What About Bribery?

This is a familiar question asked by frustrated parents when children are not complying with their requests.  Is bribery good or bad? Does it work?  This issue was discussed recently by Bruce Feiler in a NYTimes.com article where he calls it “one of the more nagging challenges of being a parent.”

In the course of trying to answer the question, Feiler consults numerous experts and reports on their points of view.  Interestingly, most of the comments speak to the reasons that bribery doesn’t work in the long run, although it may in the moment.  Alternative techniques based on giving rewards for desired behavior are also discussed.  One suggestion turns the process into a game which gives a child the “illusion of choice”, and makes the point that the feeling of choice is more important than real choice.

Reading all this, my own reaction was that most of it misses the important point because the whole focus is on methods for controlling behavior.  The behavioral approach is based on the idea that behavior is shaped by rewards and punishment, therefore applying such a system correctly will lead to desired behavioral change.  One of the experts quoted in the article makes the significant observation that the problem with bribing is not the reward but the contingency – if you do this, you will get that – which is a form of control.  He makes the further point that people, children in particular,  “have only two reactions to control, they comply or they defy.”

Actually, it is children’s defiance that often leads to thoughts of bribery in the first place.  Children are either actively – by saying “no” – or passively – by just not doing it, refusing to do what we ask.  Active defiance seems to lead to thoughts of punishment, while rewards, in the form of bribery, may seem a solution to more passive defiance.  Parents often try a program of awarding stickers – a form of bribery – as a method for motivating desired behavior.

But what if instead of focusing on controlling the behavior, we ask ourselves why our children are being defiant in the first place?  There are a number of possible answers to that question.  The most obvious relates to whether our expectations match where a child is in his or her development.  If the behavior at issue involves self-control, such as “stop hitting your sister”, or frustration tolerance as in waiting for your turn, what seems like defiance may be immaturity which won’t be solved by rewards or punishment.

On the other hand, suppose we go back to the idea that feeling controlled leads to either defiance or compliance, both a reaction to having to do what other people want rather than what you yourself want.   Perhaps it is not only the feeling of being controlled, but also of being bossed around, that you have to do something because someone – your mom or dad – tells you to do it.  Often when we ask, or more likely tell  children to do something, we get that bossy tone in our voice.  Imagine if your spouse ordered you to get dressed, or to pick up your clothes!  We would like a little more respect in the request (to say the least), but often forget that this might also apply to our children.

Part of this is also the implied or spoken criticism, especially if we have asked more than once.  Part of parental reaction when children don’t comply in the way we would like may be judgmental – it’s not only that we don’t like the behavior, but also that the child is a bad person for behaving that way.  Children can then get to feel that trying to please their parents is hopeless, become indifferent to their criticism, and just give up trying.

In reality, bribery is an attempt to get children to comply with our wishes when they conflict with their own, or when they actively don’t want to do what we want them to do.  In effect, we offer them a reward to do what we want them to do but do not address the deeper question of how to deal with conflicting wishes, first within the family, but increasingly with others as well. 

This is a different goal than getting the behavior you want immediately, and needs more thoughtful responses, beginning when children are very young.  Showing that we respect their wishes is a first step.  But most often teaching them to respect ours may take considerable effort.  It may require active participation on our part at first in helping them carry out our wishes – such as helping them to get dressed, or to clean up their rooms in the face of their resistance – rather than just telling or ordering them to do it.

Initially, reward is a motivating factor in children’s behavior.  The reward they get is the approval of mom and dad which is more satisfying than disapproval when parents are displeased.  But our goal is that our children will develop those standards within themselves and take responsibility for their own behavior when no parent or adult is looking.  The ultimate reward lies in becoming an independent individual who can function well on one’s own.

Feiler writes that he was relieved that the experts he spoke with all said it was O.K. to resort to “old-fashioned, blunt rewards on occasion.”  It reminds me of the Frank Sinatra quote, “I’m for anything that gets you through the night.”  But don’t confuse an occasional need with a long term goal.

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