Is Bribing Your Child Ever a Good Idea?
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?
Published December 26, 2008.
Last updated August 27, 2018.