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How to 'reverse bribe' your child

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Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) An ice cream truck customer holds his purchase in Boston, Mass. The goal of "reverse bribery," Hamm writes, is to disassociate personal success and normal, expected behavior from special “treats.”

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Have you ever had a two year old repeatedly attempt to climb out of a bathtub while you were trying to give that child a bath? You end up covered in soap and at the end of your rope.

Our youngest child is well into the “terrible twos.” As anyone who’s had a child can relate to, there’s this period between the ages of two and three where a child really begins to explore his or her boundaries and they learn that they can, in fact, refuse to do something that’s requested of them.

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There are a lot of techniques out there for dealing with this. With almost every technique, there’s a tradeoff. One might be the best long-term solution, but it requires time and patience. Others might be much easier, but they embed questionable long-term ideas in his head.

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Naturally, one of the solutions for dealing with a difficult child is bribery. For example, I might offer him an extra bedtime story if he stops rebelling in the bathtub at night. 

Bribery is a very simple and effective solution to an immediate problem. The child is sated with the idea of receiving a reward, and the parent no longer has to deal with this mini-crisis.

The problem with bribery is that it sets up a long-term expectation for a reward in exchange for something that should be expected behavior.

Bribery in early childhood grows directly into a sense in early adulthood that you deserve a “treat” for just completing the basic expectations of life – finishing your work day or so on. It’s a very expensive precedent to start setting in a child’s life.

This is our third child to go through the “terrible twos,” so rather than offering bribery for behaving well, our approach is what we call “reverse bribery.”

First, we explain in very clear terms what is expected of the child. The idea is that “normal” means things like taking a bath without climbing out and without throwing soap. I’ll spell out exactly what he’s supposed to do when it’s bathtime so that there’s no question of him not understanding what’s expected.

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If the rebelling continues, I’ll stop, look him directly in the eye, and tell him that he knows what he’s supposed to be doing, that this is what people do when it’s bathtime, and I usually use his parents and his older siblings as role models for how to behave.

If that doesn’t end it, I’ll simply tell him that we will put his favorite toy up for the whole day tomorrow and he won’t be able to play with it if he can’t do what’s expected of him.

Rather than bribing him, we reverse the story. If he behaves in a good, normal way, he keeps his privileges. If he rebels, he loses them.

He does not gain a thing by rebelling. The only outcome is losing something.

We’re carrying this lesson forward with our older children. They’re learning new skills and helping out more and more around the house all the time. When they pick up on a new responsibility, they’re not bribed for continuing it. They’re expected to continue it and, if they do not, they tend to lose something they already have.

The key? Neither good nor bad behavior is associated with purchasing something new.

As much as we can, we want to disassociate personal success and normal, expected behavior from special “treats.” Normal behavior is how you act all the time – it’s expected. Succeeding at something is a reward unto itself.

Will we ever resort to bribery? Perhaps on a small scale – no parent is perfect and there are always frustrating situations. However, it’s not our policy and we have other tactics in place to deal with those problems, tactics that teach much more useful life lessons.