“I would be the one suffering later,” Ms. Seraj promised. Instead, she offers her daughter a reward of playtime outdoors — something the tween really values — only once the bedroom is straightened. “So, what are you bribing your 5-year-old with these days?” she asked me curiously over text with a string of LOL emoji.
I’ve kept a Mason jar filled with gummy bears near the back door of my Brookline, Mass., home for bribing my preschool-aged son to go on neighborhood walks with me this past year. I know that he should want to go outside because it is healthy for his body and important for my well-being too — not because I’m dangling a treat — and that bribery sends the wrong message. Sometimes it’s just what is needed to preserve the peace in our house. And I don’t feel guilty about that.
My son is going through a phase where he wants to hang out in just underwear around the house. Sundays we have a Zoom family call and have bribed him with an episode of “Scooby-Doo” to put on a clean collared shirt to greet his grandparents, who are from a more formal generation. I realized after a while that the bribe isn’t about my son, but about me worrying about being judged. If we left him in his natural state running laps around the dining room table, the relatives might think we aren’t teaching their grandchild manners.
The same holds true for the many times pre-pandemic that I’d slip my child an Oreo so we could quickly leave the playground. It was entirely about me not being the out-of-control mom with the screeching toddler in public — the one all the other sand-and-applesauce-stained parents stare at with pity. Because that’s happened more than once. What I really needed was for one of them to yell over the chaos, “I’ve been there, and you’ve got this,” giving me the confidence to wait for the tantrum to pass like a storm cloud.
In the adult world, bribery associated with a weakness of character or corruption. In the context of childhood, is it damaging my son’s character, too?
Tovah Klein, who is known as “the toddler whisperer” and is the author of “How Toddlers Thrive,” says that if bribing kids becomes a daily habit, it can be harmful and eventually stops working. “Then they learn that in life I don’t do anything on my own unless I get a treat.” She advises parents to “save it for when you really need it,” for example handing out a chocolate after waiting in an unavoidably long line. “It doesn’t hurt a child to do that,” she says. Klein believes that the goal for parents is to raise children to become teenagers and ultimately adults who are internally motivated. “Children naturally reward themselves. When they accomplish something, they feel good,” she says.
Klein recommends anticipating stressful daily tasks with a plan. For example, getting dressed and out the door is particularly tough because it symbolizes separation and a child being asked to leave their safe place. Recognize that it’s a 10-minute task, not a two-minute one, Klein suggests, and build more time into the schedule rather than rushing the routine, which could result in bribing.
Some children are wired to be more receptive to bribes, including those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Brendan Mahan, host of the “ADHD Essentials” podcast and father to 12-year-old twins, cautions against the approach because “a bribe just feels icky,” and positive reinforcement has the same effect. There is a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine that is the brain’s reward chemical. “The ADHD brain doesn’t make as much dopamine as a neurotypical brain” and it craves more, he explains. “When I praise my kid, when I reward my kid, I’m triggering dopamine, so that’s why positive reinforcement is so effective for ADHD.”
It’s on parents more than usual these days to invent smart ways to offer incentives. Nicole Perry Brown unexpectedly became her kids’ (ages 10 and 6) home-school teacher when the lockdown hit. After a treat box filled with candy and toys lost all novelty after just a week, she landed on a ticket system where the kids earn vouchers for completing tedious tasks. For her son that’s worksheets. “If he does all his worksheets in a day, whether they are right, if he puts in the effort, he gets a ticket,” Perry Brown says. Tickets are saved and cashed in for prizes like cake pops or a virtual art class on Outschool. “My husband was really kind of opposed to the whole reward thing at first,” she says. “But will you do something without some benefit to you? We’ve got to stop thinking of this as spoiling the children and think a bit more about what motivates somebody to do something.”
Erlanger A. Turner, a psychologist and founder of Therapy for Black Kids, seconded the notion that we live in a culture where positive behaviors and actions are incentivized by more than just intrinsic motivation. “As adults we get rewarded in many different ways, an example being for our jobs. If you think about it that way, we can teach kids that work ethic is rewarded.”
Lately, the gummy bear jar has become more effective at my house because it’s brought out only for unavoidable snafus. When it comes to our walks, we’ve reached a compromise that works for us: I load my son into the stroller and wheel it close enough to the summer lilacs so he can skim his outstretched hand across the grape-soda-purple buds.
On Zoom family calls, he now good-naturedly dons a polo shirt, often without pants. I don’t think anyone has even noticed, and after steering a preschooler through a pandemic I’m feeling so powerful that I don’t worry as much about what everyone else thinks anyway. “Are you proud of yourself?” I ask him afterward, hoping that achievement will soon taste sweeter than anything I could offer. Most nights, when he is finally asleep upstairs, I sneak a few gummy bears out of the jar and bribe myself to fold that horrible mountain of laundry that is always waiting.
Danna Lorch is a freelance writer covering parenting, the visual arts, design and architecture from Brookline, Mass.