I grew up on a cattle ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After spending nearly 20 years working as a copywriter in advertising, my first book, Confessions of a Slacker Mom, came out in spring of 2004 and made the San Francisco Chronicle's best-seller list. My second book, Confessions of a Slacker Wife, was released in spring of 2005.

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Brush Your Teeth and I’ll Buy You a Car

There was an interesting article the other day from the Associated Press about how parents use rewards, more inelegantly known as bribes, to get their kids to do what they want. One downside of this approach, of course, is that by continually giving your kids presents — or as many parents do, cold hard cash — in exchange for their acceptable behavior, you might run out of money before said kids ever get out of the house and on their own. The bigger downside, though, according to the experts quoted in the article, is that your kids will never be ABLE to get out of the house and on their own because of the hefty sense of entitlement they’ll have been raised with.

“If I get to the office on time tomorrow, what will you give me?” probably won’t strike just the right chord with the boss.

Still, I admit to having used bribes in the course of raising our two kids, Belle and Joe. At times it’s just seemed like the quickest and most practical way of getting what I wanted. But one problem I’ve encountered, and something the article specifically addressed, is the escalating nature of the bribery system. Like any extortionist, your child quickly learns that they can systematically up the ante. Yesterday I behaved for a handful of jelly beans; today it’ll cost you a flat-screen TV.

What’s worse, perhaps, is I’ve noticed that this approach tends to cause both my kids and me to lose sight of what the point is in behaving a certain way. It would be so much more meaningful to try and get good grades because you’ve grasped the fact that it’s associated with learning more and creates greater opportunities for you, not so you can get five bucks from mom and dad. Maybe it’s better to do the right thing, in other words, for the real-life rewards that inherently go along with that, not for the unrelated prizes thought up by your parents.

As Marcy Safyer, director of the Adelphi University Institute for Parenting, put it, “What often gets lost for people is being able to figure out how to communicate to their kids that doing the thing is rewarding enough.”

I give two thumbs up to the idea of real-life consequences, be they rewards or punishments. What naturally results from behaving well or poorly does indeed seem like the best way for a person to make up their own minds about how they want to act.

But Belle and Joe are only 7 and 8, and sometimes real-life consequences don’t persuade these little knuckleheads. The fact that they need a certain amount of fiber in their diets for proper bowel function and long-term heart health means exactly squat to them, and thus I find myself dangling a bowl of ice cream in exchange for the eating of peas.

I try not to overuse it, but I guess I’ve justified that kind of bribery to myself. I think there are two kinds of bribery, though. One is the kind which was covered by the AP article, the kind that can quickly escalate to unwieldy dimensions, the kind that goes, “Behave in this restaurant and I’ll buy you a lava lamp.” But the kind they didn’t cover, and which I’ve discovered can often be even more effective, goes like this: “If you DON’T behave in this restaurant we will get up and leave and you might not be allowed to go out to dinner with us in the future.” In other words, if you’re good you won’t get in big trouble — how’s that for an awesome reward?

I’ve justified that kind of bribery to myself, too, because I think it’s not only effective as a way of influencing my kids’ behavior, it’s also preparing them for real-life consequences, for the way things work in the real world. That way, if they ever do say to their boss, “If I get to the office on time tomorrow, what will you give me?” maybe they won’t be surprised when he answers, “Nothing, but if you DON’T get to the office on time tomorrow, you’ll be looking for another job.”

Ah yes, not getting fired — now there’s an awesome reward, and one I’d certainly like my kids to be familiar with someday.

– Muffy


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