Thinking About Bribery

When parents start to feel unsuccessful in getting a child to do something they consider important, somewhere along the line their thoughts may go to bribery.  Often it is presented as rewards, which somehow feels more acceptable.  Shouldn’t children be rewarded for doing the “right thing?”  And isn’t bribery just another form of reward?

That question often arises in relation to issues such as toilet training when a reward in the form of stickers or candy is considered.  Sometimes the idea is considered as a way of gaining compliance in behavior relating to eating, bedtime, playdates with friends, and generally following parental requests. 

Now the question seems to have come up with respect to getting children to read.  Apparently some parents have considered paying children for numbers of pages’ read within designated time periods.  This is a reflection of the stress that has been put on reading with regard to academic success.  Schools often assign specific material that is to be read over the summer – a homework assignment.  Also, recent emphasis on brain development calls attention to neural pathways that need to be developed when children are young to achieve reading success.

But the question remains as to whether bribery – especially with money – is simply a different kind of reward, and also, whether rewards themselves are the most effective way to control or to change behavior?  The reward in effect says, if you do this, you will get that.  But the implied opposite of that is if you don’t do this, you will be punished.

The point is that reward and punishment is an attempt to control children’s behavior, and children – adults, too, for that matter – have only two reactions to control, they comply or they defy.  It is children’s defiance that often leads to thoughts of bribery in the first place.  They are either actively defiant – 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.

Perhaps the more important question is why children are being defiant in the first place.  One reason might be whether what we are asking is realistic in terms of where a child is in his or her development.  If the behavior in question involves self-control or frustration tolerance such as waiting your turn, what seems like defiance may be immaturity which won’t be solved by rewards or punishment.

Then too, defiance can be a reaction to feeling controlled, to having to do what other people want rather than what you yourself want.  For children, the feeling of being bossed around, having to do what mom or dad tell you to do, increasingly can play a role in their behavior as autonomy becomes a big issue in their development.  This is an ongoing factor as children grow since their own desires often conflict with what seems to be important to parents.  

Bribery is an attempt to get children to comply with our wishes when they conflict with their own, or whether they actively don’t want to do what we want them to do.  A reward may or may not achieve compliance in the moment but does not solve the deeper question of how to deal with conflicting wishes, first within the family, but later with others as well.

This requires more thoughtful responses, beginning when children are very young. Showing that we respect their wishes is a first step, but 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 rather than just ordering them or bribing them to do it.  When it comes to something like reading, it may take a different kind of participation such as trips to the library, searching out reading material that matches a child’s interest (maybe even comic books as a starter), or setting a model through our own behavior.

Initially, reward is a motivating factor in children’s behavior – the reward of mom and dad’s approval which is more satisfying than disapproval.  Our goal, however is that children will develop those standards within themselves and take responsibility for their 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.

Bribery may help in a desperate moment – as long as we don’t confuse an occasional need with a long term goal.