Avoid Bribery


Bribes are tempting rewards, designed to manipulate, control or influence someone to take a particular action. 

When children are slow to cooperate, parents often use bribery. They offer their children something enticing, like a toy for good behavior, payment for good grades, or a cookie to finish their veggies. Parents are usually trying to distract the children from what they want to do so they will do what the parent wants them to do. Bribes sometimes work in the short run, but they quickly become addictive for the child and ineffective for the parent.

Bribery teaches children to cooperate so they will get something in return. Most parents would prefer their children do something because there’s some value behind the request.

Bribes are offered by the person seeking  control and focus on external payoffs.  

Cooperation  focuses on the value of the request or rule and the internal payoffs.

 When parents state the value of a rule or request, children cooperate because they understand why the request is important, even if they don’t get a payoff. As children mature, they can figure out the value of a request on their own, even if it’s not spelled out for them. Bribes are always external payoffs, so children get used to looking outside themselves for motivation. Bribes send hidden messages that are often different from the value of the request. Here are a few examples.



If we say to children, “If you eat your peas, I’ll give you a cookie,” why would they eat their peas? To get a cookie! But we really want them to eat their peas because they’re nutritious, right? That’s not the message the bribe sends. Food bribes can result in children developing unhealthy habits or overeating. If 


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we want children to eat better, we teach them about nutrition, limit the unhealthy snacks that are available, and set consistent rules about when they can eat unhealthy food. “Unhealthy food can make you sick if you don’t already have healthy food in your stomach. When you’ve given your body enough healthy food to grow, you can have a little unhealthy food just for fun.”

Another type of food bribe is to give children food for comfort and stress relief. If children are upset, we need to teach them stress management skills and healthy ways of dealing with negative emotions. “I can tell you are really upset. Let’s sit, so you can tell me what happened.” Human comfort eases stress and upset feelings; food pacifiers simply offer a temporary distraction.



If we pay children for their grades, why are they motivated? For the money? If we pay one dollar for good grades in the third grade, what will we pay when one dollar no longer motivates children? Five dollars? What will children expect when they graduate? A car? And what if they try their hardest, but can never earn as much as another child who naturally excels at academics? Will they be motivated to try harder or give up, feeling their best is never good enough? We want children to get good grades so they will learn important information and skills. We can instill a love for learning by asking, “How do you feel about your grades?” We can offer encouragement, “Your hard work really paid off.” If children want a reward, we can present it as a celebration, not a payoff.

A Personal Story. My son came home from school one day and said, “Jack just bought a new video game with the money his parents paid him for his grades!” “Really?” I asked. “Yeah, but you know what really stinks? I got better grades than he did!” For a second I was tempted to pull out my wallet, but stopped myself. I said, “I bet it seems unfair to know you worked harder than he did but didn’t get that kind of a payoff.” He nodded his head in agreement. “You know I don’t agree with paying for grades,” I said. “Why do you think Jack tries to get good grades?” I asked. “So he can get more money,” Chris replied. “And why do you try to get good grades?” I added. He thought for awhile and said, “Because it feels good to put things in my ‘proud portfolio’ at school.” “How long does Jack’s money last?” I asked. “A couple days,” Chris answered. I continued, “And how long do your good feelings last?” Chris looked at me, smiled, and said, “I get the point.” I gave him an understanding look and a big hug.



Bribes are addictive. Children only do something if they get a reward. If we have been using bribes and try to change our approach, it might take some time to break their addiction to bribes. If we consistently use these tools, however, our children learn to cooperate without payoffs. The inner values they learn are far more lasting than any tangible payment they could receive.

Bribe junkies are more likely to follow abductors or peers of negative influence. Today, parents are more aware of the need to teach children to resist bribes, since adults and other children might use bribery, rewards, and threats of punishment to trick children. Many parents tell their children, “If someone offers you money, candy, or toys to do something, chances are you don’t want to do it. The person thinks he has to pay you something to get you to go against your better judgment.” If parents teach this rule of self-protection and then use bribery themselves, it’s confusing and dangerous.


Bribes are different from spontaneous gifts, signs of appreciation, or celebrations. These bonuses are only bribes if parents present them ahead of time as a reason to do the task. If children do the task because they understand the value and don’t know there is any payoff, the gift is a surprise. Children do not need to always get paid or rewarded if they cooperate. We can express our appreciation by returning a favor or saying “thank you” with our actions.


