Can I Bribe My Child into Being a Good Person?

Dangling carrot

In a previous article, “Parenting isn’t Rocket Science…it’s Harder!”, I suggested that too many of us parents ask the wrong question:

“How can I get my child to do or stop doing ______________ (fill in the blank)?”

If we start with this question then we’ll likely get answers that focus primarily on behavior or action, and not on character or the process of becoming. Granted, actions and character are—or at least should be—linked together. But it is possible–and far too common–to focus on one at the expense of the other.

Beware the Carrot!

Far too much of the parenting advice out there is creating generations of hoop-jumpers—folks who go through the motions without true purpose or conviction. Yet for the most part, we parents gobble up these ideas because we can get immediate results (or behaviors) and thus feel like we are doing things right.

One of the two primary ways to get kids to do or stop doing what we demand is the bribe. Bribes/rewards, in essence, are dangling something that the child values out in front of him or her to fulfill our requests or expectations. We usually refer to the carrot as the dangling item, but I know that none of my children are doing anything for a carrot . . . that’s probably closer to a punishment (which I’ll address in future articles). For your kids, perhaps the bribe is candy, money, gadgets, or something else tantalizing.

The Pizza Ticket Isn’t Much Better

Unfortunately, bribes come with many unintended unintended short and long term consequences. This article could really be a novel filled with research, doctrine, and personal stories illustrating the drawbacks of bribes and artificial rewards. But for now, this post will have to be a little teaser to get your attention. 🙂 I will have my 6-year-old daughter, Naomi, demonstrate what I am about to share. In a candid moment, I was able to interview Naomi without her knowledge as I held the phone casually below my chest. Notice Naomi’s enthusiasm for pizza  . . . not reading.

Let’s be honest, if I have to bribe my child to do something then they clearly don’t see the value in it. But we parents usually do see the value. What Naomi—and research—teaches us is the action or endeavor we value becomes a “blah, blah, blah” when an artificial reward is involved because they only care about the “pizza ticket.” Doing a task because you want to is very different than doing it because you want somethingAlfie Kohn summarized the mountain of research on rewards this way:

The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.

Besides reading and pizza tickets, we can all think of other examples where this is true:

  • Grade-focused students are less concerned about actual real learning;
  • Boy Scouts that are coerced with bribes to get their Eagle will probably get it and only it;
  • Getting paid to practice the piano will likely lead to practicing but won’t likely produce a love for it

The only motivation that matters is the one that comes from within! That’s not to say that you should avoid all rewards at all times. But perhaps we should use rewards sparingly.

Reflect Before You Correct

If you are appropriately skeptical at this point and asking, “What am I supposed to do instead?” Stay tuned and keep reading my posts. But for now, I’ll invite you to reflect on the following questions:

  • Where’s the line between treating my child as an individual (working with) and treating them as a pawn (doing to)?
  • Are my requests and expectations more for me, or for them?
  • What are the short-term and long-term reasons for why I want my child to ____________?
  • What natural or intrinsic reward is already built in to the activity? How can I help my child discover that for him or herself?

I realize that most children won’t see the value in something from the get-go, but we don’t have to ruin it for them by making it all about the reward. One alternative to bribes when they have to but don’t want to comes from Mary Poppins. “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.” This requires mental exertion on the parents part. This also teaches children how to find fun and purpose in mundane things as they grow older.

So what else do we do instead of bribe? Stay tuned for more good things to come!


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