If you’re a parent, chances are good that you have bribed your kids at one point or another. Bribing your kids is often a reactive response to a situation that has escalated beyond your comfort zone. This may be in a public situation where your child’s behavior may have you feeling embarrassed or bring out feelings of inadequacy. Preparing ahead of time for potentially difficult situations will help minimize pitfalls and sending the wrong messages.
Bribery versus Reinforcements
“I view bribery as more transactional and in the moment, whereas planned rewards and reinforcements are more relational. Offering a reward after the child has already begun to misbehave will train the child to misbehave in order to elicit a reward. If you choose to use rewards, the key is to offer the reward in advance by anticipating a way to make the situation work for everyone,” says Mary C. Grooms, M.D.
Parents know which situations are likely to cause frustration, so planning ahead can provide a more positive experience. “One example is the child who has difficulty with transitions and is unable to leave the birthday party (or playground or amusement park, etc.) without pitching a fit. If your child has difficulty with situations like this, it is a good idea to preview your expectations ahead of time and allow them to earn a reward if they behave appropriately,” Grooms said.
Have you been there? You’re ready to leave a birthday party and your child throws a fit. In a moment of desperation and embarrassment, you may be rattled and react from a place of panic. Maybe you offered a cookie to get them to the car. If you’ve been there, you know how this type of situation can throw out the best laid parenting plans. The good news? Now you know that situation is a potential trigger and will be prepared next
time. Set your expectations before the party and offer a reward for successful completion. Stand firm on whether your child actually met your expectations and only reward them if they truly did what you expected.
Bribery and Nutrition
Using food as a reward or a bargaining tool to eat dinner can inadvertently cause unhealthy relationships and views towards food. “One area to specifically avoid bribery is in the arena of food and nutrition. Whenever possible, try to avoid using one type of food (such as sweets and dessert) to bribe your child into eating their vegetables or other foods that they may be resisting. We want to avoid creating the impression that sweets are more valuable than other, more nutritious options. If the child is hungry, they will eat what is served, and it is best to leave it at that,” cautions Grooms. Bribing children to finish their plate can also create a feeling that they must continue eating after satiety, which can lead to other problems later, such as overeating. Offer your child nutritious foods but avoid rewards for eating them or punishing the child for not eating.
Lead by Example
The Cleveland Clinic reminds us that children pick up on our behaviors and attitudes. If we are frazzled, they will behave accordingly. When we approach parenting from a place of calm and direction, our children will follow suit and learn that they can’t get what they want by pushing our buttons. Proactive parenting through genuine praise, acknowledging your child’s feelings, and having a plan in place when you anticipate a possible obstacle will help the whole family minimize tense moments and avoid resorting to bribery.
Being a proactive versus reactive parent will set your family up for success and minimize frustrations. Taking time to anticipate challenging situations before they happen and making a plan will help avoid reactive decisions in the heat of the moment. Avoid rewards related to eating. Parenting is a continual learning process, so if you have resorted to bribery, give yourself a break. Think about the lessons you want to teach and approach your reward and reinforcement system from that perspective.