The Bribery Debate

I bribe my kids. I typically only offer bribes in special circumstances – like when I want them to do something out of the ordinary.  Today, for example, was a no-brainer.  The boys and I were at the park with friends, and I wanted to get a picture of all four of our kids together on a bench. Brogan, who was preoccupied with gathering sticks (he’s a hard worker man), was totally uninterested in my request. I asked him repeatedly to no avail. And then I dug deep into my bag of mommy tricks and said, “Brogan, if you sit down for a picture and smile, I’ll get you ice cream.” Ice cream… the sure-fire way to get my three-year-old to do just about anything.  So of course, it worked. Brogan stopped what he was doing (now not immediately, hell will freeze over before that happens), sat on the bench and cheesed it up for the camera.  The ride home meant a stop by Starbucks for one of their chocolate chip frozen drinks (ice cream in Brogan’s book), and little dude was happy. Beckett also benefited, because there is no way only one kid in the back was getting a treat, unless I have earplugs (which I did not). But I digress.

And Brogan’s thinking, “I’m getting ice cream, I’m getting ice cream.”

As I was posing my bribe to Brogan, I learned I was in good company with my friend Rachele, who also bribes her kids from time to time. We chuckled about it and she said, “I think it goes against every parenting book out there, but I’m pretty sure the people that write those books don’t have kids.” Amen sister.

So what is the big deal? I’ve often thought about this topic from multiple perspectives, thinking about the effect such negotiations may have on them long term.  I’ve thought about “real life” when you’re a grown up. Does the world give you ice cream when it wants you to do something special?  Wait a second, it does.  Isn’t most adult behavior driven by the prospect of some reward in return?  Close a big deal at work and you just may get a bonus.  Keep your customer’s drinks refilled and you might get a bigger tip.  Clean the house, take out the trash and bathe the kids and your wife may give you… well you get the drift.

You may be thinking that the above scenarios are simply rewards – not bribes. Is there really a difference? Is it not just the order of operations here… seems to me that if the person providing the compensation (ice cream, money, or whatever), propositions the subject with the benefit prior to the desired action, it would be considered a bribe. And if the compensation were simply an implied result of some positive behavior, then that makes it a reward. So let me ask the question again, is there really a difference?

Now I know that in a perfect world we’d like our kids to do exactly what we want them to do just because.  Wouldn’t that be awesome.  Likewise, I suppose our bosses would also like it if we showed up to work, busted our butts and were content earning a meager wage.  But that’s not the real world.  It’s not. We all operate on currency.  Sometimes it’s money or possessions or ice cream, sometimes it’s something more altruistic like helping others.  But I’m here to tell you that no one gets out of bed in the morning to do whatever they do without some sort of incentive.  Call it a bribe, call it a reward, call it whatever you want – it’s the truth.

So do I feel bad when I offer my kids a little prize for doing something extra special for me – nope. Not one bit. Do I hope one day they want to do something nice for me without the promise of a reward – sure. But I don’t think this is an all or nothing proposition.  I think you can offer them ice cream to sit still and take a picture and teach them it’s nice to do kind things for others.  But until my kids get the later, trips home from a photo shoot will likely include a detour at the closest purveyor of cold treats.


  • The Rookie Dad

    You are right. Bribery works and even though I hate to use it, I have to in order to either make the Kid shape up or do something that needs to be done.

    Personally, the part that kills me a bit inside is when I use bribery to change the behavior of my son. I feel like I shouldn’t have to bribe him to shape up but at the same time sometimes a parent has to do what a parent has to do.

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