Okay, time to sit down and write. Wow, it’s hard to concentrate today – my eight year-old has decided that my office is the best spot in the house to play with the dog. I know, I’ll ask her to play with the dog in the yard until I’m done. Seriously? How much longer can it take her to tie her shoes? Got it – I’ll offer to take her to Baskin Robbins when I’m done if they can get outside more quickly. Yes! Success!
Alright. Co-incidentally just what am I writing about today? Hmm… “Is it okay to bribe your children?” Hold on, where do I keep that “Holier Than Thou” font in my computer? There it is. “Of course not,” I’ll say.
So the bribery topic has come up because parents and gossip columnists all over the world have started using their “Holier Than Thou” fonts to sit in judgment of supermodel Heidi Klum, who has revealed that she pays her kids a buck apiece to drink a special juice concoction she whips up for them each morning, because that’s what it takes to get them to eat healthy.
She’s a celebrity, and a supermodel, so I get it – we have to find a way to level the playing field. As a result, we pick juicing and paying her kids to eat healthy food as the tool we’re going to use to feel better about ourselves. Because after all – who does that? Who ever heard of the idea of giving a child money to get them to do something they didn’t necessarily enjoy, but that was ultimately good for them?
I mean, if that kind of practice were common, we’d have to come up with a catchy name for the payments, like “allowance” or something like that.
Sure, maybe you don’t make a direct connection between “eat this” and “I’ll pay you that”. But Heidi is far from a trailblazer. Maybe your version is replaces “eat this” with “mow the lawn”, or “finish your homework”, or “graduate with an A average”, and maybe you replace “I’ll pay you” with “you get dessert”, or “you get to watch thirty minutes of television”, or even “we’ll buy you a car as a graduation gift”. Your version of a bribe might be as simple as a “thank you” and an extra hug.
Bribing children isn’t new. And performance bonuses aren’t a new idea either – ask all but the greenest rookies in professional sports. My guess is, you even do it with your dog, unless you’ve decided you know more about how to train animals than pretty much anyone else on the planet. Fastest way to teach Rover to sit? Dangle a treat in front of his nose. Let’s be honest – someone else’s personal satisfaction is rarely sufficient motivation to influence behavior. (Unless you really think the boss is happy with the amount of time you spend on Facebook during the day. You know he’d be happier if you spent that time working, but you just don’t care. And while we’re on the subject, isn’t offering a salary just a really elaborate, differently-packaged bribe?)
Oh, and if you really want me to nit-pick? I would argue that Heidi Klum is also giving her kids some insight into the value of money, and the idea of having your own money – lessons which can be incredibly empowering for children.
Maybe it’s a financial thing. Maybe offering your child a dollar a day – an average of $365.25 each year – is beyond your means. I get that. And truthfully, offering my kid a loonie every time she did one of the hundred habits I’m trying to get her to adopt would require me to get a second, possibly third job. So there are sneaky ways – even sneakier than putting carrots in the spaghetti sauce – that might do the trick for you.
Add the chore to the mystique
Want your kid to do the dishes? Let them cook. While you’re teaching them kitchen stuff, tell them stories about the most valued members of the kitchen staff in fancy restaurants, and mention the fact that on Saturday night, when the place is packed, the person right below the chef in the pecking order of importance is the dishwasher. (That’s actually a fact. Anyone who knows the restaurant business will confirm that the dishwasher is one of the most important people in the joint.) Make doing the dishes part of the larger task of preparing dinner, and make a big deal of praising the work that went into the entire thing. Find creative ways to work the thing they don’t love into the larger picture of something they do love.
Find a different payoff
The story goes that elite basketball players (think Michael Jordan) spend countless hours alone on the basketball court, working on shots from the foul line. The theory is that if you take hundreds and hundreds of foul shots in practise, then in a game situation when the pressure is on, it’s automatic. It’s the same reason elite golfers spend more time working on putting than anything else – not because putting is such fun, but because countless tournaments have been won or lost with the success or failure of a single putt. So perhaps the reward comes from pride in having done it, or simply avoiding the pain of failure. Maybe the reason your kid learns to brush their teeth regularly is because they’re trying to impress their classroom crush. Perhaps they’re cleaning their room so they’re not embarrassed when someone comes over. Sometimes the “bribe” isn’t something you offer directly – it comes in the form of something else entirely. If there’s an external stimulus you can latch on to, don’t be afraid to exploit it – but make it something that’s just as tangible for them as that ice cream cone. Don’t offer scenarios that they can’t conceive, or rewards that don’t matter to them. Chances are, they don’t care if Grandma thinks their room is tidy. But if their best friend were to come over and say “Wow, what a mess,” you’re on to something.
Maybe it’s just about defining expectations
I’m involved in a battle right now to get my kid to make her bed. In our house, we make the bed when we get up. First thing. At her Mom’s house, it would seem the rules are a little different, so the “Did you make your bed?” question is routinely met with the “Oops – I forgot” response. Thus, I have two choices – I can continue to be frustrated when making the bed isn’t automatic, or I can do whatever it takes to keep my expectations “top of mind” for her. Even if that means I have to write out a list and tape it above the doorknob so she gets constant reminders of what she’s supposed to do. (Maybe the “Holier Than Thou” font would be good for that list.)
Walk your talk
Whatever your “personal incentive program” consists of, make sure you’re consistent with your rewards and consequences. Threatening a certain punishment and then backing down – even once – sets up an uphill climb that’s nearly impossible for you to overcome. And when you promise a reward, deliver on it 105 per cent. Yes, I said 105 per cent. Because the few times you toss in an unexpected bonus, you open the possibility that the reward might be even better than they imagined.
And with that, I’m off to Baskin Robbins. A promise is a promise. Even when it’s a bribe.