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Does Bribing Kids Work?

Tingley-021 color webLast weekend we took the grandkids to see “Parental Guidance,” a movie I would never have chosen for myself except that we were watching the kids while their parents were out of town.  It turned out that the entire theater was filled with grandparents and grandkids (were all of their parents out of town?).   The fact that the movie was called “Parental Guidance” and was in fact rated PG was pretty amusing to the nine-year-old.  “Get it?” she asked.  Not sure I did, but whatever.  It had Bette Midler and Billie Crystal, so maybe it wouldn’t be just two hours of my life I could never get back.

Actually, outside of the teens texting and grandparents talking during the movie (aren’t you supposed to be showing them how to act?), it wasn’t the worst movie I’ve seen lately (no, that would be “The Master” with all those great actors and no discernable story.  That’s three hours of my life I’ll never get back).  Anyway, there were some genuine laughs in Parental Guidance for both the kids and the adults, as well as plenty of commentary on modern parenting.  Modern parenting is all about distracting kids from bad behavior, reasoning with small children, speaking in modulated tones, and assuring kids that they are special and they are loved no matter what they do, according to the movie.  When an exasperated Crystal finally grabs the kindergartner running around at a concert and announces that the one thing parents have never taught the kids is the meaning of “No,” he got applause from the audience on the screen and the audience in the movie theater.

One frequent ploy Crystal uses in the movie to get cooperation from one of the kids  is bribery, what Bruce Feiler in The New York Times calls “one of the more nagging challenges of being a parent.”   Bribing, Feiler notes, has little to recommend it long-term, but parents often use it for short-term relief.  He points to the book Drive, in which author Daniel Pink reviews 40 years of research regarding the effects of bribing people and concludes that it can cause “long-term damage.”  People become motivated only by the rewards and lose interest in any intrinsic value a behavior might have. 

Parentalguidance5So if you want to eschew bribery, experts suggest other kinds of ways to manipulate kids.  Edward Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, recommends that you reason with kids, sympathize with their point of view, and communicate in a non-controlling way so that you don’t look like “a big person trying to push around a little person.”  Good luck with that.

Alan Kazdin, the director of the Yale Parenting Center suggests that instead of bribing kids, you can get them to do what you want by making it a game.  Also, kids need to have a “feeling of choice” even if it’s not really a choice.  I have a problem with the basic dishonesty of that ploy, and I’m not so sure that he hasn’t underestimated kids’ ability to detect fakery.

Daniel Pink suggests that instead of bribing kids beforehand, you can simply reward them when they’ve done what you want without your telling them.  For example, “You cleaned your room! Let’s go get a milkshake,” he suggests.  Pink says these rewards should be used sparingly.  Good luck with that one too.  Once you’ve done it, kids don’t forget.  (“I cleaned my room.  Why can’t I have a milkshake?  We did that the last time.  It’s not fair!”)  It’s kind of a pre-bribe.

Finally, Feiler cites Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, who says that there’s nothing wrong with using specific praise when a child behaves well although she doesn’t rule out bribery in some circumstances.  Bribing a kid for good behavior on a plane is better than threatening him if he doesn’t stop screaming and kicking the seat in front of him.  The penalty for that behavior will come later when you’re on the ground.

Personally, I prefer specific praise as a reward followed by consequences for bad behavior.  I also prefer honesty with kids as opposed to games because the truth is, sometimes kids don’t really have a choice (just like sometimes adults don’t either).  Not doing your homework isn’t an option.  Neither is not keeping your hands to yourself.  Or copying your friend’s test.   Any experienced teacher will tell you that some things are not negotiable.  It’s not big people pushing around small people.  It’s the adult’s responsibility as the person in charge. 

Of course, all ends well in “Parental Guidance,” and it turns out that the grandparents made some mistakes with their daughter too.  All is resolved, and both kids and adults come out of the movie singing a happy tune.  And because the grandkids were so good during the moving, we went out for ice cream.









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