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Is bribing your child ever a good idea?

By Alice Bradley

By Alice Bradley
Another parent at Henry’s school approached me last week with an invitation. Her son Nicolas, Henry’s classmate, would turn 6 the day after Christmas. They had just moved here from Colombia, where they always threw lavish birthday parties that involved the entire neighborhood. Now they only had a handful of friends, she told me, and she didn’t want to have a sad little party for him; it would mean a lot to her if all of Nicolas’s classmates could come. Was Henry available?
Well, with a story like that, how could I say no? And to be honest I didn’t think anything of it. Nicolas is a sweet kid, and he and Henry often played together in the playground. Of course he’d want to go! Right?
Wrong. Shortly after I happily accepted the invitation on Henry’s behalf, I told Henry, and he flipped out. He would never go to Nicolas’s party. Nothing would make him go.
I figured he was just in a bad mood, and I dropped the subject. Surely he’d change his mind. I mean, he’s friends with this kid. What was the problem?
But every time I brought it up—all casual-like, to see if his attitude had shifted—his response was the same. No birthday party, no way. Tears generally ensued.
So today, I cheerfully announced that we’d be going to the party in a couple of hours, and once again, out came the tears and the refusal. I told him the story about how lonely Nicolas was in his new country, but Henry wouldn’t be swayed. For whatever reason, this party was the worst idea ever and there was no way he would go. I told him that going was the right thing to do. How would he feel if no one came to his party? “I WOULD FEEL FINE,” Henry yelled. Appealing to his sense of compassion was going nowhere.
I even tried guilt. I told him I would be disappointed if he refused to go. Let’s just say that he decided that he would live with my disappointment.
What else could I do? For any other kind of obligation—doctor’s appointments, errands—I would just wield my mighty parental authority and tell him he didn’t have much of a choice. But dragging an unhappy kid to a party isn’t doing anyone any favors—least of all the birthday boy. Who wants the King of all Party Poopers dampening the cake with his pitiful sobbing?
So I consulted my sister, who has two grown children who are remarkably well-adjusted. “Bribe him,” she told me. “That’s what I would have done.”
I’m not a big fan of bribery. No one wants the kid whose response to any request is, “What’s in it for me?” We don’t employ a reward system for good behavior; there’s no star chart on the refrigerator; Henry doesn’t get a dollar for every homework assignment he finishes. For most chores or obligations, his pride in his work is reward enough.
On the other hand, I was basically asking him for a favor. This wasn’t something that had to be done; this was a nice thing to do for someone else, and if he did it, was there harm in doing something nice for him in return? And besides, I rationalized, bribery’s such a rare occurrence around these parts that this exception wouldn’t exactly turn him into a greedy monster.
So I did it, Internet. “Look,” I said to him, “I know you really don’t want to go, so how about we do something nice afterward? We could go out for hot chocolate.”
He wiped his tears. “How about ice cream?” he asked. “Sure,” I said. “Ice cream it is.” And so it was agreed.
I’m still not feeling 100% great about this. He could go to this party and refuse to interact with anyone, demand that we leave after fifteen minutes, and then argue that he deserves his ice cream because we never said he had to stay or be nice. On the other hand, he might realize when he’s there that doing the right thing wasn’t so bad after all, that it was fun to see his classmates and that being nice can be its own reward. (In addition to, uh, the ice cream.) Not to mention, it’s not easy to be torn away from your presents on the day after Christmas—that sacred time when you’re supposed to stay in your pajamas all day and only have your play interrupted with meals and the occasional bathroom break. So why not a little ice cream to make his sacrifice that much easier?
What would you have done, dear readers? Have you ever employed bribery, or do you think it’s setting a dangerous precedent?


Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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  • yannayoga

    December 26, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    I think a bribe was a fine thing to do. How did it turn out? I hope he got caught up in having fun once you got there.

  • Anne Prince

    December 26, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    I am a firm believer in no allowances (no one pays ME to clean the toilet) and I don’t pay for grades either (doing your best is your reward). That being said, I do “reward” my kids hondsomely like going to Barnes & Nobles and dropping an obscene amount of money on books for a job well done – however, it is always done at my discretion.
    That being said…however, been there, done that in some type of fashion and agree with your concerns (in theory) – my advice is to get over it, sometimes you just have to do what you got to do.
    I want to know the same an yannayoga – once there, did he have a good time?

