Each evening, as the dreaded toothbrush tango drew closer, I wrestled with my options. Should I trail after my 3-year-old son, Derek, toothbrush primed, bargaining for a swipe at his chompers? Let my husband use more forceful tactics, knowing the job would get done, but only after howls of protest? Or, on evenings when I was especially drained, give us both a night off and tell myself between twinges of guilt that he wouldn’t wake up with a mouthful of cavities?
As a psychologist-in-training, I had learned to dispense child-rearing advice calmly to battle-weary parents, but facing this and other skirmishes in my own house was a humbling experience. After some trial and error, what finally worked to bring peace (and action): small incentives that would get Derek to do what we wanted. Okay, so they were bribes. Bribes that would not only give him a small amount of pleasure, but, perhaps more important, would also show him that he could still be captain of his own ship. For my animal-lover son, brushing his teeth went more smoothly when it was followed by the opportunity to put a panda, lion, or monkey sticker on a poster-board “zoo.”
Doling out bribes — let’s call them rewards, shall we? — is an art. Offered too often, at the wrong times, or in jumbo sizes, they can teach kids poor life lessons. We all know this, but how often have you begged “If you stop whining, I’ll take you to the toy store!” or anything else just to get your child to quit acting up in front of your in-laws? It’s totally understandable, but it teaches her that whining gets her exactly what she wants. There is a better way to bribe your child:
Toddlers: They love cheap thrills
One- and 2-year-olds live in the moment. Promises that good things will come their way later if they’re good now fall on deaf ears. You’ve got to reward your toddler right when she’s on her best behavior, or very soon thereafter.
You don’t need to buy her a treat, though-smiles, clapping, cheers, and wacky antics are all it takes to thrill a toddler. If she’s sitting nicely in her stroller, for instance, reciting her favorite nursery rhyme will not only feel like a reward, it’ll also keep her still longer.
Distraction’s a key strategy, too. Deborah McCormick of Marietta, Georgia, discovered that doing a made-up “champion dance” was a major motivator to get her son Chris, 2, to accept help getting dressed on time-pressed mornings. “I’d slowly count one, two, three… and if I had his clothes on by five I would throw my hands in the air and shake my backside. This helped us avoid so many ‘I-can-do-it-myself!’ tantrums.”
Silly games can also inspire good behavior and divert kids from bad behavior. When 2-year-old Alex Coleman went through a phase where he’d resist sitting on the potty, his mom, Suzanne, of Berkley, Michigan, says she’d sing a song with the simple lyrics “Poop poop poop poop…peeps!” when he actually did sit. “He’d laugh hysterically, and be more inclined to do it again.”
As toddlers mature a bit, they can start to grasp the concept that “I’ll recite the rhyme after you let me tie your shoes.” It isn’t until close to age 3 that most children will truly understand a deal, be willing to cooperate, and be patient if they don’t get their reward right now. [PAGEBREAK]
Preschoolers: Preempt them
Joan MacMillan of Rye, New Hampshire, knows how desperate parents may sometimes offer incentives they’ll later regret. As she’d enter the supermarket with Audrey, 3, and MaryEllen, 5, the bickering would start: “‘I want to stand on that side of the cart!’ ‘Why does she get to pick the corn?’ I’d snap and tell them that if they stopped right that second, I’d buy them a pack of gum at checkout.” The promised gum brought only a minute or so of calm; soon the girls would start fighting again.
The good news is, tantrums come fewer and farther between in the preschool years. Your child’s growing verbal and reasoning skills mean you can make a deal with her, and she can wait an hour, a day, or even sometimes up to a week to be rewarded for good behavior, depending on her age and personality. The bad news: Now that she really understands cause and effect, you have to be especially careful not to offer a bribe to stop bad behavior-a common pitfall. If you do, she’ll just act out more, knowing you’ll give her whatever it takes to get her to stop.
Instead, offer rewards for good behavior before your child has a chance to misbehave. That way, you can feel fully in charge of the terms –both what you’re offering and what you’ll give it for –instead of making promises (sometimes outrageous ones!) out of mortification and desperation just to stop a public tantrum.
MacMillan did just that, deciding to talk to her daughters before they even got to the grocery store. She explained calmly that she expected them not to bicker, and that if they took turns choosing food items, they’d earn an extra ride at the carnival that evening or a swim in the neighbor’s pool. “The girls immediately responded to the new plan, and the trip was wonderful,” she says. “As the weeks went on, I’d have to remind them a few times in the store and switch up the rewards. But for the most part they acted much better.”
Not only were the girls motivated to stop fighting so much, but MacMillan felt her own self-esteem growing: “I could see I was really teaching them how to be good.”
Grade-schoolers: Get their heads in the game
Your little grade-schooler may surprise you by just how grown-up he can act in some situations. But he’s still a kid. Despite the fact that he may be willing to please and have better self-control, he may forget the way he’s supposed to behave and slip back into old bad habits. And as he becomes more and more independent, he may sometimes react to being controlled by his parents as vehemently as a toddler would.
Now that he’s old enough to understand what a bribe really is, it may not work to say “I’ll buy you a video game if you improve your grades.” If you do, he may try to negotiate a better deal, feel manipulated, or shrug you off if the new Xbox title isn’t worth the effort. Instead of offering a prize, talk to your child about what you think he needs to work on-whether it’s doing a better job on homework or taking on more chores-and how you might reward him if he shows he’s making an effort. If you include him in creating a plan of action, he’ll be way more likely to succeed. It’s best to make the goals clear and concrete (say, spending an extra hour hitting the books or tidying his room once a week for a month); you don’t want to end up arguing over whether he’s done enough to earn his reward.
Lauren Pinzka of New Haven, Connecticut, mom of 7-year-old Sam and 9-year-old Michael, turned to rewards after realizing that she was expecting too much maturity from her sons. She’d had foot surgery and couldn’t walk, and assumed that, naturally, her loving sons would pitch in to help out. Instead she got dirty looks from Michael whenever she asked him to bring her a glass of water and constant “I’m bored” whining from Sam. “I responded with sarcastic comments, which only made the boys surlier,” she says. “So I tried to take our emotions out of the picture and focus on a plan to get the household jobs done.”
Pinzka had never wanted to pay her sons to do chores, but she sensed that in this special situation, a small amount of cash would do the trick. She came up with a system in which each boy would get ten cents for each small chore he did, like clearing the dishes or picking up his clothes. Pinzka took responsibility, too-she’d pay them each a quarter if she raised her voice more than twice in one day.
Her sons hopped to it immediately. (Unfortunately for them, their mom never had to pay for her behavior.) The plan showed the boys that she cared about what they wanted and that they could all work together to make the household a better place. True, money can be a powerful motivator (one I don’t generally recommend-but never say never; sometimes it’s the only thing that works, as in Pinzka’s case). But when given at the right times and for the right reasons, even little rewards show kids that good things come to those who work for them. And that lesson lasts longer than all the quarters, video games, and stickers it takes to teach it to them.
Virginia Shiller, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and the coauthor of Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting.