Q: Should I stop using bribes to motivate my children, ages 6 and 8? I pay my son $2 to practice the piano. I often promise my daughter...
Q: Should I stop using bribes to motivate my children, ages 6 and 8? I pay my son $2 to practice the piano. I often promise my daughter a new toy for cleaning her bedroom. I used candy for potty training. I’m tired of it. Shouldn’t kids do chores without expecting a reward? Aren’t there some tasks that are simply expected?
A: Bribes are embedded in your relationship with your children, part of your parenting repartee. Stopping this will be difficult but not impossible.
But let’s not use the word “bribe.” Doesn’t “incentive” sound better?
Incentives need to motivate the child to change an established, negative habit to a new, positive one. Once the new habit is formed, the child no longer receives the incentive.
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In order to teach a child to use the toilet, for example, some parents use incentives to change the diaper habit. “When you pee in the toilet, I’ll give you a penny. When you poop in the toilet, I’ll give you a nickel.” If the child continues to go in diapers, the incentive plan is not working.
Once the child becomes accustomed to dry and clean underwear, the external reward is no longer needed.
Incentives should be temporary, and you shouldn’t need to up the ante. Say, for instance, that you want your child to tidy her bedroom every day before school. You expect her to make her bed, put dirty clothes in the hamper and put away clothes and toys scattered around the room. For this you’ll give her a sticker, and at the end of the week she’ll collect 25 cents for each sticker on the chart.
In this case, keep in mind that you’re offering her a choice. The child can choose not to tidy the bedroom, and not receive the money. Once tidying the bedroom daily becomes a habit, then you no longer need the chart and the financial reward. It typically takes three days to three weeks to change a negative habit into a positive one.
What if the child says, “Now I want 50 cents for tidying my bedroom?” Your response is “No.” Communicate that a tidy bedroom is expected.
Some parents would never offer an incentive for this task. They would simply teach the child in small steps how to tidy his or her bedroom and expect the child to complete the tasks each morning. The parents would need to oversee the child’s efforts at first, be persistent in their expectations and ignore any whining and pouting along the way. In time the task would become part of the child’s routine.
Also, the parent would need to show pride for the completed job: “Your room looks so nice. Everything is in its place. I’m proud of you. I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
In this regard, one mom and dad instilled the expectation of helping with dinner dishes. They made this rule: No one leaves the kitchen until the dishes are done; everyone helps. They made it fun, but the expectation was clear.
Incentives create an attitude of, “What’s in it for me?” Understand that you, as the parent, are a powerful force in the life of your child. Sometimes “what’s in it for the child” is the parents’ smiling face of approval, which in many cases is enough to motivate a child to cooperate.
It’s OK to use incentives occasionally. They are one tool in your parenting toolbox. Use an external reward until the positive skill is internalized by the child, at which time the child views completing the task or acquiring the positive behavior as a reward in itself.
Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers readers’ questions on parenting and development in her column.
E-mail her at email@example.com or write to: Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.
More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists