Several researchers have established what most parents know, but probably don’t like to admit to themselves: Bribing is bad. Kids learn to expect a reward, and when the reward no longer exists, their task becomes that much more unappealing.

It makes sense, right? But faced with stubborn children, each day can feel like a battle, and a teensy bribe can eliminate what will otherwise become a power struggle. At least, that’s how we rationalize bribing.

In a recent “New York Times” article, Bruce Feiler admits to bribing his kids with “appalling regularity.” So he consults psychologists on viable alternatives – and how to soften the ill effects of bribes when it seems that nothing else will work. Here are their recommendations:

Talk it out. The University of Rochester’s Dr. Edward Deci recommends parents make sure to talk their children through a task they don’t want to perform instead of immediately resorting to bribes or threats. Tell your child why putting on his coat is important. (“It’s cold outside! You don’t want to be cold while you’re playing.”) Then listen to and acknowledge their protests. (“I know you don’t like wearing your coat, but it’s important to wear it when it’s cold.”) Third, skip words or phrases that sound like you’re trying to control you’re child – “You must wear your coat” makes them think you’re simply telling them to do something because you can.

Keep it fun. Yale’s Alan Kazdin recommends turning an undesirable task into a game. It works because children feel like they have a choice to play, and are more likely to react positively. For instance, if a child won’t eat their vegetables:


First, take the pressure off by telling them they don’t have to eat vegetables now but just keep them on their plate. “You tell them they’re probably going to want to eat vegetables when they’re older, because there’s a nice little challenge in there,” he said.

Then you offer a point to whomever can put the least amount of vegetables on their fork. The next day you have a competition for who can touch the fork to their tongue and you escalate from there.

Use now-that, not if-then. Daniel Pink, author of a book on whether short-term incentives work, says children rebel against what they perceive as a parental desire to control them. The key is giving rewards spontaneously and only after a task is completed instead of dangling them as a carrot. They should also be the exception, not the rule, or “they can quickly turn into an entitlement,” Pink says.

Don’t skimp on praise. Stanford’s Dr. Carol Dweck says praise is usually enough reward for a child, but it needs to be specific. Instead of using a standard-issue “Good job,” focus on the effort a child had to exert to complete a task: “You were really thorough when you picked up those toys.”

Use bribes if necessary, but do it sparingly. All of the experts say an occasional bribe won’t do any long-term damage, but reserve them for stressful situations where it will be hard to talk to your child – meltdowns at church or in the doctor’s office, for instance. Then be sure to talk to them about their poor behavior when you can, even if it has to wait a day, Deci says.

Do you bribe your children, or do you plan to? Can you imagine parenting without using bribes?