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Kids & Bribery — The Dos and Don’ts of Effective Bribery

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

If you eat two more pieces of broccoli, you can have candy for dessert. 

If you’re nice to your little brother on this car ride, I’ll buy you a new toy at Target. 

If you get your homework done on time, we can go get ice cream. 

It’s natural to default to an award system like this when you are wanting your child to correct, change, or improve behavior. In general, there are two ways to change a child’s behavior: reward or consequence. Bribery is tapping into the reward side of behavioral change, which has been scientifically proven to be effective.

When conducting a study on 8,000 different children, researchers found that bribing them to eat healthier not only worked in the short term but in the long term

 “They found that giving the students a small incentive for eating healthy — in this case, a 25 cent token the kids could spend at the school store, carnival or book fair — doubled the fraction of kids eating at least one serving of fruits or vegetables… The researchers also found that the effects lingered after the experiment ended, though they did subside somewhat. Two months after the end of the experiment, kids who had been rewarded for their health behavior for a period of five weeks were still eating 44 percent more fruit and vegetables than they had before the experiment begun.”

Bribing can certainly work, but how and when you bribe your child is crucial in order for it to be effective as the study cited above.

Here are a few dos and don’ts for using bribery with your child.

Do…use bribery for mildly negative behavior such as not sleeping in their bed, being mean to a sibling, not doing homework, not eating dinner, or not doing household chores.

Don’t…use money to bribe the behaviors above. Use a reward your child will like such as watching a few minutes of his favorite show, extra video game time, ice cream, or playing in the pool.

Do…use money for incentives to change your child’s behavior when what they’re doing isn’t bad but could be improved, such as grades, exercising more outside, or using nicer words.

Don’t…use bribery for more severe behavioral problems such as drinking, doing drugs, failing or skipping school, or disrespectful behavior. These behaviors are not optional and should not be tolerated. Therefore, consequences should be used rather than bribery. If you bribe your child to attend school each day rather than skip, you are telling her that attending school is optional.

Bribery can work but not in call cases, and it shouldn’t be used in every situation. Identify what behaviors need to change or simply be improved and know what behaviors require immediate consequences rather than rewards. Then, reward, incentivize or use consequences accordingly.

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