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When Is It Okay to Bribe Your Kids?
By Virginia M. Shiller, Ph.D

How many times have you said “If you stop taking your brother’s toys I’ll
let you watch TV” or “If you start doing your homework I’ll buy you a new
Nintendo game”? Most parents find themselves giving their children goodies
to get them to behave, and then end up feeling badly because they think
they are bribing rather than teaching.

Bribes, preferably called rewards, actually can have a legitimate place in
parenting. How and when you give “payment” is what matters. Bottom line:
you want to use rewards to help your kids to learn habits that will stick,
not disappear as soon as the rewards are gone. So what’s the secret?

Timing is the first important consideration. Discussion about healthy
rewards should be introduced before you enter into the problem situation,
when you and your child are both calm. With the right timing, you have an
opportunity to reflect on what kinds of changes are reasonable to expect of your child (e.g., maybe not a perfect homework record, but movement in the right direction). And, you can choose rewards that are attractive but in
line with your values. Lastly, your child has a chance to listen to you
when emotions aren’t taking over everyone’s ability to reason.

Talk to your child about reasons for improved behavior. Avoid preaching,
but point out advantages of doing homework regularly, picking up clothes,
or fighting less with siblings. As much as possible, take the child’s
viewpoint: “I know you’re tired of me nagging you about leaving your
clothes on the bathroom floor… I have a plan that I think will make us all
happier.”

As you carry out your reward plan, point out the advantages of the new
behaviors. “Grandma was so impressed at how polite you were at dinner” you might exclaim. “She sees you are really growing up.”

Lastly, consider interpersonal rewards. Your time and attention can be a
valuable incentive, as can privileges or special activities. The
possibilities are endless: the promise of a trip to the fire station, a
fishing expedition, an afternoon ice skating with a parent, picking the
dinner menu, or choosing their room color.

Okay, so how do you actually carry out a reward plan?

First, decide how to tackle the problem. Often, establishing short-term,
small goals is better than asking your child to work towards one large,
long-term goal. For example, rather than rewarding a child for getting A’s
on report cards, offer incentives for thoroughly completing homework,
working ahead on long-term assignments, or getting good grades on the
weekly spelling quiz.

Sometimes a series of mini-goals is helpful. Rather than asking your child
to be in bed by 9:30, make a list of the necessary steps that will lead to
that goal: e.g. finish homework and place in backpack by 8:30, in pj’s and
teeth brushed by 9, quiet play or reading til 9:30.

Next, make up a chart to keep track of the child’s progress. Award points,
stars or stickers for each completed step. Preschoolers may be happy with
a fanciful sticker chart where the sticker is the reward. Children also
like to see their photo on a chart, or to decorate it with markers or
stickers. For pre-teens, it’s usually best to stick with no-frill
checklists that they can access privately.

In carrying out the plan, keep the emphasis on the positive. Just like
adults, kids ahve good days and bad days. The plan hasn't failed if the
child slips or misbehaves. Each new day gives the child a chance to
improve. Provide encouragement ("Oops, you missed a check today, bet you can get one tomorrow!" Building into the plan room for slips, and if
necessary re-examine the plan and make sure that the goals are attainable.

A good reward plan rewards parents as well as kids. There’s nothing like
feeling that you’ve succeeded in helping your child move towards becoming a more responsible and happier youngster!


Virginia M. Shiller, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center, and author (with Meg Schneider) of the book Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting (American Psychological Association, 2003). For more information, visit www.rewardsforkids.com

 

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