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Gay Uncle Brett Berk: I love to be right. Fortunately, given my astounding expertise in things child-related, this happens with some frequency. In fact, just today, I received such a testimonial. It came from one of my favorite moms, the parenting columnist for the Chicago Tribune: Heidi Stevens. She and I are in frequent contact, as she attempts to manage her daughter June, 3.5, and I mine her experiences for new source material. So I was pleased to see her note praising my patented opposition to using bribes to get kids to do what's expected. (e.g. "If you get dressed, I'll take you to Jamba Juice on the way to school," etc.)

mother and daughter

I believe that kids should follow your instructions implicitly: because they make sense, because they're presented in an accessible and age-appropriate fashion, and because YOU'RE THE GROWN UP and you know more about the world than they do. But while Heidi vigorously supports this practice, she occasionally slips up (see the aforementioned Jamba Juice example). And with these backslides, she's found a new reason to agree with me: if you use bribes to get your way with your child, eventually your child will turn this on YOU. "June has started telling me, 'I'll get dressed IF you get me pudding for breakfast' or 'I'll go to bed IF you read me four books and get me an orange juice.'"

This is infuriating. But as I always say, it's never too late to make a change. If you find yourself playing Let's Make a Deal with your kid in order to get them to accomplish routine tasks, you can follow these three steps to turn the situation around:

1) Sit down with your little Mussolini, spell out the pitfalls of the current practice (something like, "I call b.s. on this!"), and work together to create a consistent replacement paradigm. Make a list of the non-negotiable tasks for which you expect your child to be responsible, without inducements. 

2) Eliminate ad-hoc incentives. Instead, tie behaviors to your expectations and the situation at hand, spell them out in advance, and be sure there are negative "disincentives" if your child doesn't conform. (e.g. "You can pick out any one item in the supermarket, but if you whine about getting others we're putting it back." or "If you're able to get yourself dressed, make your bed, and eat breakfast each morning, you'll have time to watch the last few minutes of Handy Manny. If not, you won't.")

3) Stick to your guns. When you cave, you totally undermine your authority. This may catalyze a few rounds of tears or tantrums, but your choice is between a couple of these and a lifetime of negotiations--and these will definitely worsen as your child ages (e.g. "I'll stop smoking weed in the house IF you buy me a Mini Cooper.")



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1 comments so far | Post a comment now
tobin April 19, 2009, 12:04 AM

Bribery can be a problem if it’s over-used. Also, the fake ambiguity is annoying. It’s not the same as offering a bribe to a public official—you can be upfront about it.

Used sparingly and honestly, bribery can be a very effective parenting strategy.

“I want to make it very clear that I am offering you a bribe because I am a desperate woman—this is what I’m offering and this is what I want in return.”


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