Tired of Bribing Your Kids? 5 Alternative Ways to Motivate
The other day, I witnessed a mom slipping her teen a $20 so she'd go to dance practice - it didn't feel right.
Maybe I'm being hypocritical. I have totally bribed my 3 year old child when, all of sudden, he went from a complete fish to a scaredy cat at swim lessons. A couple of lollipops later and he remembered how much he loves swimming. I hated doing it, especially with food, and especially with candy. Still, it worked--this month he passed his second level swim test!
Is $20 for dancing well any different from a sticker for sitting on the potty or an extra few grand for your job performance?
When parents offer bribes, children come to expect rewards, rather than developing pride in their own accomplishments. Dr. Deb Moberly, founder of St. Louis-based Children 1st Early Childhood Consulting, calls bribing the easy way out because it "takes less time than dealing with the behavior."
Yet, chatting with my mom friends, almost all admitted to bribing their kids. They did object to the term, however, insisting on "incentivizing" or "rewarding". Teresa, who blogs at Single Mom and a Teenaged Girl and rewarded her straight-A daughter with a Walt Disney World trip, said, "Walt Disney World was an incentive. Some called it a bribe. It could have been a reward. I am just proud she got it done."
Other moms, like Daria at Mom in Management, insisted they only reward for good behavior, not bribe children to stop bad behavior: "I will not offer a bribe after a child starts misbehaving because I think that reinforces the negative behavior."
Whatever you call it, experts seem to agree that it is better to praise effort after the fact rather than promise a reward to encourage a child to perform.
Similar to my swim lesson lollipop bribe, Annie at PhD in Parenting offered a toy (probably healthier than a lollipop) to help her son get past a bump on the road to potty success: "I'm not a fan of bribes or rewards for routine behavioral issues. However, I do see the value of bribes or rewards in motivating a child to overcome a fear or a hurdle, especially if it is something you are pretty sure they would actually enjoy (or at least not fear) if they would just give it a try."
Dr. G, founder of AskDoctorG.com and a mother of four, agrees that occasional bribes can be a useful technique in cases like these: "If we want a child to overcome a fear or hesitation and try something ... and we believe that having accomplished it will turn out to be intrinsically motivating, the bribe just gets them to cross that threshold." However, she warns that bribing "will fail parents as a long-term, often repeated tool."
Better than Bribing: How to Develop Intrinsic Motivation in Kids
- Reward after the fact: "Rewards can be announced after the accomplishment," explains Dr. G. Bribes on the other hand are offered before. "Studies show that this type of rewarding builds self-esteem in kids without interfering with the intrinsic motivation of the good they managed on their own."
- Teach teens to reward themselves: "Just like you might give yourself a reward for sticking to a diet, a reward can help a kid do what he or she wants to do, but is struggling with. In this case it is important for the parent and the kid to arrange the reward system together, with the kid having a real role in making the plan. This is a form of teaching a child how to build his or her own motivation." explains Lisa Greenberg, a psychologist.
- Motivate with praise for effort, rather than prizes: Sujatha Ramakrishna, child and adolescent psychiatrist and founder of Teaching Kids Empathy suggests that when your young child tries something, like the potty, "put a big smile on your face, clap your hands, and tell her how wonderful she is. After a few or many repetitions, depending on her individual personality, she will be excited herself when she achieves her goal."
- Remind kids of the consequences of their actions. Lisa Douglas, from Crazy Adventures in Parenting, helps her six children think through their actions, saying, "We told you guys we were going to have fun doing xyz later, but do you think behaving like this is going to make us happy and in the mood to do that later?"
- Draw attention to the child's own sense of accomplishment: Parenting author and host of Creating Cooperative Kids, Bill Corbett, explains how to wean children off of bribes and rewards. While rewarding young children for positive behavior, he says "the parent should also be noticing the pride in the child by saying something like, 'Look at that smile on your face! You look like you're proud of yourself.' This brings the child's awareness to how they are feeling inside about the achievement."