Child Bribery: How High Are the Stakes?
The consequences of bribing your kids and how to break the cycle
Words Nicole Jordan, Illustration Kyle Confehr
Published March 2013
Updated February 20, 2019
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It’s a common scene: desperate parents coaxing an unruly child to cooperate with the promise of a treat or toy. Walk into any superstore, and you’re likely to witness a frazzled mom or dad negotiating for 10 minutes of tantrum-free shopping at the price of a 99-cent Hot Wheel or a cherry Dum Dum. At the time, the stakes don’t seem that high. But they’re higher than we realize.

Bribery defined

Many parents feel caught in an endless cycle of child bribery. Although it comes with a stigma and a heaping side of parental guilt, the tactic is commonly used by frustrated moms and dads in times of duress.

Brad Schwall, Ph.D., a certified school counselor and creator of the Cool Kids curriculum, defines bribery as the desperate attempt to get a child to do something by promising a treat if the child does what you want. “Desperate” is the key word. Bribery is never preconceived; rather, bribery happens sporadically in moments of desperation. Parents often make empty threats, along with promises that never come to fruition. When bribery occurs, the focus is on that moment, not long-term goals. While standing in line at the grocery store checkout, a few M&M’s seems like a small price to pay to quiet a wailing child. But will the repercussions last beyond the sugar buzz?

The consequences

Schwall thinks so. Ultimately, bribery rewards negative behavior by teaching children to focus on material rewards instead of the intrinsic benefits associated with making good choices. It becomes all about the pay-off. “We want our children to learn self-discipline and to make positive choices even without the promise of a material reward,” he says.

Reinforced repeatedly, bribery conditions children to expect a reward for completing basic tasks such as brushing their teeth or taking a bath. When this happens, the child’s focus shifts from a desire to make positive choices for the benefit of himself and his relationships to doing whatever it takes to obtain the toy, treat or extra 10 minutes of TV time.

Although a bribe may successfully halt negative behavior in the moment, it does nothing to make the child feel good about himself. The expectations bribery cultivates also tend to grow with time. The piece of candy that once motivated little Johnny to sleep in his own bed translates into dollar bills for completing his homework once he reaches his teens – the ante is continually upped. Extensive use of bribery can also breed an attitude of entitlement, which may be carried well past the terrible twos into adulthood – not an attractive quality for a job-seeking adult.

Bribery vs. positive reinforcement

Sure, most parents would agree that doling out a piece of candy every time a child brushes his teeth is going overboard (not to mention counterproductive). But shouldn’t a child receive some sort of recognition for big accomplishments such as using the toilet three days in a row or earning straight A’s? Absolutely. Positive reinforcement can be a valuable tool when used appropriately. “There is nothing wrong with celebrating achievements,” Schwall says. “We want children to see that making good choices is positive. But be careful how it is done.”

The problem is that the line between bribery and positive reinforcement is sometimes fuzzy. Whereas bribery often occurs in times of distress, positive reinforcement requires forethought and planning. “When you clean your room three days in a row you can rent a movie” translates differently from “If you clean your room I will let you rent a movie.” The “when” and the “if” are key. “Bribes are short-term solutions and involve no consistent plan,” Schwall says. “Positive reinforcement includes a specific, long-term achievable goal for behavior. And the reward is directly linked to the desirable behavior.” 

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Schwall’s Discipline Do’s

Children don’t come with instructions, and no parent is perfect. Learning to discipline effectively at all ages and stages can be daunting. Brad Schwall, Ph.D., offers these tips to help you avoid bribery and encourage good behavior.

How do I know when I’m bribing?
You promise rewards in frustration and desperation.
Your child asks what he’ll get every time you give tell him to do something.
You don’t actually follow through with the promise attached to the bribe.

How do I get my child to behave?
Set a goal for behavior.
Show the child what to do.
Affirm the child for desirable behavior and emphasize the natural consequences.

If the goal is getting dressed by a certain time for school each day, set a goal for three mornings in a row. When that goal is reached, allow a special trip for ice cream. Just make sure that goal is achievable and the reward is created with purpose and doled out intentionally. Talk to your child about why he’s receiving the special treat, putting an emphasis on the nonmaterial benefits of making smart choices. “Our focus needs to be on the natural positive consequences and the intrinsic value of following directions and making positive choices,” Schwall says.

Also, remember that the best reward you can give a child is your love and attention; strive to make this the positive reinforcement your kid craves. Rewards that come in the shape of hugs and kind words will be more beneficial to both of you in the long run. “Attention is something we always have on hand,” Schwall says, “and attention shows the child appreciation and respect as opposed to teaching that you get things when you do things right.”

Breaking the habit

For those caught in a cycle of bribery, the habit may seem like an impossible one to break. To start, parents should collectively agree on a plan of action. Consistency is key; it is crucial that parents act in harmony. Determine your expectations ahead of time and communicate these expectations to your children. In moments of temptation, when your child is screaming and the Hot Wheel is beckoning, check yourself. If you’re feeling flustered, anxious and desperate, you are on your way to committing child bribery.

Schwall stresses that discipline takes time and commitment. “So many times parents are just going moment to moment instead of thinking of discipline as a relationship,” he says. “When we get in trouble with empty threats and bribes, we aren’t being intentional enough in understanding that teaching our children is a process.”

Eventually, as better choices and good behavior become habit, slowly phase out traditional rewards. With time, your child will opt to make good choices because of how it makes him feel, not what it gets him. Your wallet – and your child’s dentist – will thank you.

This was first published in the March 2013 issues of DallasChild, FortWorthChild and NorthTexasChild.