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Thread: NYT Article on rewards, bribes, and threats

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    Default NYT Article on rewards, bribes, and threats

    Train a Parent, Spare a Child.

    SOMEONE asked me recently what my New Year’s resolution was as a parent. Without thinking, I said, “more creative bribing.”

    I find the issue of bribing children — or to be more precise, the giving of blunt, uncreative rewards for desired behavior (“If you just stop kicking that seat in front of you on the plane, I’ll give you 10 minutes of iPad time”; “Clean your room this weekend, I’ll give you 10 bucks”; “If you use good manners at Grandma’s house, I’ll let you have an extra brownie”) — to be one of the more nagging challenges of being a parent.

    On one hand, I’ve read a small library of articles that have laid out with undeniable persuasiveness evidence that giving children tangible rewards — from money to sweets to an extra hour before bedtime — not only doesn’t work in the long term, it actually has a negative effect on them. As early as the 1960s, Edward Deci, then a psychology graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, showed that when external rewards are given, subjects “lose intrinsic interest for the activity.”

    More recently, Daniel Pink, in his best-selling book “Drive,” reviewed four decades of research and concluded that offering short-term incentives to elicit behavior is unreliable, ineffective and causes “considerable long-term damage.” (The main downside: People perform the task merely to get the reward; when the reward is removed, they stop doing it.)

    So I got it: bribing is bad. And yet I, my wife and nearly every other parent I know resorts to this tactic with appalling regularity. As one father said to me recently when we were discussing our approaches to parenthood: “My philosophy is simple: threats and bribes.”

    So what’s a beleaguered parent to do? I reached out to some of the harshest critics of bribing for tips on making my resolution come true.

    THE TALKING CURE Dr. Deci, now a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, said the biggest problem with tangible rewards is that they actually work, at least in the short run. “If you want somebody to do something, and if you have enough money, you can get them do it,” he said. “Practically anyone, practically anything.”

    But with children, he pointed out, since you are trying to get them to do the behavior “more or less ongoingly for the rest of their lives,” the technique will backfire unless you’re prepared to offer the same reward every time. “You don’t want them coming to you when they’re grown,” he said.

    Dr. Deci recommends a three-step alternative. First, be clear about why what you’re asking them do is important. Second, be interested in their point of view. “If it’s something they hate doing, acknowledge that, tell them you understand it’s not fun, yet the reason they need to do it is as follows,” he said. Finally, communicate in a way that’s not controlling. “Don’t use words like ‘should,’ ‘must’ and ‘have to,’ ” he said. “All of those things that convey to them you’re a big person trying to push around a little person.”

    MAKE IT A GAME Alan Kazdin, the director of the Yale Parenting Center, said the problem with incentives is they focus too much attention on the desired result instead of the behavior that leads up to the result. “You can’t throw rewards at behaviors that don’t exist and get them,” he said. “If someone says I will match your retirement fund if you perform a flamenco dance right now, my reaction is, ‘Great, but it turns out I can’t do that.’ You have to develop the behavior very, very gradually.”

    For example, if you want your children to eat more vegetables, he said, instead offering them $10 to do so (a technique I once stooped to, I confess), he suggested turning the process into a game. 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. “The research is very clear,” he said. “Choice is related to getting compliance in any behavior, but psychologists distinguish between real choice and the illusion of choice. Real choice doesn’t make a difference; it’s the feeling of choice.”

    SWITCH FROM IF-THEN REWARDS TO NOW-THAT Mr. Pink said the problem with bribing is not the rewards; it’s the contingency, which is a form of control. “Human beings have only two reactions to control,” he said. “They comply or they defy. I don’t think most parents want compliant children, and I don’t think they want defiant children. They want children who are active, engaged and motivated by deeper things.”

    He recommends replacing what he calls if-then rewards with now-that rewards, meaning the prize is giving spontaneously and after the fact. “Let’s say your kid’s room is a complete, utter mess, and you say, ‘Fred, you really need to clean your room, or you’re not going to be able to find anything,’ ” Mr. Pink said. “And maybe Fred does clean his room and really works hard at it. There’s no harm in then saying, ‘You did a great job. Let’s go out for a milkshake.’ ”

    Mr. Pink cautioned that after-the-fact rewards should be given sparingly, as they can quickly turn into an entitlement.

    PRAISE IS REWARD ENOUGH If you do give rewards occasionally and unexpectedly, what type of rewards are best? Is there a preferred choice among money, treats or quality time? Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, said while there is no empirical research to suggest a qualitative difference, she recommends having children pick the reward rather than the adult foisting it on them. “It feels more integral to the process and gives the child a sense of ownership.”

