5 Reasons Why Bribes Don’t Work for Kids

We’ve all done it at one point or another…bribing our kids to gain their cooperation. “If you finish your dinner, you can have a cookie.” “Be a good boy at Grandmas house and then we can go to the park.” “If you do your homework, then you can have some TV time.”

It is so easy to fall into the trap of bribing our kids, because it seems like the quickest way to gain their compliance. Parents say “it works” because it gets kids to do what we ask, but bribes can have long-term negative effects on our children’s motivation and behavior. Here are 5 reasons to stop bribing your kids and what to do instead:

Bribes strip away internal motivation

Using bribes makes children hyper-focused on external motivators (such as candy, prizes, or treats) instead of internal motivators (satisfaction, pride, and accomplishment). Because children’s motivation is external rather than internal, they become more likely to rush through their work in order to gain their reward. They aren’t taking pride or feeling the same sense of accomplishment as they would if they were working without a bribe.

Bribes create a sense of entitlement

When we use bribes we condition our children to think that they are entitled to a reward every time they do something we ask them to do. Expected behaviors like cleaning their room or completing their homework seem more like a choice to them because we have attached an incentive to it. This often backfires when the incentive isn’t motivating enough for our kids, because they may decide that the incentive isn’t worth the work you are asking them to do.

Check out: How Entitlement Steals Our Kids Joy 

Bribes cause satiation and dependence

Satiation happens when children become too used to getting treats and rewards, and they start to want more and more. It’s like using pain medication… at first it works, but then your body becomes used it and you need more in order to feel the effects. Bribes are exactly the same. With every bribe a child’s entitlement grows stronger, and they become less willing to do what you ask without a bigger reward. When a child is unwilling to do what you’ve asked without a bribe, it means they have become completely dependent on the reward as a source of motivation. Rewards are truly like a drug to children, and if you take them away, expect a withdrawal period.

Bribes teach children to manipulate and control

Bribes are all about control, especially when we use withholding of rewards as a threat. “If you keep screaming in the store, we aren’t going to the movies.” Withholding rewards creates fear in our kids, and that anxiety makes them less likely to be able to behave in the way we want them to. When we use bribes in order to control children’s behavior, kids become more likely to try to use control tactics and manipulate us in the same way.

Bribes don’t prepare children for real life

In the real world, we don’t get rewards for doing things that we are supposed to do. You don’t get a raise for showing up to work, and kids should not get rewards for doing the right thing either. When we use bribes, we do not teach our children to have personal responsibility over their work. As adults they become people who need to be micromanaged, because that’s how they’ve been trained to work.

What to do instead:

The big question is…what can we do instead? We still need a way to get our kids to do what we ask, and if not bribes, then what?

Make your child feel capable

Keep in mind that true cooperation comes from children who feel important and capable. We need to spend more time building up our children’s confidence in their abilities to do the right thing and their internal motivation. For example, “You worked so hard on that project, that must have felt really good.”

Give up some control

This is difficult, but so important. Our kids need to have experience making choices for themselves and dealing with the real life consequences. Your toddler chooses not to eat breakfast? They may feel hungry until lunchtime. Your child doesn’t want to go to soccer practice? They don’t get to start in the next game. Teaching children to have personal responsibility means giving them room to make mistakes and to learn from it.

Reward your child unexpectedly and genuinely

Let’s say your child goes above and beyond their regular chores by cleaning the house. You can express your genuine appreciation by saying “I really appreciate your hard work, you’ve done such a nice thing for me. Why don’t we go in the kitchen and bake up some brownies together.” There is nothing wrong with expressing genuine appreciation in your child’s work after the fact. The key here is that your child didn’t clean the house expecting a reward, they did it to do something nice for you.

What other strategies do you use to avoid bribing your kids? Share with me in the comments below!

Interested in more alternatives to using bribes and rewards? Here are some books to get you started!

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24 thoughts on “5 Reasons Why Bribes Don’t Work for Kids

  1. I love this post and agree with you. I personally have always done my best to try and stay away from bribing (even when I am exhausted and desperate) because I want obedience to be a reflection of genuine desire in the hearts of my children — not motivated by anything else. When motivated by their hearts and it being the right thing to do, children will learn a much more important lesson that will shape their character as they grow.

    1. I absolutely agree with you, and I love how you talked about the motivation from their hearts. That’s what we all truly want… children who behave because they want to do the right thing. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Great post! I have found bribes do more harm than good so I usually stay away from those. The challenge is how to create internal motivation within kids. Giving up control as a parent at times is something I struggle with as well.

    1. I struggle with it so much! Something that has really helped me was realizing that when a child is having a hard time obeying it’s because they are struggling with self-regulation and their own desire for control. In the moment it’s about giving them what they need, not about giving them what they “deserve.”

  3. Yes, to all of this! It can be the more difficult path to go without bribing for good behavior, but builds better character in the end. I was incredibly disappointed to discover that when my son started at our local public elementary school they relied on a system of rewards and bribery to manage children’s behavior. Kids were rewarded for helping to clean up with stickers and trinkets, and begged for these rewards upon completing the task, instead of learning to just be a helpful human being.🙁

    1. It’s so common in the school system, and it drives me crazy! You are absolutely right – kids are more focused on what they can get out of it instead of what they can give. Thank you for sharing!

  4. What a great post! My little one is almost a year old so we will be moving into this season before I know it! This is something I will definitely be implementing in my child’s life. Thanks for the great insight!

  5. Fantastic read. I have raised two kids and I can tell you that bribery works in sheer emergencies, but not in everyday life. I love your other suggestions. Kids have to be intrinsically motivated to do the right thing.

  6. I prefer providing my son with choices. That way, he feel/learns he has control and is responsible for the choices he makes. Right now, it’s a work in progress ( he’s 7 and on the sutism spectrum), but we’re making headway. Great post!

    1. Yes! Choices! I do this as well and sometimes it works very well and other times my 2 year old screams “NO choices!!” I absolutely agree with you, it’s a work in progress 🙂

    1. I’m convinced that motherhood is the most difficult job because it’s all the little decisions that we make daily that eventually becomes our kids attitudes and outlook. It’s so much pressure, but makes it the most rewarding thing in the world. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I think when saved for absolute emergencies, it can work when we need it to. But just the daily battles over little things, those are the things that I’m working on letting go of 🙂

  7. Ugh I am SO guilty of this! And not even consciously ! Thank you for sharing this perspective, because it’s absolutely true. I already see the negatives of this in my 10-year-old, who is an incredibly sweet boy but definitely depends on the reward system. Yikes! Thank you for the alternatives, this is something I’ll definitely be working on!

    1. You are not alone!! It’s so difficult, and a daily struggle for me as well. It’s just so hard to give up control over certain things when we want obedience and compliance in the moment. Hang in there, mama!

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