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I Bribe My Baby... (And It's Okay!)

On my first child's first Christmas, she received a toy that changed my life for the better. She was only 9 months old, but she took one look at her soft, bright-yellow Big Bird and fell head over heels. I knew this was the beginning of a special relationship for her -- and me: It marked the start of my career as a mom who bribes. When my baby girl would fuss or want my attention while I was busy cooking dinner or folding laundry, I'd give her Birdie to play with. When she could walk and preferred heading for the hills to heeding my warnings, I'd wave Birdie in the air and she'd rush toward me until he was in her embrace. I eventually let her sleep with the thing (by then less than bright on the yellow scale): I'd plop her in the crib and fork over Birdie, then stroll out of her room without a care. This whole bribing thing has worked out pretty darn well for me. I bribe my three kids to prevent a meltdown, to thwart a meltdown in progress, or to encourage nice behavior. It's often done in public to protect innocent bystanders' ears. At home, it keeps the peace among the three of them, or them and me.

So What's the Problem?
Unfortunately, child-rearing experts don't care if the tactic brings about world peace -- they still say that bribery does not an exemplary parent make. "The reason we don't recommend it is that kids can learn to depend on rewards in order to cooperate," says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, a nonprofit group devoted to early-childhood development. Down the road, for instance, you don't want your child demanding Twinkies every time you need him to take a nap or pick up his toys. In fact, bribing your baby with food is apparently the ultimate taboo. You could be setting him up for a lifetime of food issues, the parenting gurus say. But my mom never bribed me with food, and I ended up with a bevy of eating issues all on my own (anyone with me on this?). I also don't quite get why some say it's okay to use sticker charts and similar rewards to potty-train, but it's not okay to use bribes (be they stickers, toys, shiny new BMWs) to coax your screaming toddler out of his favorite pee-soaked undies. Seems like shades of gray to me. Life in the baby trenches -- featuring 24/7 diaper duty, broken sleep, and high-chair-crud removal -- can be grueling. Yes, it's a labor of love, but we deserve a few minutes' peace now and then to regroup and be the patient moms we aspire to be. And if a blankie, cookie, or Birdie is going to buy you that time, I say go ahead. Besides, when was the last time a child-rearing expert knocked on your door and offered to pretreat all your baby's poop-stained bodysuits and spitup-smeared bibs so you could tend to your overtired, unwell baby? I rest my case.

When a Treat Does the Trick 
Okay, so bribery is not exactly aboveboard. But are you damaging your baby if you engage in a little parental manipulation here and there? "No, of course not," says Lerner, who admits to an odd bribe when her kids were little (even experts have weak moments). If you've been feeling guilty that you might be bribing too much, take heart: There are times when what feels like a bribe is really just soothing, says Babytalk contributing editor and child-development expert Anita Sethi, Ph.D. "Doctor's visits are one example when a little extra sugar is most certainly acceptable to help the medicine go down," she notes. Something stressful like being left with a new babysitter is another. A comforting distraction like a lovey or a pacifier may be just what your baby needs, agrees Lerner. The older your baby gets, the more you can switch to natural consequences, Sethi says. For example, you can say, "If we don't leave the store soon, we won't have time for the park." "That's not bribery, it's real life," Sethi notes.

When pressed, a whopping 80 percent of moms will admit to bribing in one fashion or another. For example, my friend Lesley, who has two babies about 13 months apart, bribes the older one with Hello Kitty fruit snacks when she wants her to come downstairs. When another mom I know, Becca, needs to make a phone call, she says she "feeds the pigeons" because she tosses bite-size crackers or Teddy Grahams at her little guys to keep them quiet. My other friend Margot says she's good at sticking to the experts' rules until the sun goes down. All day long she says "no pacifier," but at bedtime she caves and puts at least eight pacifiers in the crib. Margot, take heed: We think pacis at bedtime are totally fine. Another theoretical no-no we give the thumbs-up to: letting the bambino keep the ba-ba into toddlerhood if it keeps you both sane.

Margot has also bribed her daughter with false promises about fun things they'll do in the morning, like go to the zoo, since the baby isn't likely to remember it anyway. "Aren't you sorry you asked?" Margot inquired. Au contraire, ma soeur. I'm glad I asked because it makes me feel like I'm not a bad mom after all, even though I've gone so far as to bribe my babies in church. One Saturday evening, when the twins were about 18 months old, I brought them and their big sister (around 41⁄2 at the time) to church, sans Dad. Before mass started, I could sense the twins getting restless, so I reached for a treat to plug them up (they were safely buckled into their stroller). Just then, the priest walked by and looked directly at the four of us. I was sure he'd busted me giving my kids candy in church, but he just looked at me and said, "It's okay. Do what you've got to do to be here." After he walked away, my big girl said, "Mommy, he's so nice. Is that God?" And I said, "Sort of."

Christina Boyle is the coauthor of Twin Set: Moms of Multiples Share Survive and Thrive Secrets (Three Rivers Press, July 2008). Check out her blog at