Parenting 202: Does bribery work?
A recent article in the New York Times (1/13/13) reviewed the literature on the value of bribery in child rearing. You know the drill—if you stay in your seat for 5 more minutes, stop fighting with your little sister, or stop crying you can have an ice cream sundae for dessert—or some variation on that theme.
All parents resort to bribery in moments of crisis. I remember when my 3-year-old spirited child needed a monthly blood test. I quickly determined that a chocolate bar administered orally during the blood test would result in a better outcome. It worked like a charm!
But then some parents take it a step further. All kinds of behaviors get rewarded with small ticket items and then big prizes for grades and other achievements. A recent review of 40 years of research on this subject, by Daniel Pink in his recent book, Drive, observed that rewards (aka bribes) are generally ineffective in producing long-term results. As soon as the rewards end, so does the targeted behavior. And the child may lose intrinsic interest in the activity. After all, what we are trying to do is to promote good habits over the course of the child’s life—not short term change. (Except when we are desperate!)
Furthermore, material rewards tend to lose their luster. Just look in your child’s toy chest or closet. It is filled with tossed out games, dolls, and toys. Even sparkly electronic devices lose their shine after awhile. Children’s attention span is short.
I prefer the power of undivided attention. Its bright light illuminates your child’s heart and spirit. Undivided attention is the fuel of love and nurture, and it is in painfully short supply in modern life! Indeed, sometimes kids misbehave because they know they will garner their parent’s attention—even if it is negative. With two working parents, homework, housework, and multiple activities—any individual attention is just plain hard to get.
Of course, we want to give our children our complete attention. We dream about vacations where we just spend time hanging out with each other. We remember when we lost power, and spent time playing monopoly by candlelight—with no television, computer, or email to distract our attention from each other. Those moments are precious.
Rather than use rewards as a way to promote desired behavior (goods for grades, allowance for chores, or movie tickets for a clean room), give attention and praise when children make movement, on their own, towards the good habits we promote. Children light up when your attention turns towards them and you acknowledge their effort.
Rather than reward good grades, become engaged in your children’s schoolwork. I made a conscious effort not to make a big deal over good grades (naturally, I was pleased when they did well, but I kept it to myself). I was more interested in rewarding genuine interest in what they were learning, especially critical and creative thinking.
When they were little, I had them read to me. As they got older, I wanted to discuss with them what they read. “So, what did you think about the main character? What kind of person was he? What was the main idea of the book?” I asked. I would read their essays, and ask them questions about their ideas. Even when they were young, I brought them to plays, dance, and museums. I was more focused on reinforcing intellectual honesty than performance. I always figured that love of learning would lead to good performance.
When my daughters were older teenagers, I insisted that they have summer jobs. I worked as a teen and I felt that I learned many valuable lessons from work that helped me in my adult life. They resisted at first, but I helped them find jobs as barista’s at our local independent coffee shop, Zoka’s. In the long run, they were glad that I insisted. When they came home during their college years they always had a job waiting for them.
So yes, there are definitely moments for bribery! But for helping kids develop the important habits needed for a healthy adult life, get personally involved. Parental engagement is where it’s at for the long haul.
What do you think?