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If we aren’t sure if we are offering a bribe, conditional reward, or simply pointing out the natural positive consequence of cooperating, we look at four factors:

  1. Motive. If we are “dangling a carrot” to motivate them, it is a bribe.
  2. Emphasis. Bribes emphasize the reward, rather than the value of the request.
  3. Timing. When parents use bribes they present the idea of the reward. “I’ll give you a snack if you finish cleaning your room.” If the child presents the idea of the reward and the parent wants the child to know when he can have it, it’s not a bribe. For example, if children ask for snacks to delay finishing their work, parents can say, “When you’re finished cleaning your room, you can have a snack.” Here, the parent is teaching a value, rule, or explaining conditions the child must meet to get what he wants.
  4.  Words or tone of voice. Children  usually  (but  not  always)  interpret “If  you _____, then  I’ll _____” statements as bribes. “If you clean the house, I’ll take you swimming!” Here the bribe is presented first, as an exchange for doing the task. “When (or “As soon as”) _____ then” statements present the task first, emphasizing its value or the conditions children must meet to receive the reward they requested.
“As soon as we finish cleaning the house, we can go swimming. 
When I see you are finished cleaning your room, I’ll know you’re ready to play outside.” 

These statements teach the rule or value of “work before play.” Even these small changes in wording and tone of voice can change a bribe into an appropriate motivating statement.



Weight loss programs, employee incentives, and sticker charts for children are all examples of” behavior modification” programs. These programs are a result of scientific studies in which researchers rewarded subjects for desired behavior and withheld rewards or imposed punishments for undesirable behavior. They had great success training rats. (I’ve seen them play basketball for a food pellet!) They tried it on children, who responded well, too. So, the scientists concluded that rewards and punishment motivate people—which may be true—for a short time.

 Instead of buying children’s cooperation . . .                  . . . focus on the value of the behavior, not the reward.


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Long-term studies of all types of behavior management programs have found that they foster dependency on external motivation and material payoffs.1 People will do a task long enough to get the reward, but lose motivation if a payoff is absent. There are many tasks and behaviors people need to perform that have great value, but no material payoff. It is a sign of maturity to do something because it is helpful to others, improves our skills, or offers intangible benefits.

A Personal Story. I attended a seminar with a teacher who works in an SBH program (Severely Behavioral Handicapped). The SBH program used a token system (earning tokens to buy privileges) to motivate the children to attend school and change their behavior. Often, the children’s behavior improved enough to return to a regular classroom. But the regular classroom didn’t have the same reward system, so their progress deteriorated. These children learned how to behave but not why they should behave. They only behaved well when they got a payoff. They hadn’t understood or accepted the value and natural positive benefits of cooperative behavior.


Modified Use of Behavior Charts

Parents and professionals are now seeing the long-term consequences of incentive programs—a generation of reward junkies. Rewards work well on rats, but humans need deeper motivation. The Parent’s Toolshop has plenty of tools to motivate children without rewards, so throw away your stickers and use these skills instead. Despite your efforts to foster internal motivation, some professionals may insist on using behavior charts with your child (in a classroom or therapy situation, for example). You can choose whether to state your philosophical objections before using one of the following options:

a.  Say you do not want your child to participate and offer an alternative approach;
b.  Grant limited permission for your child to participate in certain parts of the program (track progress but not receive “prizes” from an adult, for example); or
c.  Take action and make comments only at home to counter or reduce the inherent side effects of the incentive program.

If your child will participate at all in any incentive program, remember the following suggestions:

  • Explain the value of the task or behavior. Help children see it is a meaningful, worthwhile contribution to the family, others, or themselves.
  • Involve children in developing the chart. Creative ideas, like gluing pictures of tasks or desired behavior to a poster, can make this a fun project. Ask open-ended questions to help children set goals and decide how they want to celebrate reaching these goals.
  • Focus on learning new skills, instead of getting rewards. When children reach their goal, comment on how good they feel about it and the skills they learned. Avoid referring to the reward as the goal or reason they did the task. Let children reward themselves if they feel good about what they did.
  • State the intangible rewards of doing the task. Children will have more play time, know a new skill, and/or develop a new positive habit if they do the task.
  • Use the chart as a reminder of agreements or routines, not a tally of rewards or payoffs.
  • Keep it positive. Instead of giving demerits for not doing something, have each mark be a record of something positive the children accomplished. Use descriptive encouragement, not praise. (See Chapter 4, “Self-Esteem Toolset.”)
  • Focus on doing one’s best, not competing. Competition destroys teamwork and damages relationships. Children are discouraged if they work twice as hard to earn points that other children can earn with less effort. This especially applies to siblings.
  • Gradually phase-out charts, as children learn skills and change habits. Wean children off the rewards before they become addicted.