    Having said that, research clearly suggests that praise is usually a sufficient reward, she said. Dr. Dweck suggests parents make their praise specific, and focus on the process the child went through to achieve the behavior, not merely the behavior itself. “You could say, ‘I really liked the way you waited patiently for me to finish my phone call, because you understood that phone call was important,’ ” she said. “Or, ‘I really liked how you expressed gratitude to Grandma, just like you appreciate it when I thank you for doing something for me.’ ”

    I was surprised and, frankly, relieved that all the experts I spoke with said it’s O.K. to resort to old-fashioned, blunt rewards on occasion. If you simply must get that child on the plane or it will take off without you, or if you absolutely need that child to stop misbehaving so you can speak to the doctor, go ahead, bribe away. As Dr. Deci told me, “If you’re under a lot of stress or in a bad place, then having a conversation at that moment is not going to work.”

    But, he emphasized, don’t let the situation end there. “You need to sit down the next afternoon when everyone’s calm, talk it through from both sides, then discuss ways so the behavior doesn’t happen again,” he said. “Always use the blow up as a learning moment the next day.”

    And that, in the end, may be the biggest lesson of all. While my New Year’s resolution started out as a way to get better results from my children, the real person I needed to retrain was myself.
    Last edited by 3andMe; 01-26-2013 at 09:48 AM.

  2. #2


    I like it!

  3. #3


    To my surprise (and relief b/c our method has been bothering me), we're actually doing something right for once. My husband instituted "chomping contests" where they race to see who can eat the bite of green beans or whatever faster. It's not so much to get him to eat vegetables but to get him to eat at all: some meals, he just won't have anything even though we know he should be hungry (as evidenced by him asking for food an hour later and even in bed). So the races to eat (along with the "baby brachisaurus needs to eat his trees and leaves to get big and strong") seem to have worked. It's a chore though. Better than the frustration otherwise, but I have been worried that this was worse than bribery. Score one for my husband. Lol, he'll be thilled to hear (several times, I'm sure) that he was right.

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    I do wonder sometimes if these experts have any kids, whether they actually use these techniques in real life, and how these things work in RL. I do like the ideas, and use them too, but there absolutely are non-emergency circumstances where these techniques would fail, and leaving things undone is not an option.

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    Jun 2008


    I do admit that it works to an extent but I know it does not work even 50% of the time with my 3 year old. Now my 14 year old niece we can do this. In fact we took away the internet a week and a half ago but because she cleaned her room to perfection (well for her) and even cleaned up the kitchen, I was so gleeful that I told her she got to go on for 2 hours today. Which she learned she didnt miss it as much as she thought and only used an hour of it. I know I have used bribery to get DS to do things but I try not to and to work with him by talking it out.

    Very interesting article and as a psychology major I can see the psychologist's points.

    Sammi(me)~DH(Troy)~DS(Kyle)~DD(Rebecca)My Blog

  6. #6
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    Dec 2007


    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing

    Jeanne, mom to Dev0n (6) Isabe11e (5) and C0rbin (3.5) Vio1et (almost 2)

  7. #7


    Oh, loved it, thanks for sharing!

    I'm not sure I've ever really bribed Maiya with anything... But I guess that's easy at only 2 1/2! I don't tend to make things in to games, either, but let her if she wants. Though I do like to reward her after the fact. But my favorite is when SHE rewards herself! That doesn't happen often, but I get the feeling that's the most effective.

    Like, after her doctor's appointment, she kept telling herself "I was so good for the doctor!" and I would whole heartedly agree and give her hugs and high fives... That was about 2 (maybe 3) months ago, and she STILL sometimes brings it up!

  8. #8


    I know I've used bribery when I'm out in public with them and outnumbered "If you guys are well behaved we can go to the toy area when we're done getting groceries." But I've been trying to stop doing it. At meal time they are given food and told that that is their dinner and if they are hungry they should eat it because there will not be any more food after dinner. That has mixed results but I refuse to force, bribe or otherwise coerce my kids to eat if they don't want to.
    Megan (29) and Jayson (31) Happily married 9 years

  9. #9
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    Apr 2007


    Quote Originally Posted by Suja View Post
    I do wonder sometimes if these experts have any kids, whether they actually use these techniques in real life, and how these things work in RL. I do like the ideas, and use them too, but there absolutely are non-emergency circumstances where these techniques would fail, and leaving things undone is not an option.
    I agree.

    I think bribing has a wide range of definitions. I never thought of "if/then" statements as bribing. Life is all if/then statements. If you work then you make money. If you make money then you can pay for shelter, food, and clothing. If you make more money then you will be able to buy more things. If you eat then you wont be hungry anymore. If you break the rules then you will suffer a consequence.

    I also don't see where rewards are a bad thing. Sure $10 to put your clothes in the hamper is extreme. It's instinctual to desire a reward for your efforts. Animals hunt and are rewarded with food. We work and are rewarded with money. Kids behave and are rewarded with positive praise or privileges.

    I know every kid is different but i don't see this working for most and I just don't think I buy how terrible they are making it out to be. That is, the if then statements. Extreme threats and bribes I could see having a negative effect but I don't think rewarding your child with something other than praise is going to make them never want to do anything without getting a reward in return.
    Last edited by macksmom; 01-27-2013 at 07:27 PM. Reason: awful typos!

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