Why Rewarding—Or Bribing—Kids Doesn't Work



It’s a familiar tale: you and your child are ready to embark on the (sometimes harrowing) experience of using the potty. You read the books.  You talk about it. You give a—ahem—hands- on’ demonstration. But nothing happens. So, you reach into your parenting bag of tricks and pull out a box of Smarties. Lo and behold, Susie sits on the potty, pees on the potty and eats her Smarties with glee. Then it happens again, and again the next day!

Soon you notice that Susie is having to pee much more frequently than ever before, and your Smarties stash is in short supply. It seems she has figured it out...not the toileting necessarily, but rather “what’s in it for her.”  And this my friends, is why bribes don’t work...for very long.

An economist will tell you that if you want results, use an incentive, aglossy word for “bribe.” It’s true that a bribe will get you a result with your young child...in the short term. “If you listen well in the grocery store you can have a treat.” “If you play nicely with your brother you can watch TV.”

In the real world, you are expected to behave (age) appropriately in the grocery store. You are expected to treat people—even your siblings—with kindness and respect. Of course these expectations are on a sliding scale of developmental age, but they are not behaviours that are rewarded with “stuff.”

By bribing our children and incentivizing the normalcies of life, we are teaching them to do something only when there’s something in it for them. Their pattern of thinking becomes “I’ll do this if...” and “What will you give me if I do?” It puts your child in control by allowing her to decide if it’s something worth doing. Trust me, there will come a day when your little one will decide that testing the acoustics at No Frills is treat enough, or that bopping Timmy over the head with a train car is far more entertaining than TV.

We can encourage good behaviour by giving positive feedback, i.e. “What a nice time we had at the store! You really made it easy by listening.” “I was so proud of how well you played with Timmy today.  I know he enjoyed sharing your train set.”

Our goal is to instil a sense of doing right for its own sake, not because there is a gold star waiting in the wings. No matter what age your child is, doing the right thing is always the right thing to do...but a gold star isn’t so shiny when you’re 16.

As a mum of three kids under four, including twins, Leisse Wilcox is no stranger to the concept of “being busy.” Her goal for Family Health Hacks is to provide practical, time- and budget-friendly tips that everyone can use. These easy-to-implement lifestyle changes are sure to keep your family’s physical, mental and emotional health as well it can be. 

By Leisse Wilcox