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A Personal Story. Our elementary school introduces a homework reminder sheet in the second grade. It helped Chris learn good study habits. Amber’s teacher used the sheet as part of a reward program. If a parent signed the reminder sheet every day, the child got a raffle ticket for a toy at the end of the week. We didn’t forbid Amber from participating in the raffle program, but we never asked her about the prizes. Instead, we focused on the value of doing homework, her responsibility for accurately recording her assignments, and how she could use self-reminders to improve her memory skills and study habits.

Later that year, on “Take Your Kids to Work Day,” Amber attended my parenting class for the first time. As the class discussed homework routines, I asked Amber several questions.

    Me:    What time do you do homework? Amber: At seven o’clock, for 20 minutes. Me: What if you don’t have homework? 
    Amber:    I read a book.
    Me:   What do you do if you bring home a paper with a mistake on it?  
    Amber:   I fix it.
    Me:   What do you do if there is a blank worksheet that you don’t have to do for school or homework?
    Amber:    I do the paper anyway.
    Me:   Why do it if the teacher doesn’t say you have to? Amber: Because it gives me extra practice. 

As I looked up at the parents in the group, many had their mouths and eyes wide open. They were surprised that even an 8-year-old could understand and voluntarily accept the values and habits of homework. I noticed that she made no mention of the incentives her teacher offered. Amber will continue improving her study habits in the years to come, but it won’t be the result of bribes and rewards or stickers and toys, which someday will end. She’ll improve because she understands the value behind the task, has learned the skills she needs to do the task, and feels good knowing she’s done her best, which are all better, longer-lasting rewards.


Plan Ahead ✰✰✰✰

One of the most effective prevention tools is to anticipate a problem and take steps to avoid it. If you experience a recurring problem or expect a problem, here are several steps you can take:

  • Discuss the behavior you expect. Describe the behavior you want to see in positive, specific terms that your child understands. “We need to leave the playground in five minutes. You have time for two more rides. After two more rides I’ll say it’s time to go. I expect you to come right away and walk with me to the car.”
  • Teach skills so your expectations are realistic. Simply saying, “Don’t talk to strangers,” is often ineffective. Children are either scared to talk to strangers even when their parents are present (to store clerks, for example) or when a “safe” stranger could help them (asking a security guard for help when lost). They might also mistakenly think strangers must look scary and trust someone who looks friendly, but is an unsafe stranger. Define the difference between safe and unsafe strangers and what types of conversations are acceptable. For example, “If you are with Mom or Dad and someone talks to you, you can say ‘Hello’ and answer questions like ‘How old are you?’ But if anyone  asks you to go somewhere, come and tell me right away, even if you know them.”
  • Agree to a rule or plan for potential problems. For example, once parents and teens have negotiated a time, pick a clock. That clock’s time is the time they use. Get an agreement that children will call whenever they are late. Make sure they have spare change so they can call from a pay phone if there is an emergency. Many teens today carry beepers and cellular phones. If they can leave signals on their friends’ beepers to say “Hi,” they can call parents to say “I’ll be late.”
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Offer  Choices  Within  Limits

This is one of the most effective and useful four-star tools in The Parent’s Toolshop. We learn several different ways to use this tool throughout our tour. When we use choices within limits, we shift the focus from giving commands to possible options within our rules or limits. Here are a few guidelines for offering choices effectively.

Don’t give a choice if there is no choice. “Do you want to take your medicine?” sounds like the child has a choice. The child could say, “No, I don’t want to take my medicine.” Also avoid saying “The trash cans need to be brought in, okay?” “Okay” sounds like we are asking children if they agree with our request. We need to say what we really mean, “Do you understand?” or “Did you hear me?”

