In Defense of Child Bribery

I’m an unabashed briber of my children.

When my youngest son was a little over 1 year old, I wanted to take him for a bike ride. We were all prepared: helmets, child safety seat, water bottles. But he was expressing some reluctance to get on board. As in, he flat-out refused to get in that seat.

I produced a bag of chips and spelled it out: “Get in the seat, and you get the chips.” He reached for the booty. I dangled the bag over the seat and — he held up his arms to be lifted in.

Victory. At that moment, the world was mine. As far I as was concerned, he had reached the age of reason. Bribes and threats could now be employed, and he was officially the kind of kid I could handle.

Recently, my colleague and friend Bruce Feiler, who said in this space that hisNew Year’s resolution was to: “Bribe more creatively. Celebrate more fully. Play more often,” went to the experts on bribery. For “Train a Parent, Spare a Child,” he got the standard response of the moment: bribing is bad. Good parents motivate their children to do the right thing in deeper ways.

To which I say: bah, meh and a whole host of other dismissive syllables. Of course I bribe my children! The real problem here lies in the experts, who don’t understand what most of us mean by “bribe” and what we’re trying to achieve with our supposedly subversive approach.

Dr. Edward Deci is the psychologist behind the original research that suggested that when external rewards are given, people lose interest in the activity. He told Bruce that the problem with bribery is that children, whom you’re trying to get to behave “more or less ongoingly for the rest of their lives,” will want the reward for behavior every time.

So what?

I’ve read the research on bribery, too. I know that children who are given a tangible reward for learning activities have been shown to lose interest in doing those activities without the reward. But I’m not talking about bribing children to perform activities that come with their own intrinsic pleasures, and I suspect most parents aren’t either. We’re bribing children to do the things that no one really wants to do in the first place.

My son didn’t want to sit in that bike seat for the next hour while I got a workout. Why would he? The pleasure of the scenery? But he did want those chips, a rare pleasure. My “bribe” made the activity a win for both of us. (Yes, I see the irony in the use of the junk food.)

Once in a while, my children do want to clean their rooms or playroom purely for the pleasure of enjoying the organization — but their intrinsic motivation is rarely on my schedule. When the room needs cleaning, Daniel Pink, a known bribery opponent, proposes (in speaking to Bruce ) that I say, “Fred, you really need to clean your room, or you won’t be able to find anything,” then offer an after-the-fact reward to the child who has worked hard.

Unless my “Fred” really needs to find something in that moment, that’s not going to work. It’s certainly not going to get a clean room for a real estate showing. The problem? The job to be done belongs to Fred, but the motivation is all mine. A bribe transfers the motive from parent to child.

Mr. Pink said he objected to the controlling aspect of bribes. “Human beings have only two reactions to control,” he told Bruce. “They comply or they defy.” Dr. Deci also pointed to the controlling aspect of bribery as a problem. “Don’t use words like ‘should,’ ‘must’ and ‘have to,’” he said. “All of those things that convey to them you’re a big person trying to push around a little person.”

But I am a big person, and although “push around” isn’t how I’d put it, I am in control when it’s necessary. That’s my job. I’m the parent. Ultimately, I can “make” you clean your room, or get in the bike seat, or sit quietly through the appointment with the bank when circumstances require that you attend (or at least I can punish you for your failure to do so). Sometimes, family life, like so much else, requires that you do that which you would prefer not to do, or would prefer not to do right now.

My “bribes” return some measure of that control to the child. Of course, basic manners and respect should mean that my children accede to those timely requests for a clean room or best behavior, and teaching that is my job, too. A bribe isn’t always the way to go. But when it is, it offers a child an appealing route into what’s usually an unappealing job.

I use bribes when I need speed. When I’m asking a lot. When I know a particular child, for whatever reason — temperament, exhaustion, hunger, reluctance — is going to have trouble doing something that needs to be done. And when it makes a dull task more fun, I’ll liven it up with a bribe — the same way I might, even as I write, be promising myself a little social media time when I’ve finished writing this column.

Maybe this would all have more expert appeal if I called it “motivating” or “rewarding.” But I like the renegade sound of the bribe. Sure, I bribe my kids. Threaten them, too. (You might prefer to call those “consequences.”) But that’s another story.

 

By KJ Dell'Antonia

Source: The New York Times - http://goo.gl/WYNG0

 

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This entry was posted in Child Brain Development, Child Discipline, Parenting & Education.

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