This weekend a science writer, Gareth Cook, wrote about using bribery to motivate children. He summarized a recent study and gave some good examples from his own life. I have some thoughts to share about motivating kids.

You cannot make anyone do anything they do not want to do unless you threaten them with violence. I’m sorry but that is just a fact. You cannot make a very young child talk or sleep or eat.  Too often we fall into a trap when we think we can make our children comply. Still, when a child refuses to follow directions the pattern is really predictable.  How often do you catch yourself at the end of the following cycle?

COMMAND –> REFUSAL –> RESTATE COMMAND –> REFUSAL –> RESTATE COMMAND –> (this can repeat many times and is known as nagging)

If the child obeys the command then the cycle ends.

If the child continues to refuse the cycle continues:


Again, at any point if the child complies the cycle can end. Too often the cycle ends with either threats of violence, yelling, or acts of aggression.

This is where parents who spank would say I don’t need to do that.  They know that I will spank them if they don’t do it.” That might get compliance sooner but really that early turn to aggression just shortens the cycle. Really the day will come that parent can no longer use aggression to get compliance. And, the child will have learned to fear the parent but will the child be motivated to keep attending to the parent?

What is a parent to do? Bribery seems such a dirty word. There is evidence, however, that rewards can ruin a child’s own internal motivation. If you pay a child to do something that they have always done for fun and self-pride, they will probably stop after you pay them. The payment seems to cheapen the whole affair.  But what about the things they are not already doing? Does bribery cheapen it? Does it backfire?

Bribery really does work well to increase clearly stated positive behavior, if reinforcement is used smartly. You can use praise, privileges, cheap trinkets and your attention to bribe a child to do something they are not doing. If the prize is too big to refuse you are setting up the child so that they cannot make a choice. They are less likely to learn to value the new behavior. If you reward everything big and small that will also undermine the lessons you are focused on. They child need only wait for the easy shot to get the reward. If you set the goal too high and too far off you will lose the child’s motivation. Hopelessness will set in.

Other lessons learned from using bribery effectively. Children will work really hard for small prizes when it is backed up with sincere praise and positive support. They will test you to see if you have really turned control over to them and see how long it takes to get you to give the the constant attention of a nag cycle described above.

How does praise work best? Clear, specific praise for a specific behavior every single time it happens. Use money, toys, stickers, individual attention, or special privileges (like eating breakfast in PJs; having movie night; a trip to library with Mom all alone) to sweeten the pot when the job is just too hard.