State your bottom line or what needs to be done, then offer choices within those limits. “We are having guests Saturday, so your room needs to be clean by Friday. You can either clean it all up at once or do it a little each day.” “If you stay in the sun any longer, you’ll get sunburned. You can either put on a shirt or play in the shade. You decide.” 

“Bottom line” limits are the minimum standards that must occur, what is non-negotiable. We balance limits by offering choices within our bottom line.

  • “Which would you like?”
  • “How many do you want?”
  • “Are you going to _____ or _____?”
  • “When do you plan to _____?”
  • “You can _____ or _____, you decide.”
  • “How do you plan to _____?
  • “Do you want to _____ or _____?”


Choices involve the following types of statements:

Using this tool in the previous examples, we can say, “Do you want to take chewable medicine or liquid?” “The dogs need to be fed before you play. When will you feed them?”

Make the choices respectful to both parent and child. If we say “Either quit throwing the ball in the house or I’ll take it away,” we are making a threat, not offering a respectful, fair choice. This is called a power play. An effective, mutually respectful choice would be, “You can either play with the ball outside or with another toy inside. You decide.” Here, parents address their safety concerns and respect the child’s need or desire to play.

Allow the child to offer choices. “We can have meatloaf or fish for dinner, unless you have an idea for something nutritious and delicious.” Remember to state your bottom line. Don’t be too open-ended unless there are truly unlimited choices. Otherwise, children will suggest pancakes, pop, and donuts. If children suggest something different, go with the idea if it meets your bottom line. This is not giving in. If children say, “I want spaghetti” and that’s okay, say, “Well, spaghetti is quick and nutritious. Good idea!” (If it’s not okay, use the “No No’s” tool described later in this chapter.) Don’t be overly rigid about forcing children to pick one of your choices; it could lead to a power struggle. Remember, your goal is to share power and reach a win/win solution.

Continue to focus on what the child can control. 

If there is not a choice about if  something will happen, offer a choice about  how  or  when it can happen. 

Think about the circle symbol for over-controlling parenting in the Foundation-Building Toolset. When parents debate if something will happen, they can go in circles debating and it often turns into a power struggle. These are win/lose battles. Now, think about the symbol for balanced parenting, a


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circle with a zigzag inside. The circle represents the bottom-line limits, the parent’s “win.” The zigzag represents the choices children have within these limits, their “win.”

When we set reasonable limits and then shift the focus to how or when they can meet these limits, children still have some power—their choices. When facing a win/lose game or having some control in a win/win situation, most people choose win/win. We can use choices to prevent resistance at every step of a task. 

A Personal Story. When Amber was 5, she often got distracted while getting dressed. (I once saw her playing with only one leg in her pants.) One day I realized just how much I used choices to keep her moving from one step to the next.

“Your body and hair look dirty. Do you want to take a bath or shower?” Whether she wanted a bath or not, I shifted the focus to her choices again. Knowing she prefers baths, I said “Do you want to take your bath before I take my shower or after me so you’ll have more time to play?

“Okay, get your clean clothes while I’m in the shower. You can play with your dolls until I’m done.” As her water filled, I said, “Are you going to get in now or wait until the tub is full? . . .

Okay! Be careful stepping in!”

After a few minutes, I said, “Do you want to wash your own hair or do you want me to wash it?” As she shampooed, I offered suggestions such as, “If you tip your head back you’ll get all your hair wet.” I planned ahead, saying “Daddy needs to take a shower, too. You have until I’m done with my makeup to finish washing and playing.”

When I finished my makeup, I said, “Go ahead and let the water out. You can get out now or wait until the water is all gone.” She decided to stay and a few minutes later I said, “Daddy needs to take a shower. Do you want to get dressed in here or in your room?” She got out of the tub.

Amber was clean, dressed, and ready in the time it took me to dry my hair, put on makeup, and get dressed (about 20 minutes). By using choices, she improved her ability to move from one step of a task to the next. By age 7, she could get ready on time all by herself with no input from me.



“Strong-willed” children need lots of choices. If we order and command, they debate with the skill of union negotiators. When we provide choices within reasonable limits, these children learn that rules are a natural part of life and following them does not always mean giving up personal power. If we say “Do you want milk or juice” and children say, “I want both,” we can say, “Which one first?” If we offer a choice and children respond with “neither,” we can say, “That’s not one of your choices.”


