The XX Factor

Experts Say Not To Bribe Kids. I’ll Give You $10 and Stale Candy If You Prove Them Wrong.

Mother and child share a treat after child eats peas, thereby ruining child’s chances of future uncomplicated pea-eating.

Shutterstock/Alexander Motrenko

“If you eat your dinner, you can have dessert. If you don’t eat your dinner, you can’t have dessert.” Those two sentences have come out of my mouth at 6:30 p.m. nearly every single night for the past two years—first directed at my older son, now 4, and currently used to get both kids, 2 and 4, to eat some portion of what’s on their dinner plate. (I’m reasonable.) But is it a bribe?

This weekend, writing in the New York Times, columnist Bruce Feiler defined a bribe as “the giving of blunt, uncreative rewards for desired behavior.” So I guess I have my answer. Feiler goes on to say that he, like me, is an avid briber and threatener of his children, even though the experts say this is bad parenting technique, not to mention that it can apparently cause “considerable long-term damage” to our fragile children. Feiler consults some of these experts to see just what they recommend he does in place of the carrot and stick routine.

Here’s Dr. Edward Deci, a longtime skeptic of child bribery, on why rewarding desired results is not the way to go:

Dr. Deci, now a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, said the biggest problem with tangible rewards is that they actually work, at least in the short run. “If you want somebody to do something, and if you have enough money, you can get them do it,” he said. “Practically anyone, practically anything.”

But with children, he pointed out, since you are trying to get them to do the behavior “more or less ongoingly for the rest of their lives,” the technique will backfire unless you’re prepared to offer the same reward every time. “You don’t want them coming to you when they’re grown,” he said.

But are any of us really trying to get our kids to do the things we want them to do for the rest of their lives, or are we simply trying to force short-term results on immediate problems? A mom I know—let’s just say her name rhymes with Schmallison Schmenedikt—may have offered treats and awesome band-aids while trying to get her toddler out of diapers and into Disney-themed underwear (itself a reward for some other good behavior), but don’t we all say things like, “You shouldn’t stress about potty training! It’s not like little Bobby will still be in diapers when he’s 15!”  You aren’t really training your child to shit in the toilet forever—he would likely pick up that skill with or without you. You are training your child to shit in the toilet next week, because lord you cannot stomach another order.

I have a good friend who once told me that she used the threat of a policeman coming to arrest her son when she desperately needed to stop a bad behavior. (This is the same friend who, for many years, convinced her son that chocolate was really, really spicy. Which is horrible! And hilarious.) And a colleague who will remain nameless pays her child to not whine about Hebrew School. While more thoughtful parents than the ones I hang out with might always have their eyes on the extended future, my brain, like my pals’, is pretty much stuck on: “OK, how do I get these two wild animals to eat a few vegetables tonight? How do I get them from dinner to bath without major tantrumy incident? How do I get them to put on their pjs without dawdling?” The most future thinking I do most nights happens at around 6 p.m., when I start strategizing how to have them both in bed by 8—and that’s less about them getting a good night sleep so that they are always well-rested at Harvard and more about me wanting a few hours to just chill out and read (watch TV) without a small person asking me for stuff.

But back to vegetables. Another expert Feiler interviewed, Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, suggests this approach:

First, take the pressure off by telling them they don’t have to eat vegetables now but just keep them on their plate. “You tell them they’re probably going to want to eat vegetables when they’re older, because there’s a nice little challenge in there,” he said.

Then you offer a point to whomever can put the least amount of vegetables on their fork. The next day you have a competition for who can touch the fork to their tongue and you escalate from there. “The research is very clear,” he said. “Choice is related to getting compliance in any behavior, but psychologists distinguish between real choice and the illusion of choice. Real choice doesn’t make a difference; it’s the feeling of choice.”

First of all: Aren’t “points” rewards, and therefore part of a bribe??? And in closing: WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT ALAN KAZDIN? (Kazdin, by the way, has advocated in the past that rewards are OK—just not bribes. In the Times he seems to be making a distinction between types of rewards, but that distinction is lost on me.)

Another no-no, according to Dr. Deci, is using words like “should,” “must,” and “have to,” because those words convey to your child that you think you are a “big person trying to push around a little person.” Which you are. Regardless of technique or temperament, a parent is, among other things, a big person trying to push an obstinate little person to do something, whether that something is to clean a room or succeed in life. I’m not a fan of the “parenting is a dictatorship, not a democracy” style of child-rearing—or, at least, it doesn’t fit my personality—but I can’t imagine parenting young children without using the words “should,” “must,” and “have to” pretty much every day. Sure, sometimes I feel like all we do is threaten and reward, and, yes, I get sick of it. And, no, it doesn’t always work. The key is pinpointing the moments when it does, and extrapolating from there. Better bribing is the goal. If, at 32, my son comes knocking at my door, announcing that he’s just gone No. 2 and demanding some old Halloween candy, I promise to correct this post.