I have two kids, and I try to have a life. As any parent can tell you, these two things are not always compatible. Say, for instance, that you fancy the idea of going to the grocery store. It’s not what I would call a radical idea. I doubt that most people would call it a radical idea, in fact. And yet, by the time you push that cart filled with food and two unruly children out of the store exit, you wonder what you were thinking when you decided that you needed to buy food.
Long before I ever had children of my own, I knew that I didn’t want to use bribery to motivate my children. And then when my daughter Hannah was little I read about the evils of bribery, rewards and praise, and my decision was confirmed. I would not say “good job” or promise candy in exchange for good behaviour. Instead I would … well, I wasn’t always entirely clear on what I would do, but knowing what I wouldn’t do was a start, right?
Just as any parent can tell you that having children is not always compatible with having a life, any parent can also tell you that the decisions you make when your first child is still an infant may not hold up once that precious little angel learns how to run and use the word “no”. Parenting is a journey, and you will be tested every step of the way. No matter how strongly you feel about bribery, your resolve may fade when you just want to finish checking out these groceries and you need a way to keep your kid still and quiet and away from the store exits.
It starts small, bribery does. For me, at first it sounded something like, “Mama really needs to finish paying for the food. If you can wait quietly I’ll finish up faster and we’ll have time to go get something to drink.” It’s fairly innocuous, right? I only have so many hours in my day, and the more time that I spend at the grocery store, the less time I have to do fun stuff with my kids. It’s just basic math. And I’m good at math, I would know.
Gradually, I’ve moved from a desperate ploy at the grocery store to more strategic positioning of fun vs. not-fun activities. Say, for example, that my kids ask for cookies, and I’m generally OK with them having cookies right now. But now let’s also imagine that in about five minutes I need to get the kids into shoes and coats and buckled into their car seats to go someplace. I could give them the cookies right now, and then get them dressed and loaded up. Or I could say, “We need to leave in a few minutes, and you can have the cookies in the car. For right now I need you to go pee and put on your shoes.”
If I give the kids the cookies now, I’ll end up with two sugared-up kids who will be too busy running in circles to get out the door in a timely fashion. If I save the cookies for later, they’ll be faster getting out the door and quiet in the car. Plus (I tell myself), it’s not even really a bribe, since I’m not offering the cookies to them in exchange for good behaviour. At least, not exactly. I’m just telling them that they can have the cookies at a time that’s more convenient for me, and in return garnering more cooperation as I go about my day.
I still believe that bribery is not the most effective form of parenting. Sooner or later you’ll have to remove the bribe, and then what? I steer clear of sticker charts and I’ve never given my kids a toy for using the potty. But almost every day I do ask my toddler to use the potty before he gets to do something he enjoys like going outside, dangling the fun he’s going to have in front of him as an incentive to gain compliance. I justify it many ways, but I’m not so sure where the line between working things in my favour ends and bribery begins. Can you really say that I don’t use bribery when I’m constantly placing tasks like peeing or cleaning before tasks like playing at the park or watching TV?
I wonder what you think. Do you use bribery? And how do you distinguish between bribery and basic common sense in getting through the day with kids? And if we all use bribery in some form or another, how bad can it really be? Please weigh in!