

1. Set Expectations

Not every correct behavior should be celebrated–often, it should just be expected that a child contribute to the household. According to Jennifer Little, Ph.D. from the parenting site Parents Teach Kids, one way to establish expected behaviors is to use the word “when” instead of “if” to eliminate the idea that your child has the option to not do something.
Dr. Little explains, “Using the word ‘when’ sets up 
logical and natural consequences: When you pick up your clothes and put them in the laundry, 
then you can get clean clothes the next day. When you put the dirty dishes in the sink after breakfast, then you 
can have lunch.”

2. Pay Attention to Clues

“Some children are motivated by gifts, but other children are motivated by one-on-one time, a hug or pat on 
the back or even hearing your praise,” says Tara Kennedy-Kline of the parenting site Multilevel Mom. “Begin by paying attention to how your 
child praises you or shows you they love you. Do they snuggle in your lap
 and give you giant bear hugs? Do they ask you to play with them or go for walks? Do they perform chores and
 tasks for you, like make your bed or surprise you with a clean bedroom? These are all 
ways your child is showing you how they want to be rewarded for the 
good things they do.”

3. Be Specific

A high five and a “good job” may be a good start, but the most effective praise is specific. Candi Wingate, President of Care4Hire, explains: “If the positive feedback 
has been phrased, ‘Good job, Susie,’ said while pointing at a 
paper where Susie wrote the alphabet, Susie may be unclear if 
she’s being praised for finishing a task, not making a mess with her 
crayons or something else. If she isn’t clear about what she did well, she won’t know what to do right next time.”

4. Focus on Experiences

If you’re looking for a more extravagant but less monetary way to reward your child without spending, use experiences rather than gifts. “Things like a special play date, your child’s choice of a family movie, a fun bath with colorful soap and bath paint, building a pillow fort or an afternoon baking cupcakes can be just the reward they need,” says psychotherapist Barbara Neitlich, LCSW.

5. Have Them Earn It

Sometimes a genuine thank you and a hug just isn’t going to cut it. “We are all motivated by external rewards at times,” says Rampy. “It’s unrealistic to avoid them entirely. However, children should have an opportunity to earn them over a period of time. For example, a parent may keep a sticker chart. Children are told what is expected, and when they complete the task without being asked, they receive a sticker. When the predetermined number of stickers is reached, the child may receive a small reward, like going out for ice cream after a week of making his bed.”
Tell us–what reward system do you have in place for your child?

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  • Sue Godfrey

    Thanks for a timely and thoughtful article. I’ve been struggling with this idea with my children & you put the nail on the head! I am incorporating “when” instead of “if” TODAY! And I know my kids want my time more than stuff… When I want them to clean their rooms, the reward can be that I will play with them IN THEIR ROOMS once the cleaning is done. I think that incentive will work much better than the threats I’ve been giving. 

    Once again LearnVest, you are anticipating my questions before I ask them!

  • Andrea

    Helpful advice here. We do a sticker chart w/our child, and after a certain number of stickers earned for helping with her younger brother she chooses a fun family outing such as a trip to the local lake, or story hour at the library. I do agree that bribing can lead to a kid who has their hand out for every time they clear a plate. (Annoying!) 

  • Annie Nanny

    Your precious, stubborn toddler says “NO!” with exasperating frequency.  You have resorted to bargaining to gain at least some degree of consent, rather than dealing with a screaming fit on every occasion.  At what point does bargaining become bribery?  What lessons will your toddler learn from the experience?  What’s a mom (or nanny) to do?
    It’s a fine line between bargaining and bribery.  No bright line test exists: what is bargaining to one may be bribery to another.  In the end, you have to do what is right for you and your toddler.
    If you offer a special treat (either a tangible item like a dessert or a non-tangible item like getting to stay up an extra half hour after bedtime) to incent your toddler to do what he should do, he may learn that, if he fusses over things, he will benefit.  Therefore, he will fuss over things that he ordinarily would not object to . . . because he wants the benefit of having to be incented. 
    Because this lesson, once learned, is difficult to un-learn, it’s best not to present your toddler with this lesson in the first place.  So, if your toddler says “NO!” when you really want or need him to do as you’ve directed, then perhaps your best response is to explain the reason(s) that your chosen course of action is best, remind your toddler of the benefits of following your chosen course of action (the benefits that would ensue with or without fuss), assert your authority in a loving manner, and, if need be, warn of and provide consequences for your toddler’s failure to comply.  For example, you might say, “Johnny, I’d like you to eat your dinner because your little body needs nutrition for you to live, to have energy to play with your buddies, and to grow up big and strong.  Besides, look at what we’re serving : some of your favorite foods are on the table.  You love mashed potatoes and gravy.”  If this is not persuasive, proceed to, “Johnny, I’m afraid that this is non-negotiable.  I’m the parent (or nanny) here, and I’m responsible for your welfare.  You need to mind me.  Please.”  If this is still not persuasive, proceed to, “Johnny, if you do not behave properly, you will have go into time-out for five minutes.  Is that what you want?”  If this is still not persuasive, then it’s time to actually put Johnny in time-out for the designated five minutes.  When the five minutes have passed, reinforce that you love Johnny and again ask Johnny to behave properly.  If he still wishes not to comply, offer another time out, and follow up as necessary.  This process may seem long and laborious, but once you establish that you will not back down, Johnny will come to understand that he must comply with your directions.
    By standing your ground in a loving and consistent manner, you will help your toddler learn to mind you without resorting to bargaining or bribery.