Who hasn't promised their kids a treat, toy or activity if they will just behave, stop crying, try something new, or not otherwise drive adults around them bonkers? Most parents occasionally fall into the trap of bribes as a disciplinary tactic, usually to avoid an embarrassing, disruptive, or even downright mortifying event involving their child. But does bribing (or "rewarding" a child, if you want to say it more nicely) truly work?
The answer is yes ... and no. Bribes almost always work in the short-term. Parents routinely tell their tots that if they will go to the store with them and stay in the grocery cart seat without a fuss then they will let them pick out some candy or treat when checking out. Then they hang the "reward" over the youngster's head every time the kid reaches out in the aisles or starts to whine. As long as the child remains at least mostly-civil, the dangling carrot is then bestowed at the end of the trip. Not so bad, eh?
The problem with a bribe, however, is that kids are quite smart. It doesn't take them but a mere minute to figure out that a reward in the form of a treat or toy should be given EVERY time they go to the store with a parent. And that's the problem with this short-term discipline fix. In the end, the kid is controlling the parent by choosing whether to behave or not. As these kids get older, they may actually begin to demand rewards and with bigger price tags. What starts out as a candy bar can soon escalate to a $10 toy and then progress to a new video game ... you know how it goes.
So, what to do? Child experts recommend that offering a child an incentive to mind can be okay, within reason. The key is to not tie it into food or a purchased item. Rather, it should be something like an outing to the park, playing a favorite game back at home, or getting to stay up 10 minutes later before going to bed. Plus, rather than offering a reward (a.k.a. "bribe") at the store, turn it around by outlining your expectations. For example, you can tell a tot that your plans are to go to the grocery store and then put away all the food back at home. If your child behaves appropriately, you'll then head out to the park for some outdoor fun. If he can't control his behavior, you should tell him ahead of time then that means he must be tired, and he will have to take a nap instead.
Resist using the words "reward" and instead just outline appropriate behaviors. That leaves you with more room to delight your tot with an unexpected activity, or even a surprise trip to the snow cone stand. Then, all you have to say is that you were just so very proud of how he acted at a certain event or activity. This way, your child will clamor for your positive reinforcement and genuine happiness without expecting a certain reward at the end of the day. That puts you back in control of discipline, praise, and any special efforts you choose on behalf of your child.