“If you … then you can …” It’s a familiar pattern heard when parents try to persuade their child to do something. “If you come with me now, we’ll stop at the park.” “If you put your toys away, you can stay up fifteen minutes later.” “As soon as you get in your car seat, I’ll give you a treat.”
There are always family struggles about the routines and necessities of life: bedtime, bathtime, shopping, leaving a friend’s house, getting dressed, getting ready for school or day care. When logic fails (as it will), and your child refuses to do what you wish, you probably resort to bribing.
In theory, most parents are opposed to bribes. They want their children to cooperate and learn to tolerate frustration, and they don’t want their children to expect rewards for good behavior. But it takes years for a child to learn self-control and to understand that certain things have to be done, even when people don’t want to do them. Until a child can reason and motivate himself to do necessary tasks, bribery has its uses, and parents find that a bribe is a strong motivator.
One mother couldn’t get her son to leave his friend’s house, even though it was time for dinner. Finally she said, “If you come home now, you can paint with watercolors after dinner.” After hearing this, her son agreed to leave. Another mother wanted to have her child come and play indoors, but he resisted. However, when she said, “Let’s go in, and I’ll play a game with you, and then we’ll have a cookie,” he came in. Incentives (which are the same as bribes, but sound and feel better to parents) such as these can distract or redirect a child and often eliminate struggles.
Bribes also can be used to avoid embarrassment. When you’re out in public, you might offer a bribe rather than face a tantrum. That’s okay. When you go shopping with your child, you may give him a cookie or toy to gain his cooperation and make the shopping trip go smoothly. This is also okay.
You may be worried that, once you offer a bribe in a situation, your child will expect one whenever a similar situation comes up. But this is rarely a problem, since children can accept compromise and a degree of inconsistency. If you bribed your child to go grocery shopping with you last week, but don’t want to offer a bribe this week, let him know: “Last time I bought you gum, but today I’m not buying a treat.” If necessary, distract him: “I like to bring you to the store so you can help pick out food for dinner.” If you’re firm and allow occasional rewards and compromises, he’ll usually cooperate.
Sometimes, a way to eliminate the need for frequent bribes is to give your child plenty of warning when you want him to switch activities or go along with you cooperatively. If he’s engrossed in play, tell him, “We need to go to the post office this afternoon.” Then remind him ten minutes before you’re ready to leave so he can bring his play to a pleasant, slow close. You can also let him know that he can leave his toys out so he can continue playing when he gets home.
That way, he won’t have to abruptly stop what he’s doing or put his toys away in order to do what you want. And the chances are good that he’ll come along peacefully, without needing a bribe.