Do You Bribe Your Children? God Doesn’t!

In a previous article, Are You a Patiently Buff Parent?, I suggested that too many of us parents ask the wrong question:

“How can I get my child to do or stop doing ______________ (fill in the blank)?”

If we start with this question then we will likely get answers that focus primarily on behavior or action, and not on character or the process of becoming. Granted, actions and character are—or at least should be—linked together. As Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the Presidency of the Seventy stated:

To be and to do are inseparable. As interdependent doctrines they reinforce and promote each other. Faith inspires one to pray, for example, and prayer in turn strengthens one’s faith. Do without be [is] hypocrisy—portray[ing] a false image to others, while be without do portrays a false image to oneself.

Beware the Carrot!

Far too much of the parenting advice out there is creating generations of hoop-jumpers—folks who go through the motions without true purpose or conviction. Yet for the most part, we parents gobble up these ideas because we can get immediate results (or behaviors). When our kids behave, we feel like we’re finally doing things right.

One of the two primary ways to get kids to do or stop doing what we demand is the bribe. Bribes/rewards, in essence, are dangling something that the child values out in front of him or her to fulfill our requests or expectations. We usually refer to the carrot as the dangling item, but I know that none of my children are doing anything for a carrot . . . that’s probably closer to a punishment (which I’ll address in future articles). For your kids, perhaps the bribe is candy, money, gadgets, or something else tantalizing.

The Pizza Ticket Isn’t Much Better

Unfortunately, bribes come with many unintended unintended short and long term consequences. This article could really be a novel filled with research, doctrine, and personal stories illustrating the drawbacks of bribes and artificial rewards. But for now, this post will have to be a little teaser to get your attention. 🙂 I will have my 6-year-old daughter, Naomi, demonstrate what I am about to share. In a candid moment, I was able to interview Naomi without her knowledge as I held the phone casually below my chest. Notice Naomi’s enthusiasm for pizza  . . . not reading.

Let’s be honest, if I have to bribe my child to do something then they clearly don’t see the value in it. But we parents usually do see the value. What Naomi—and research—teaches us is the action or endeavor we value becomes a “blah, blah, blah” when an artificial reward is involved because they only care about the “pizza ticket.” Doing a task because you want to is very different than doing it because you want somethingAlfie Kohn summarized the mountain of research on rewards this way:

The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.

Besides reading and pizza tickets, we can all think of other examples where this is true:

  • Grade-focused students are less concerned about actual real learning;
  • Boy scouts that are compelled to get their Eagle with a reward will probably get it and only it;
  • Getting paid to read scriptures will likely lead to more scripture reading and less likely to produce testimony (see Randall L. Ridd).

The Lord Seeth Not as Man Seeth

I’ve heard all of the challenges to this—trust me! Everything from: “But the Lord uses rewards!” to “But it works!” As I said earlier, I don’t have the space in this blog to address all of the “yeah, buts,” but I can give you some doctrinal appetizers. Listen to what Elder David A. Bednar has to say when asked how to motivate people beyond their perceived capabilities:

The only motivation that matters is the one that comes from within!

This is not to say that you should avoid all rewards at all times; but perhaps we should use them sparingly for low-level behaviors (e.g., potty training). To reemphasize the quote from President Ezra Taft Benson:

The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in…The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.

Reflect Before You Correct

If you are appropriately skeptical at this point and asking: “What am I supposed to do instead?” Stay tuned and keep reading my posts. But for now, I will invite you to ask yourself and reflect on the following questions regarding the requests and expectations you have for your children:

  • Where is the line between treating my child as an agent—working with, and treating them as an object—doing to? Are bribes or rewards considered a form of control and compulsion (see D&C 121:37)
  • Are my requests or expectations more for me or for them? (see D&C 121:37)
  • What are the long- term, doctrinal reasons for why I want my child to ____________?
  • What natural or intrinsic reward is already built in to the activity and how can I help my child discover that for him or herself?

I realize that most children won’t see the value in something from the get-go but we don’t have to ruin any chances they will see the value by buying it off. One alternative to bribes when they have to but don’t want to comes from Mary Poppins. “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.” This requires mental and spiritual exertion on the parents part. This also teaches children how to find fun and purpose in mundane things as they grow older.

So what else do we do instead of bribe? We need to remember that the our Father’s parenting style is higher than mans (Isaiah 55:8-9) and He has instituted laws that govern the most natural and authentic rewards and consequences that are designed to change character, produce joy, and ultimately become as He is (D&C 130:20-21). That is the beginning of the answer of what to do instead. Stay tuned for more alternatives.

In the meantime, you can watch a presentation I gave at the World Congress of Families in 2015 titled: “Become a Good Person…or Else!” I address how carrots and sticks (rewards and punishments) in the school system is also ineffective.



3 Replies to “Do You Bribe Your Children? God Doesn’t!”

  1. But to be fair, nothing motivates the young men to prepare for each lesson like the promise of a bag of Snickers, and I have seen remarkable results because of it.
    Bribing to the point of motivating by nothing else leads to little spiritual growth, yes, but adding an incentive to an already spiritually directed goal can lead to habits and preparation that are tricky to achieve otherwise.

    1. I know how tough it can be. It can be brutal with young men. I am serving as young men’s president right now. I have found that if I push myself a little more to get to know the young men individually, connect with them, and then teach the why behind what is expected of them, they typically come around. Methods that don’t demand too much of me and get fairly easy results raise a red flag for my own personal development. I invite you to watch the Elder Bednar clip again and again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *