Bribes Don’t Change Behaviors

Have you noticed that while bribes and threats may give short-term results with children, their behavior changes never seem to last? I have discovered this with my own children—it’s easy to look for a quick fix when a challenging behavior rears its ugly head, but sometimes a quick fix can turn on you.

When my middle daughter was two, we used to take weekly Saturday morning trips to the grocery store. Often, these trips went poorly, but on one sunny morning I was sure we could make it through without trouble. My daughter was very engaged in the shopping, talking with me about the food we were choosing, and I hoped my prediction might be correct.

Just about the time I started to relax, my daughter began to get squirmy. Out came the bribe: “If you can be very good while we’re here, I will buy you a candy bar at the end.” And it worked…for about five minutes. Soon she was trying to climb out of the cart, tearing packages, and crying her eyes out!

Next came the threat. “If you keep acting like this, I will never take you to the store again!” She gave me tearful promises that she would behave, but continued to make a scene, defeating my attempts to calm her down.

At last, a miracle happened. Right as we approached the candy bar display, my daughter’s tears dried up. She sat up in the cart and smiled at me. “Look Mom, I am being good!” I realized that she was right…at that moment she was being “good.”

That day I took a long hard look at my response to her challenging behavior. I needed to consider my part in perpetuating that behavior. Is weekly shopping on a Saturday too much for a two year old? (Yes, it is!) I needed to look at why and how I could change this situation—something that we need to examine whether we’re dealing with children of our own or children in our child care programs.

On subsequent shopping trips, I adjusted my behavior so she would adjust hers. When I asked her to behave, I specified the behavior that was not acceptable, and gave her a logical consequence for that behavior. “If you get out of the cart again, we will need to leave the store.”  And just as importantly, I followed through—if she got out again, I left the store instead of continuing to offer bribes or threats.

And guess what? It worked for me! When I stopped doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I finally got the behavior I was looking for.

3 thoughts on “Bribes Don’t Change Behaviors

  1. Maggie Macaulay

    Great article! My favorite line is “I needed to consider my part in perpetuating that behavior.” A description and link to your article will be in the June 21st issue of Parenting News, our free weekly newsletter for parents and teachers. I hope it brings many readers your way!

    Thanks for the terrific post-
    Maggie Macaulay, MS Ed

  2. Pingback: Deborah Fry » Blog Archive » Parenting News You Can Use! July 5, 2011

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