Sunday, October 17, 2010

Weekly Column: Bribery Only Works For So Long

My husband walked in the door bearing a plate of giant cookies from a local bakery. Topped with spooky Halloween sprinkles, these cookies looked for all the world like orange and black discs of sweetened bribery.

And that’s exactly how I intended to use them.

I’m not above a good bribe to encourage my children’s participation or obedience. In fact, bribery has become so common in our household, that we frequently use it without a second thought. ‘If you take a good nap, you can watch a video later,’ I’ll dangle on my way out of a darkened bedroom. ‘If you eat all your dinner, you can have a special treat,’ I’ll tease as we sit down at the table.

And usually, it works.

That night, the girls knew the drill before I’d even laid the groundwork.

In between squeals and bouncing leaps, my preschooler and toddler spoke over each other’s excited voices. “Mama! We can have a cookie after dinner! Mama! Daddy brought cookies for when we eat a good dinner! One for her, one for me, and one for you! Cookies for a special treat tonight, mama!”

Smiling serenely, I agreed with them, allowing that they could have cookies when they’d finished their meal. Inside, I was doing my own squeals and leaps; the promise of such a treat was bound to encourage a quick and painless dinnertime from my girls who, on occasion, approach meals as if they were being forced to swallow rotten eggs instead of simple Midwestern fare.

With cookies on the horizon we settled in to enjoy a quiet meal.

We almost made it, too.

By the time our two-year-old had cleaned her plate and started on her glorious cookie, our four-year-old’s dinner was barely touched. She began offering compromises. “How about just three more bites before my cookie,” she offered. “Because I’m not really very hungry tonight.”

When that didn’t work, she resorted to a never-before-seen tactic. “Actually, I don’t need to eat any more dinner. I’m full. I’ll just save my cookie for tomorrow.” And down she hopped from her chair.

For a moment, the happy bribery haze that had been blanketing our kitchen dropped away and everything became stark and hopeless. She didn’t want the cookie. The bribe was meaningless.

What happens next when my tried-and-true method of sneaky convincing becomes tried-and-failed?

I suppose this is the problem with bribery (among other things): desensitization. My fail-proof special treats given for a non-confrontational meal only work for so long before they become worthless. My daughter knows that special treats are not actually special because they’re offered after every dinner. She’ll go ahead and skip her vegetables, and catch the next guaranteed bribery offer that comes along.

She knows she won’t have to wait long.

Beware falling into the pit of over-used bribes, lest you also find yourself up against a hollow system. I’d hate to see you flailing about for a way to encourage a meal without your established plan of bribery. It just isn’t pretty.

The thing is, my parenting methods aren’t perfect. I try hard and occasionally stumble across something that works, but just as often, my attempts are proven wrong. My bribes become void. My rules need tweaking. My approach is forced to shift.

And that’s one of the amazingly forgiving parts of being a parent, isn’t it? We hold onto habits or ideas until they stop working, and then it’s okay to let them go. Parenting is a process. It evolves. It requires evolution.

So my ‘encouraging’ methods will have to evolve.

Here we go again. (Any suggestions?)

[Online version here.]


  1. I give Lauren (she's the only child with eating issues . . . it must be a girl thing!) a choice: eat your dinner or go to bed. If she's being particularly horrid and taking even longer than her normal eternity to finish eating, I will set the kitchen timer for 10 minutes. (A reasonable amount of time to eat six green beans, no?) If the food is not gone when the timer beeps, she goes to bed. Her choice.

    I agree with your analysis of bribes and have experienced the same thing myself. A bribe used sparingly is much more effective.

  2. I hide the veggies in food he likes. Then I save the bribes for other stuff. :)

  3. Wait, wait, go're not actually thinking about GIVING UP ON BRIBES, are you?

    Seriously, Sarah, we can fix this! Katherine did the same thing once, so we instituted random, unannounced "no dessert nights" a few times a week. The shock of eating a good dinner and then receiving an "I'm sorry honey, it's just not a dessert night tonight" makes those every-single-other-night "special treats" seem special once more.

    Besides, with no dessert nights on the horizon, well--if skip your cookie now, how can you be sure you'll have a chance at it again tomorrow? She'll be eating in no time!

  4. Yep Savannah's has the same choice as Beck's kiddo well sorta. Savannah is offered whatever it is we are eating for dinner and if she doesn't eat it, she doesn't eat, end of story. It took me a while to actually accept this...but if she's hungry bedtime will be a disaster...or if she's hungry she won't sleep well..
    We've done this enough nights to know she's not going to starve herself-even if she refuses dinner most nights, she does however usually eat a very good breakfast ;)

  5. I don't inforce the whole eat your dinner thing, I guess I just think they are either hungry or they are not. And we hardly ever have dessert, so I guess I don't have the dilemma of wondering if I should give them dessert when they didn't finish their food.

  6. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?