The cost of bribery

Bribing children is a common tactic of today’s parents, reports Martha Irvine of AP.

Call it a reward, or just “bribery.”

Whichever it is, many parents today readily admit to buying off their children, who get goodies for anything from behaving in a restaurant to sleeping all night in their own beds.

Often, the rewards are for behaviors their own parents would have simply expected, just because they said so. The new dynamic — sometimes seen as a backlash to that strictness — has some parenting experts wondering if today’s parents have gone too soft.

My parents never bribed us — except when my father offered me a car if I promised never to start smoking. I told him I had no intention of smoking and my self-respect wouldn’t permit me to accept a bribe.

I didn’t offer my daughter anything but the choice of a “pleasant, cheerful mother” if she did what I wanted or a “mean, grumpy mother” if she did not. Sensibly, she took the first option.

About Joanne


  1. Why is the focus only on parents when schools bribe students all the time? Schools give out grades and “gold slips” and weekly prizes and “citizen of the month” awards and “my kid is on the honor roll” bumper stickers. Those are bribes: exhibit the desired behavior and you’ll get a reward.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    My parents bribed my siblings and I all the time.

    If we got all As and Bs, we got to eat.

    At least, this was how we understood it.

    -Mark Roulo

  3. Lets not forget merit raises. And “Employee of the Month/Year/Millenium”. And good performance reviews. Should employers stop bribing people to come to work every day, a pernicious practice they call “paying wages”? And then there is the ultimate bribe – “Be a good boy and believe in Me and follow My teachings, and I’ll let you into Heaven.”

    Let’s back up a bit. Children, like all of us, are animals. It is known that the most effective means of training animals in new tricks is through positive reinforcement, whether that be treats given when the animal does as told, or just a “Good Boy”. This is a bribe. It is far more effective than negative reinforcement for initial training, like whallops with a newspaper, or yelling, as a means of housebreaking, which I’m sure the dog perceives as “mean, grumpy master”.

    Yes, we do want to train kids that hard work, moral behavior, and the like are “their own reward”, “expected behavior of any civilized being”, etc. That comes through reinforcing moral teaching – teaching “values” to cause the kid to have a feeling of well-being from following that rule, backing up the bribes. At some point the behavior becomes habit, or maybe a self-imposed moral imperative. At which time, you can stop bribing for that behavior, and move on to more complex training. What took a piece of bacon at first now merits a “good dog”, or just becomes an expected part of the larger ‘trick’, what merits a gold star in elementary school (say, getting 13+9 right, or raising the hand before speaking in class) is (one hopes) par for the course in high school as part of geometry class. You still keep rewarding the cutting edge of complex goodness, with the expectation of the rest. (This is where negative reinforcement comes in – what merited a reward, before, now gets a penalty in the breach.)

    At some point, hopefully, the kid figures out that following these rules makes him a happier, more respected, more successful person. This is called “adulthood”, and is when the parent can start to turn over to the universe the responsibility of training and “bribing” their kids.

    We have plenty of kids with plenty of problems these days. Most of them come from NOT training the kids, or worse inadvertantly ‘training’ the wrong behavior. It is giving the reward without the behavior which is wrong, but that isn’t bribery, that is paying tribute, and THIS is the problem with many schools, and many parents today. “Tributes” becomes an entitlement despite behavior, and engenders kids who think an A and a sportscar are their birthright.

  4. It seems like I’ve commented here before that bribery is not the same thing as an incentive.

    When you have a kid who knows what’s right and is capable of doing it, because they’ve done it in the past, and you HAVE to promise a concrete reward in order to get the kid to do it — that’s bribery. It’s a substitute for responsible behavior. The kid can and should behave in a certain way, and simply chooses not to unless there’s something in it for him.

    But when you have a kid who either isn’t sure what the right behavior is, or needs an extra push to make that behavior a habit, and you use a reward to motivate them — that’s an incentive. As long as you eventually wean the kid off the reward and start expecting proper behavior without the reward because it’s the right thing to do, I don’t see how this is soft or ineffective parenting.

    Our 3-year old learned to associate good things with going on the potty because we gave her two plain M&M’s whenever she would go. Now she goes without expecting any treats because she realizes that’s what big girls are supposed to do. This wasn’t bribery — it’s adding value to a behavior the value of which the kid doesn’t perceive yet, until the kid gets it.

