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To Bribe Or Not To Bribe? When To Use It – And When To Ditch It

When your kids were little, you probably had a sticker chart for when they went potty or put their toys away. You might have even had a surprise waiting in the car if they got those shoes on quick. Let’s face it: Bribes worked. Whether it was a good idea to bribe them didn’t seem too complicated, either. There are lots of things little kids don’t want to do, and a reward can feel like a small price to pay for cooperation.

Guess what? There are also lots of things that big kids don’t like to do. Offering a reward can seem like a darn expedient way to get it done. That’s why many parents bribe (well, um, or we can call it “incentivize”) their teens.

Susie Barton of Danville, California, often enlists her teens, Will and Robbie, to make a grocery run. “I always give them extra money to buy a candy bar or something else they want,” she says. “Yes, the groceries are technically for all of us, so it’s a ‘household task,’ but I appreciate the help.”

To Bribe Or Not To Bribe

Parents often wonder if they should pay kids for tasks that they probably theoretically should be doing anyway, such as household chores or earning good grades.

Getting in the habit of compensating teens is not a good idea, says Dr. Neil Brown, psychotherapist and author of Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle. “We want kids to believe in themselves and enjoy and accept challenges without being paid for them,” he says.

Besides, it’s easy to get distracted from the goal by a bidding war. If you offer your kids $100 for every A, what’s to stop them from demanding $150 the next year? “When parents manipulate kids, kids are going to manipulate back and try to minimize the effort and maximize the reward,” he says.

If our goal is to teach kids a sense of personal responsibility and the skill set for engaging challenges, then bribing them means they may have achieved the behavior, but not the learning. “Instead, we just had a transaction,” says Brown.

When Bribing Can Work: Proper Incentives For Teens

We shouldn’t bribe teens for tasks that are part of pitching in to the household, agrees Dr. Jennifer Freed, PhD, and co-founder of AHA! (Attitude.Harmony.Achievement.), a non-profit organization that empowers teens. However, while bribing shouldn’t be a way of life, she believes it can be used situationally.

Take a shy kid who wants to stay in her room rather than socialize. Sometimes you have to bribe teens into doing something that’s scary or new. It gets them through the door, points out Freed.

“If you want your teen to try something outside their comfort zone like a martial arts class, it can work well to incentivize them,” she says. Maybe tell them that if they participate for 10 weeks with a good attitude, you’ll buy that sweater they’re eyeing.

But paying for grades can backfire, even when you consider the argument that adults get paid for their “work.”

Freed says it’s important to help kids see that working for money is a low-level reward and a low ceiling for personal satisfaction. “We are working with young, flexible brains. As a parent, I want to inspire them to look for fulfilment in their life and work, which doesn’t come just from a paycheck,” she says. That’s where those intrinsic rewards kick in—the feeling of pride when you have mastered a hard task or earned an A from diligent studying.

While my kids know that hard work and good grades are expected, I’ll admit I’m fond of the well-placed bribe in the right situation. When my teen was grumbling about spending his vacation in Yellowstone where there’s no Wi-Fi (the nerve of me!), I offered one evening hour at the internet café, with 10 minutes subtracted each time he complained. The first night he only earned 20 minutes, but he slowly improved. By the last day, we heard not one peep. Giving him that hour on Snapchat felt like a win-win for all of us.

Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Read more about Cathie at cathieericsonwriter.com.