Child Bribery And You: A Quick-Start Guide

You should probably never, ever take parenting advice from me.

Jan 24, 2013 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

The other night we sat down to dinner, and Oliver did his usual 7-year-old thing where he takes two bites of his food before he declares that he’s full. I never wanted to be one of those parents who force their kid to finish his food, because I want him to learn how to trust his appetite. But I know my kid well enough to know that every night he will sit down, take two bites of food, declare he’s full, and then ask for dessert.

You guys, he’s not full. He just doesn’t want to eat the thing that I’ve put in front of him.

I’m usually pretty nice about it and just ask him to finish at least half of the food on his plate. This drives my live-in boyfriend/significant other, Jeff, nuts. As a father figure in Oliver’s life, he has some parental authority. And just as the U.S. Government doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, Jeff believes that parents should not negotiate with children.

I see where he’s coming from, and some things -- specifically those relating to Oliver’s safety -- are definitely non-negotiable. But I have to choose my battles, otherwise I would spend all of my time yelling at my son, drill sergeant style, and that isn’t the way I want to parent.

Our dinner conversation usually goes like this:

Oliver: “I’m full.”

Me: “Oh, okay. But if you don’t finish at least half of your food, there is no dessert.”

And just like magic, he eats almost all of his dinner.

This form of bribery, combined with the “Onions help make you not die” lies I tell my kid, is pretty effective for me. It’s not for everyone, of course, but it works in our particular parent-child dynamic. 

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You should probably never, ever take parenting advice from me.

OK, first of all, some experts say you should never bribe your kids. I think of my friend who, while potty-training her daughter, gave her an M&M each time she used the toilet. When she tried to discontinue the M&Ms, her daughter refused to use the toilet unless she got an M&M. And thus began a battle of wills over potty training, which is stressful enough anyway. This is a good example of why bribery is not always a great idea.

But, dudes, I’m here to tell you: bribery is one of the most effective parenting techniques that I’ve picked up over the years. I'm not the only parent who is pro-bribery; this piece, "In Defense of Child Bribery,"pretty much sums it up.

Perhaps you’ve dabbled in child bribery but didn’t feel comfortable with it. Perhaps you have a toddler who is about to enter that precious phase where they refuse to do anything you want them to do. I am happy to share my child bribery tips with you, fellow parents.

First, I recommend reading up on why bribing your kids might not be the best idea, and deciding what is right for your kid and for you as a parent, before entering the dirty world of manipulating your child in order to achieve a desired end result. Be forewarned, it does not work for everyone.

Rule one: I never use a bribe when the thing I want Oliver to do is non-negotiable.

For instance, if you’re trying to get your kid in the car because you have to be at a doctor’s appointment at 2:00 and you will be charged a fee if you miss the appointment, now is not the time to say, “Sweetie, if you get in the car, I’ll give you a sticker.” Because maybe your kid’s desire to not get in the car outweighs her desire for a sticker. Kids are smart like that.

Also, just like with the M&Ms example above, you could be setting it up so that your kid will never get in the car again unless you give her a goddamn sticker, you know?

These situations call for something that is more like, “reverse bribery.” I realize this is not even a thing. And it’s not really the reverse or opposite of bribery, but bear with me -- it’s all in the phrasing. If you want to get your kid in the car and the kid refuses, you can phrase it like this: “We need to be somewhere at 2:00, and if you don’t get in the car right now, we are not going to have ice cream later.”

Or, if we’re talking about my kid specifically, who is obsessed with money and sleeps with his wallet under his pillow, I would say, “We need to be at the doctor by 2:00, and if you don’t get in the car right now we will be late, and the doctor will charge us a late fee. If we’re late, I am going to take the late fee out of your allowance, so get in the car right now."

The key is tricking your kid into thinking that he has a choice while making it clear that getting in the car is not optional. He has to get in the car anyway, but if he doesn’t do it in the timeframe specified, he loses a cherished treat or privilege.

Although that last situation would never happen because I’ve never had a problem getting Oliver in a car. What I do have a problem with is him getting his fracking shoes on his feet in a timely fashion. So I guess I really should have used “put on your shoes, or else” as an example. But you get the point.

Rule two: I follow through on promises and consequences.

As my friend Shelby once said, “An idle threat is a wasted threat.” Ha ha. If you promise your kid that he can watch 30 minutes of TV if he stays quiet while you make a phone call, follow through on that promise, as soon as you can. If you use reverse-bribery and threaten to take away a toy if your kid does or does not do something, follow through on that. Kids are smart, and they will catch on fast if you’re not doing what you say you’ll do.

Likewise, I don’t promise or threaten something that I can’t deliver. For example, if you’ve planned and paid for a trip to Disneyland, don’t threaten to take away the trip to Disneyland unless you really intend to follow through on that.

(True story: We were actually AT Disneyland once and I had pulled the “we’re leaving Disneyland if” card and then the “if” happened and I had to make good on it, even though we had not yet been on Pirates of the Caribbean to visit my boyfriend, animatronic Johnny Depp. A sad day. Learn from my mistakes, folks.)

There are other tactics I use on occasion, like the old switcheroo. Say, for example, your kid doesn’t want to study for his spelling test this week. You could offer to let him forego another unpleasant task in exchange for studying an extra 15 minutes. Like, “if you study for 15 minutes more, you don’t have to clean your room this week.” Again, it should be something you don’t mind delivering on, and it should be specific to your child

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Oliver's dad agrees.

And that’s about it. But you probably shouldn’t listen to me. After all, I am no expert -- I’m just winging it and doing whatever works in the moment. And in my case, bribing my kid works like 90% of the time.

Do you bribe your kid? Do you feel bad about it, or are you totally remorseless like I am? Did you just realize now that your own parents were bribing you all along, and do you feel, like, betrayed? I’m sorry.

Somer is giving out bad parenting advice on Twitter: @somersherwood.