I Bribe My Kids And I’m Not Sorry

It works, and it makes my life easier.

Mother and baby girl playing together.
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When my kids were younger, I was obsessed with Supernanny. It was a reality TV show where parents struggling to get their kids to listen would ask an experienced, no-nonsense British woman named Jo Frost to come into their home, observe what was going on, and give the parents some tough love about why they were so stressed about their “difficult” kids.

I’d put them to bed and sit on the sofa, taking notes in my head. Her methods seemed to work, and I needed all the help I could get because I had three kids in three years and a husband who worked long hours.

One episode struck me hard: A woman with three kids who felt like she had lost control. They showed clips of her kids refusing to do anything she asked. Frost explained that she was entirely against negotiating. In other words, bribery was out, and giving them consequences for not listening was the only way to go. Fair enough.

A few days later, though, I was at the doctor’s office with my three kids and husband. Each of us was carrying a child, and our oldest was racing around like his hair was on fire, refusing to get on the elevator. “If you get on the elevator with us, you can have a lollipop!” my husband said to him. We’d both already had enough, and we’d been in that office for less than five minutes.

“Don’t negotiate with him!” I yelled, standing tall on my soapbox. My husband looked back like he didn’t recognize me. I had completely changed our parenting style without telling him. My oldest got onto the elevator and cooperated for the rest of the grueling doctor’s visit, then promptly reminded us about the lollipop when we were done. I ended up giving it to him, and I felt like a failure.

According to the Supernanny, this is how your kids learn to take advantage of you and become the boss in your house. This is how to raise a child who knows no boundaries, who will grow to be a master manipulator. And so I tried to stop the bribery with my kids. I threatened to take away dessert or stories if they didn’t do what they were told. But more often than not, it was a disaster. Kids get caught up in the moment and decide they can go without a cookie or a story if it means they get to race down the grocery store aisle.

Finally, I let my ego go and shined up my bribery skills because I was so damn tired. But also, you know what? Bribery works. Kids are more likely to cooperate with you if they know there will be a shiny treat waiting for them at the end. Getting something positive for good behavior versus having something taken away for bad behavior, gives them a lot more incentive to make your life easier.

I used bribery whenever I could: long car rides, trips to the library, and whenever we had company over. I offered extra screen time, candy, a happy meal, and sleeping in my room for the night. It worked like a charm, and life got pretty manageable with three toddlers. I took the incentive away if they didn’t hold up to their end of the bargain, and it didn’t take long for them to realize I meant what I said. I saw Supernanny shaking her finger at me every time, but I stopped caring. She wasn’t going to tell me how to live my life.

Now that they are teens, I still use my old bribery tricks. I promise my teenage daughter a Starbucks if she goes grocery shopping with me and helps me with the list. I give my son money to go out to eat with his friends if he washes and vacuums my car regularly. And if they get good grades, I pay them.

As a parent, bribery has been my friend. It worked when my kids were little, and it works now that they are teenagers. We all deserve a little treat for doing hard things. I like to get a Coke Zero after a hard workout, and it’s a good way to get myself to do a dreaded chore like cleaning the bathrooms.

Take it from a mom who’s tried to go without bribery: just do it. Your life will be a lot easier.

Katie Bingham-Smith is a full-time freelance writer living in Maine with her three teens and two ducks. When she’s not writing she’s probably spending too money online and drinking Coke Zero.