We've all been there. You're in the grocery store with a long list and a squirming toddler strapped into the cart. She becomes agitated and starts shrieking, "Out! Out!" at the top of her lungs. You are a) mortified and b) determined to bring home every item on the list. So you tell her that if she'll just be quiet, she can have a bag of M&M's. It works.
Or: You and your husband are having a disagreement that quickly escalates into a loud argument. Your kids—who normally require something akin to an earthquake to tear them away from their engrossing video—stop watching and stare at you, mouths agape. You envision them flying into the arms of a therapist by age 10.
In both of these situations, the Bad Parent Fairy hovers over our shoulders, fluttering annoyingly and whispering in our ears: "Bribery is bad" and "Don't argue in front of the children." We end up feeling guilty for not living up to the expectations we have for ourselves as parents.
In reality, the Bad Parent Fairy is just propagating old myths. But many of these have become such a part of the fabric of modern parenting, it can be difficult to sift out the grains of truth from the guilt-inducing fallacies.
To free yourself from such traps: Examine and defuse these myths, one by one—and then tell that Bad Parent Fairy to take a hike.
1. Bribery Is Bad
Bribery has gotten a bad rap. And yet almost every parent has used it from time to time—guiltily, covertly, fearing that we are somehow setting an irreversible precedent. "Stop me before I bribe again!" we want to shout.
Margaret Briggs, a mother of two in Roxbury, CT, was exasperated by the daily struggle she faced getting her sons, ages 6 and 9, ready for school. "I had to drag them out of bed, then we'd fight about what they'd wear. And it was like pulling teeth to get them to brush theirs. By the time we got to breakfast, they were grumpy and I felt like I'd been up half a day."
Then Briggs had the idea for a "bribe chart," a poster-board graph on which she wrote such activities as "Get Dressed," "Brush Teeth," and "Make Bed" and placed a bunch of stickers. After a week of meeting their responsibilities on their own, the boys each got a candy bar; after a month, a small Lego set. "At first I felt guilty—why should I have to bribe them?" says Briggs. "But now they get themselves up and ready every day, and mornings have become a pleasure instead of a mutual torture chamber."
Giving kids privileges or rewards as a positive consequence for behavior isn't necessarily a bad thing. The word "bribery" makes such an incentive sound worse than it actually is, says Ellen Sachs Alter, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, in Evanston, IL. "Used selectively, for a specific behavioral goal like toilet training or teaching kids to make their bed, such bribery can be positive."
Of course, if every situation holds the promise of a reward for good behavior, your children will turn into monsters. "If you start bribing in order to get cooperation for simple things—being polite to a grown-up, putting shoes on—you'll get to the point where they won't make a move without the promise of a candy bar or a dollar," she says.
So first, try employing positive yet reward-free logic to achieve results: "When you use the potty, you can wear big-boy underwear" or "If you get yourself dressed every day, you can pick your own clothes."
Turn to bribery as a last resort. Keep in mind that the reward can be nonmaterial and include special privileges, such as having lunch at Daddy's office or taking a trip to the zoo.
Abby Margolis Newman has written for PARENTING and Clubmom.com.