Is Bribing Your Kids Healthy?

When you’re trying to get your kids to eat, stay quiet on a flight or simply let you do the buckle up on their car seat, many of us resort to bribing them. It may work at the time, but the question remains: Is bribing healthy?

Is bribing kids bad
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Parents around the world are faced with huge hurdles every day. By “hurdles” we mean tasks that should be simple like trying to get your child to eat, get dressed, do their homework, drink a sip of water, let you comb their hair, say “thank you” for something or to someone, share their toys, wash their hands or go to bed. The list of hurdles is ongoing and it’s safe to say that bribing kids with a reward like a toy, an extra story, a play date, sweet treat or extended bedtime seems to do the trick.

We begin with good intentions

When I bribe my children or when my friends bribe theirs, I feel like our intentions are good. We aren’t trying to create Willy Wonka’s spoiled Veruca Salt. We are simply trying to reward good behavior. However, I recently read an article on by Laura Markham Ph.D., who is the author of Peaceful Parenting, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, who wrote, “Research shows that rewarding a child for a behavior communicates that the behavior must be unpleasant, since you have to be rewarded for doing it. Unfortunately, this is true not only for material rewards but even for the reward of praise (Research also shows that even saying “Good sharing!” makes kids share less – unless an adult is watching.)”

Suddenly my good-intentioned bribing technique seemed borderline damaging. I kept asking myself and other Tot mamas, “Is bribing healthy?” Curious and slightly desperate for an answer, I turned to one of our contributors, Andrea Baum, who is a licensed professional counselor and certified positive discipline educator to weigh in on the subject.


Bribery can lead to power struggles

Andrea says, “Bribing or rewarding for a desired behavior may work at first, but you also may start to notice that the effect wears off and a power struggle begins to ensue time after time.”

I’d like to interject here as a confessed briber to tell you about the time my four-year-old had this whammy of a comeback, “Well, I’m not going to let you have wine after dinner!” (Oh, how the pupil can become the master!)

Andrea continues, “As parents, we want to teach our children that they shouldn’t only have good behavior for a reward and that they should have good behavior just because. It’s tricky because in real adult life, we do earn rewards for good behavior, like a pay check or good grades that help us get into the a good college. However, it goes beyond that. Parenting is about teaching children life skills when praising good behavior as well as disciplining an unwanted behavior.


Focus on natural rewards and consequences

Instead of bribing for a reward or threatening to take a reward away, think about the natural rewards or consequences that will occur for your child and explain this to them. Try and express this in a kind and firm way without a lot of emotion on your end. For example, if your child refuses to eat their breakfast in the morning you might be inclined to bribe your child with a special treat if they finish their breakfast. Instead, try and explain to them that if they eat their breakfast they will have energy at school to play and learn because eating helps us to grow and think. Then you can explain that if they don’t eat, they will get hungry later and may not feel well, and that they won’t be able to eat until lunch. They may still refuse. Be okay with that. Follow through and they will eventually experience and understand these natural rewards and consequences.

If we make good behaviors about a cookie, the real point and experience gets lost on them. Sometimes our bribing can also hinder our children’s natural ability to read their own needs and desires. We can help our children gain more independence and encourage better behavior when we let our children truly experience natural rewards and consequences instead of controlling behaviors with bribes and threats.

Lastly, discuss the positive or negative effects that have naturally occurred with your child and reflect and validate the feelings your child has about these effects. Try not to rub it in or lecture too much, our children need simple encouragement and love when they are growing and learning.



Andrea Baum lives in Dallas, Texas and currently teaches Positive Discipline workshops at The Tot Playhouse (4607 Lovers Lane), hosts parenting parties, and teaches couples in their home.