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If children persist, we can say, “You can decide or I’ll decide for you. It’s up to you.” We need to focus on what children do have a choice about or we might start a power struggle. Usually, children who are this logical and persistent can handle more open-ended choices. Try stating the bottom line and allowing them to figure out their options.

Pleasing children sometimes feel overwhelmed by choices. They try to anticipate what the parent wants and can’t decide what they want. With these children, we need to keep choices simple and use them less often. We must be careful, however, to not always tell pleasing children what to choose. These children need permission to make decisions, try new things, and take risks.

Indecisive children are afraid that if they choose one thing, they’ll miss out on the other option. Always point out that they’ll have another chance to try other options later. They often play the “I can’t decide” game. This game drives even the most sane parent up a wall. It goes like this: “Do you want milk or juice?” “Juice.” “Okay, juice it is . . .” “No! Milk!” “Milk?” “No! Juice!” Get the picture? You want to avoid going in circles trying to please children who have no idea what they want. To promote cooperation without getting sucked into this game:

  1. Use choices less often if the child is going through an indecisive phase. (These periods come and go, often unexpectedly.) During these times, offer only two choices. More choices might overwhelm and confuse the child.
  2. Teach indecisive children simple decision-making tricks, like “eenie, meenie, miney, moe.” They will usually make their finger land on their favorite item or will do it again until they select the choice they really want.
  3. When children finally choose, confirm their choice. Say “Okay, you want cereal, right? Once I pour the milk on the cereal, I expect you to eat it.” Be clear that you are unwilling to be a short-order cook, throw out food, or make multiple meals, because this violates your rights and makes children think the world revolves around them.
  4. When they change their answer say, “Think carefully! You will need to stick with your next answer!” Then give them a minute to think about their options and decide.
  5. If they still can’t decide, add “Either you decide or I’ll decide for you.” This can be a short-term, sanity-saving measure. Still, remember that these are the children who need practice at making choices, so you want to give them opportunities to make choices about other issues.
  6. Follow through with the choice. You may still have an upset child who throws a tantrum. (See the section on tantrums on pages 74–75.) You might still get the I-can’t-decide-game, but stick with your plan. Eventually children learn that when they have a choice to make, they need to think about their options and be sure of their choice before answering. Learning this decision-making skill is much more important than the actual choices the child makes.
  7. If children don’t like the choice they made, acknowledge their disappointment and remind them that they can choose another option next time.


Young children need limited choices. Two simple choices are usually enough. The number of choices can increase as the child’s intellect and maturity develop. Older children need broader choices or it starts power struggles or long negotiations. Teens need open-ended choices. State your bottom line and ask them to come up with a plan. Express your confidence in their ability to make an appropriate decision. Remember to get agreements with specific time frames if the time limit isn’t open-ended.

Children of all ages love choices. They quickly catch on to the change in language. In fact, many parents report that their children start offering them choices! At first, the choices children offer aren’t always fair to the parent. Some parents feel threatened when their children offer them choices, as though parents should only be allowed to come up with options. Instead, encourage children to keep thinking of options and teach them how to offer choices appropriately.


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A Graduate’s Story. My son offered me an interesting choice when it was time to leave the playground. I planned ahead, offering him choices about leaving. He calmly and firmly said, “But I don’t want to leave! You can either let me stay or I’ll scream and cry.” I tried hard not to laugh! I said, “Choices have to meet both people’s needs. I know you are having a lot of fun and don’t want to leave. I also know that Janey will be home from school soon and someone has to be home when she gets there. We can’t stay much longer, but you can choose how you spend the time you have left. You can go on two more rides and have fun or we can leave now. If you decide to scream and cry when it’s time to leave, I’ll know you don’t want to come to the playground the next time we have a free sunny day. It’s up to you.”

Here, the parent not only taught her son how to present appropriate choices, she also revealed the positive and negative effects of his behavior choices (which is part of the Discipline Toolset). Remember, you can teach children how to use the tools you are learning, so they can improve the relationships they have with others.

One final note about choices: Some parents have so much success using choices within limits that they use it in every situation. They forget that in some situations another tool may be more appropriate. Don’t overuse choices or feel you have to give children a choice about everything. Use them within reasonable limits.