To Bribe or Not to Bribe

Problem: I definitely bribe my 5 year old with a treat or privilege when I want her to do something she doesn’t want to do. I do this because I get tired of arguing and repeating myself when she won’t listen. Bribing makes my life easier, my daughter happier and in general, we struggle less. Your thoughts on bribing? Is it okay?

Insight: Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just say to your daughter, “It’s time to go home now,” or “Please pick up your toys before we leave….,” without resistance? And, wouldn’t it be great if reasoning with your 5 year old consistently worked, “We have to get to school on time, so you must get dressed now.” While you may have periodic success with these approaches, it can also be terribly frustrating when you can’t get your daughter to do what you’ve asked of her. Here’s where bribes enter into parenting.

To offer you some comfort, it may help to understand that 5 year olds are still too egocentric (thinking about their own needs and wants) to consistently respond to others’ (including their parents) requests. And, since 5 year olds don’t reason logically, your explanations of, “You need to….because….” won’t get your daughter moving as you would like – unless of course, it’s about her pleasure, “You need to…so you can get to the pool, candy, that toy you want.”

Strategies: Most parents are opposed to bribing because they worry their child won’t learn to do necessary tasks or generally comply, without some sort of prize, treat or perk. Since there are always family struggles about the routines and necessities of life: bedtime, bathtime, shopping, leaving a friends house, getting ready for school or day care; when logic fails (as it will) and your daughter refuses to do what you wish, think about the issue of bribing in the following ways:

Do understand that until your daughter is mature enough to motivate herself to do things she doesn’t want to do, bribery is a strong motivator.

Don’t forget that it takes years for children to learn self-control and to understand that certain things have to be done, even when people don’t want to do them. Eventually, your daughter will learn to cooperate and tolerate not getting her way, without being rewarded.

Do consider bribes that have a benefit you’re comfortable with; “Let’s go in and I’ll play a game with you,” “If you come home now, you can paint with watercolors after dinner.” “Let’s see what new things we can find to add to the bath water.” There’s no harm in offering any one of these bribes.

Don’t neglect, at times, to change your expectations. Help more, and be sympathetic to the fact that developmentally, your daughter thinks completely differently from the way you do. She will internalize rewards you give as a sign of your love and care – and that good feeling will help her learn to behave well.

Don’t worry that once you offer a bribe in a situation, your daughter will expect one whenever a similar situation comes up. While this is a common concern, it’s actually rarely a problem. Your daughter, at age 5, can accept compromise and a degree of inconsistency.

Do at times, let her know ahead of time, “Last time I bought you gum, but today I’m not buying a treat.” When you get to the store, offer a reminder and then a distraction, “I like to bring you to the store so you can help pick out food for dinner.”

Don’t hesitate to use bribes to avoid embarrassment. And, when you go shopping, or on errands with your daughter, a cookie or ice cream can make the trip go smoothly.

Do think about how hard it is for your daughter to stop what she’s doing for your needs, especially when she’s engrossed in something of interest to her. It’s like someone stopping you while you’re in the middle of making a cake.

Don’t forget that cooperation often happens when there are occasional rewards and compromises. Most parents don’t over use bribes.

Do consider your daughter’s overall behavior. Is she generally well behaved (in a 5 year old way)? Are you spending enough playful, engaging time with her? Does she have enough time to play and create and finish what she started? Is she on a tight schedule? Do you demand too much from her? These factors impact a child’s cooperative spirit.

Bottom Line: Don’t take this issue too seriously. Bribing is simply a developmental necessity during a child’s younger -pre-reasoning and pre-logical – years. Even as adults we’re often more motivated, and do what we need to do, when there’s a reward to look forward to, i.e., a paycheck, kudos, a bonus, or simply a show of appreciation. To view bribing your daughter in a positive way, simply think of “bribes” as “incentives.” Then, go forward and-cheerfully, playfully and lovingly- offer her, incentives! I hope that helps you feel better.

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