  • Donna

    December 26, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    I agree…I think your bribe was perfect. Let us know how it went! 🙂

  • suburbancorrespondent

    December 26, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    Honey, always listen to a parent with 2 grown-up well-adjusted children. Trust me – she knows way more than you (or anyone whose oldest is 5) do (does).
    And you’ll get through this parenting gig much more easily if you don’t think quite so much. Another advantage of having an outrageous number of children – I don’t have time to think about things like that. Just do it!

  • Alice


    December 27, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Oh, SC, if I didn’t think so much, I wouldn’t have anything to write about, would I? 🙂
    The party did not go well, but because of forces out of our control. Namely, a near-feral child in Henry’s class who terrorized all the kids and caused Henry to hide under my skirts and demand that we leave early. But considering that, he behaved admirably and earned his tiny cup of vanilla ice cream, which he was utterly thrilled by. (I was ready to give him something more decadent, but that’s what he wanted.)

  • Marnie

    December 27, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    I’m so sorry it didn’t go well – maybe that’s why Henry didn’t want to go?
    In any case, I belive the word you’re actually looking for is “incentive,” not “bribe.” I absolutely work for incentives. My annual bonus is not a “bribe,” it’s an incentive to work harder, lest I not see a penny of it (which is probably what’s going to happen this year, but anyhoo…). I think incentives are just fine at any age, given the right circumstances. And this was certainly that kind of circumstance, so good for you and Henry and your delicious ice cream incentive!

  • global mama

    December 29, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    Big kudos to you for not regularly relying on bribery! It is all too easy to fall into the habit of promising some little reward or other…but once in a great while couldn’t hurt anybody. I am curious about one thing however — did you ask Henry why he didn’t want to go? That may have been an opportunity to address his resistance directly before moving onto the bribe. Thanks for the post!

  • Issa

    December 29, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    I love bribery. But it has too be used for certain things and not very often. I find that if I use it too often, it loses all of it’s value to them. However, I never bribe with the things I expect. Including doing chores or homework or whatever. That in my world, is just the way of life.
    On this one, had it been me, I might have bribed my kids too. Then again, my daughters are birthday party junkies. I swear they have to go to every single party. Girls are different though.

  • Katie

    December 30, 2008 at 9:41 am

    I have a special ed background and reinforcing good behavior is a strategy often used when teaching students acceptable behavior, often these are in the form of reward sticker charts or earning special activities, etc. So I prefer to call bribing, reinforcing good behavior. Because while no one pays you clean the toilet there are other intrinsic rewards, i.e. not sitting on a filthy toilet seat, so you are too “rewarded” by your work, like everyone who goes to a job is. Not many people will work for free! It definitely isn’t something you want or should use all the time, providing a specific concrete reward but I think in this case it was warranted. Teaching your child compassion and to take other people’s feelings into consideration is a very important life skill you want him to have.
    Did you ever find out why your son didn’t want to go? I agree with Global Mama on that point, and finding out why might have avoided needing to resort to ice cream.

  • cindy

    December 31, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    I say all in moderation….and trust yourself. Sounds like you did both and all is fine….Interesting post..

  • Holly

    January 18, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    ok, so i’ve never read your blog before now (and like it), and just stumble on through some stretch and read this post. quite honestly it sounds like something other than bribery can make this work… well this particular situation seems it’s in the past now… but WHY? Why didn’t your son want to go to the party. what was the reason. It’s hard for kids to express how they feel. Maybe this new kid said something to your son, even in passing and he took it the wrong way and is harboring it inside. Or maybe he is new and taking attention away from your son. (all just random things) I have a 6 year old boy (along with 2 girls) and it seems that when I find out the reason that they want or don’t want to do something. I am better able to understand whatever it is that is going on in their heads, and then they are better to understand what it is I want from them. Of course with my 8, 6, and 3 year olds, each needs a different type of conversation. But there is always a reason. Even if it just appears to be stubbornness. Try that before bribery… and then if necessary… make a “trade”. We all just want to be understood anyhow. That’s my 2 cents.

  • Rebecca

    January 22, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    I think your “incentive” was just perfect, but I am curious as hell to know why Henry was so lights out on going to the party, esp, since he is friends with the kid, plays with him at recess, etc. Please find out for us. Your public wants to know!