Yes, I Bribe My Child. Maybe You Should Too


I won’t deny it: bribery is an extraordinarily useful tool in my parenting toolbox. It’s not something that I’m trying to change and it’s not something that I feel bad about. Judge away, sanctimommies. If you’ve never had to do it, I tip my hat to you. But if you have, you can probably relate to these reasons why it’s pretty much a lifesaver: 

It works. Believe me, it’s definitely not my first choice. I’d much rather calmly explain to my child why he needs to do something, or ask him nicely, or even use my stern voice and what I call my “crazy eyes” to scare him into compliance. But let’s be honest. Even the scariest mean mug doesn’t work sometimes. When all else fails, my kid will do anything for a cookie. 

It can keep you sane. On a recent two-hour car ride home from visiting family, we passed a train riding along train tracks. Fun, right? Sure, until my two-year-old started screaming and crying because he wanted to ride in a train, not in our car. Anyone who tells you to wait out a tantrum has never encountered a child with the stamina of my son. I told him that if he was quiet for the next ten minutes, Mommy would give him a lollipop. He was a perfect angel for the rest of the ride home. Worth it. 

It helps kids understand that they don’t get something for nothing. A cookie for a toddler isn’t the end of the world. Even if I didn’t practice the ancient art of bribery, I’d still be willing to let him eat something sweet as a treat. So why give it away for free? 

It lets you get things done. Because as much as I would love to play restaurant with my son in his pretend kitchen for the seventeenth time today, I have to actually go out shopping and buy real food, over my child’s protests. If I promise him we can pick out a book from the bookstore next door, it becomes an adventure instead of a chore. 

It builds positive associations. My parents give my son alphabet cookies every time he sees them. He is now obsessed both with Grammy and Grandpa and also with the alphabet. I’ll take it. 

They keep doing good things even when there’s no bribe involved. A recent study showed that kids who received small bribes for eating healthy food continued to choose healthy options even after they no longer got anything in return. Kids this age are forming habits for life, and an extra nudge towards those lifelong good habits can hold them in good stead. 

It helps show kids what your priorities are. We’re always praising our kids for their achievements-—from off-key renditions of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ to a great first day of daycare. So how do they know where those fall on a scale of mildly amusing to highly impressive? A heads up in advance that a specific outcome will be met with a reward will send a signal about what matters.

So given all the benefits, can bribery truly make you a better parent? Maybe, if it is used correctly, in moderation, and with a combination of other parenting techniques. One thing is for sure, though—if it doesn’t make you a better parent, it will certainly make you a more sane one.


About the Author

Jessica Levy is a writer focusing on parenting and education while wrangling her highly active “three-nager.” Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more. Follow her on Twitter.