Bribing Children: 3 Reasons it Backfires & What To Do Instead

Photography:Alexa Doula Photography

By Sarah R. Moore

Bribing children to improve their behaviour or motivate them — it’s common, but should we be doing it? I was raised in the era of “good jobs” and gold stars; sticker charts and colour-coded behaviour cards. Many of us grew up with conditional rewards like, “If I do x, then I’ll get y”. Therefore, they became our defaults as we parent our own children.

What’s wrong with bribing children? 

There are three main problems with bribing children: 

  1. It isn’t motivating in the long run; it loses its effectiveness 
  1. It damages their intrinsic motivation, and 
  1. It pulls the relationship away from connection-based parenting and pushes it towards compliance-based parenting 

Here’s more detail about each of these drawbacks. 

Interestingly, researchers now have information that shows us that these types of rewards (and their related punishments) aren’t the best way to motivate children. In fact, they can even be detrimental to their development. In short, while they might work to varying degrees, they deny children the opportunity to develop their natural and intrinsic motivation to succeed. Alfie Kohn wrote an entire research-based book about this called Punished by Rewards (afflinks). 

Likewise, punishments teach children to avoid engaging in certain behaviours that we, the adults, find less than ideal. While that might sound like a good thing, there’s a catch.

We want kids to make good choices because they’re driven to make good choices, and not because they’re afraid of us. That’s not connection-based parenting. 

Experts do know, however, the many benefits of respectful, authoritative parenting. Part of that philosophy includes separating ourselves from conditional parenting, which can have the unintended effect of our kids thinking we approve of (and love) them only when they behave in certain ways. Of course, that’s not what we want them to believe when we DO love them unconditionally. 

Related to Bribing Children, a Mini-Course: What to Do When Your Child Won’t Comply No Matter How Many Times You’ve Asked 

But is bribing children to influence their behaviour all bad? 

Sure, we all like the proverbial carrot from time to time. I’ll agree that it’s not entirely black and white. Even I enjoy going out for a gelato or taking a long walk in a beautiful area if I’ve had a particularly rough week and want to somehow mark my survival. I do the same for my child. Her “reward” might be a special trip to a playground, a museum, or whatever feels right in the moment. 

With this mindset, I don’t think rewards are all bad as long as they’re not performance-based. They’re just part of day-to-day happy celebrations (and I’m far more likely to use that nomenclature for them). That’s very different from bribing children. 

A problem with bribing children to influence their behaviour, however, is that children come to expect the bribes (they should –we’re wiring them for it!), and we lose sight of the goal we wanted in the first place: intrinsic motivation. So, I don’t advocate bribing children and tying rewards to a child’s specific behaviours, just like I wouldn’t want to withhold a beautiful walk (or gelato!) from myself just because I didn’t meet a deadline I’d worked hard to meet. 

Good things are enough without having to be tied to behaviour; that’s part of what makes them good.  

How do I stop bribing children if I’ve started? 

If your child has come to expect the rewards, it’s best not to go cold turkey and stop offering them entirely. That would likely feel to them like punishment. And we absolutely shouldn’t make our children suffer while we revise our parenting approaches, even if they’re for the better. Particularly if your children are young and “wired” from past experience for the sticker or whatever it is, trust your judgment in giving / not giving it to them. 

It’s important to tune into your child and gauge your response on how connected they’re feeling and whether they’re actively seeking out the reward, or proceeding happily with their day without the “carrot.” In this situation, I’d recommend a form of gentle weaning from rewards, if you will. 

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