  5. Half Canadian says:

    Let’s not confuse bribes with cause and effect. Merit raises are (presumably) and effect of good work. It’s also an attempt to keep said employee (who presumably brings in more value than the resulting salary). Same with the other doodads that work gives you.

    As far as morality, heaven, etc., that’s all cause-and-effect also. Delayed, yes, but it isn’t artificial like a bribe.

  6. When I complained as a kid that some of my friends got $5 for every A (one of them got $10! And this was in the late 70s!), he reminded me of two things:

    1. you are smart so we expect you to make good grades. You shouldn’t expect rewards for doing what you’re supposed to do.

    2. your “prize” will come, eventually, but it will be further down the road and it will not be in the form of $5 and $10 bills.

    He was right, of course. My “prize” was forming good study habits, getting into a good college, winding up with an interesting, worthwhile (and decent-paying) career. And he was also right about the “people shouldn’t expect rewards for doing what they’re supposed to do” – I have to admit that I die a little inside every time one of my students (on a day when there’s low attendance) askes, “Do I get bonus points for showing up?”

    No, you don’t. Why on earth should you?

    And salary’s not a bribe. Salary’s a fair exchange: you give me x hours of your life a day, I give you the money you need to live on. If you don’t agree to that, good luck with the hunting and gathering.

  7. Maybe we should do the opposite.

    No more bribes. Use negative reinforcement. Use humiliation flogging, torture, crucifiction and execution to enourage them.

    Just kidding, but a serious guy recently cited the execution of Admiral Byng as motivator for Royal Navy officers in the 18th century. He was shot on the deck of his own flagship for failing to do his utmost.

    But this was the way even in schools and families not that long ago.

  8. The line between ‘bribe’ and ‘incentive’ is fine, and if anything most pay for behavior in schools is on the ‘incentive’ side. A ‘bribe’ is, strictly speaking, an side payment related to doing one’s previously agreed-to responsibilities – either a payment to do what you are already paid to do (e.g. issue a permit) or not to do it (tear up a ticket). A student is not exactly getting otherwise paid for his attendance – it is mandated. He is obligated to be there, but there is nothing obligating him to try particularly hard, except his own work ethic, which needs to be trained. In the meantime, ‘incenting’ him is a valid, indeed important, technique. I used “bribe” because our host did.

    I agree that pay is an exchange – I give time, my employer gives money. Or I get an A, I get $50. The student, what is the exchange he is involved in w/o these incentives? He gives time, his school doesn’t have him picked up by the authorities? Not exactly motivating. If you want effort from someone who simply doesn’t want to be there, you need to incent it. Meanwhile, as I mentioned, showing him why it is in his best interest to work. It is a two-part thing.

    ricki – not every kid ‘buys’ the line about the ‘prize’ coming eventually. It sounds like you had figured that part out, and so didn’t need the bribe. In that case if you hold out, you are looking for a bribe. If the kid has already been well-trained, he doesn’t need it, he is past that stage and in another. Either that or your parents were using the inferior – but still often quite effective – negative reinforcement training methods.

    (Negative really only works if effort can be directly measured or observed. You won’t really know if the kid can do better unless you incent. Or start acting like Soviet-era managers and expecting a 3% improvement every cycle, forever, in factory output. Capitalism – positive reinforcement. Communism – negative reinforcement. Who won that one?)

    Cause and Effect – OK, it is cause and effect that I work and then get good grades, know stuff, and get a good job. “Employee of the Month” is not ’caused’. Neither are merit raises, except to the extent that they are to assist retention rather than reward and incent work above and beyond that required. Nor Heaven – doing his will will cause one to go to heaven? What, you are such a good person He wanted to hang out with you? That one is most definitely a reward for good behavior – an incentive, the same as gold stars, pay-for-performance, etc.)

  9. Kids are really much more capable than for which we give them credit. They don’t need rewards OR punishments in order to learn and grow up to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society. An occasional reward or punishment isn’t going to hurt anyone, I wouldn’t suppose, but if parents are relying on either, they are probably not disciplining (teaching, training, guiding) very well. A lot of people use the excuse that their kid is more difficult. Really difficult children need better discipline, not more rewards or punishment. IRL, there are a few rewards and punishments overhead, but the average adult doesn’t usually have either a carrot or whip to control them. We’d do better to teach kids higher morality than that.