Why Bribes and Threats Aren’t Helpful (and What to Do Instead)

A parent wants to get out of a cycle of bribing her 3.5-year old and writes to Janet for help. “It seems that in order to get him to do anything, I have to offer a reward, treat, or special outing.” If these strategies don’t work, she says, she will threaten to take something away. This mom admits that she is a people pleaser, so when she does set a boundary, she feels guilty about it. She worries that she’s teaching this to her son. “I don’t want him to feel guilty about his feelings or his boundaries.”
Transcript of “Why Bribes and Threats Aren’t Helpful (and What to Do Instead)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have an email I’m going to be responding to from a parent who really wants to get out of the cycle of bribing her three-and-a-half-year-old. She feels like that’s her only tool to get her son to do anything, to threaten or bribe. And she really wants to stop and also is concerned that she is a people pleaser and she’s going to be raising her son to be a people pleaser as well.

Okay, here’s the email I received:

Help! I’m trying to figure out how to get out of the cycle of bribing my three-and-a-half-year-old. It seems in order to get him to do anything, I have to offer a reward, treat, or special outing, or I warn that I will take something away. For example, if you sleep during your nap, you can have a special snack when you wake up. Or, if you don’t go to sleep, you won’t get to play with your grandma this afternoon.

I’m also a chronic people pleaser and have trouble setting boundaries, mostly with my mom. When I do set a boundary, I feel so guilty. How do I avoid teaching this to my son? I don’t want him to feel guilty about his feelings or his boundaries. Thank you.

Okay. So I feel I understand where this parent is coming from, especially the people pleasing part. I can totally relate to that. And I just want to assure her and any parent listening that you can absolutely get out of this cycle. And actually, the person this cycle is hurting most is the parent. It’s making our lives harder. So while I’m going to say a little about the reason the bribes don’t work for children, I mostly want to focus on why they don’t work for us and the better way to set boundaries and gain cooperation with our children.

The first point I want to talk about is why bribes and threats aren’t a good idea:

(1) They interfere with intrinsic motivation. And the widely known educator who talks about this is Alfie Kohn. He had a book he wrote several years ago called Punished by Rewards. It talked all about this issue of using rewards to control behavior and how it not only doesn’t work, but it interferes with our children’s intrinsic motivation. I’ll never forget one of the examples of the studies that he shared about, even though I read the book many years ago:

There was a summer reading program that a library was doing. It was something like, whoever read the most books, they were going to get a free pizza. So, here are these children, most of whom actually already enjoyed reading books, which is why they knew about the library and they heard about the program. And now something that they had done for enjoyment was turned into work. It actually made the children less interested in reading for enjoyment, which was obviously not what this program intended. They intended to encourage. But what it did, again, was it was basically the message that if you do enough of this thing, you’re going to get something good. But you have to do these things. Then the children get the impression these are unpleasant things, and they’re not to be enjoyed. You do this to get a positive result.

I think a lot of us can relate to this, even in terms of maybe hobbies that we’ve had, that we’ve considered making into a career. And then somewhere we realized: well, wait, I don’t like doing this when I have to. I only like doing this when I want to.

One of my daughters enjoys drawing and other kinds of art. And in college, she thought she might be an art major. But she found that it was a lot of pressure to have to come up with these assignments and finish them. And she’s very slow. She enjoys doing it, but she takes her time. It takes her a long time to finish something creative that she’s doing. And, it was so much pressure that she realized that wasn’t for her. She still enjoys art as a hobby, but she became a computer science major instead.

So, ideally, we want to preserve what children are born with: which is intrinsic motivation. They are inner directed unless we train them to be otherwise. And this is precious. This can guide us through life.

So I can hear people thinking, well, yeah, reading, sure. Art, sure. But you’re not going to enjoy doing chores or cleaning up.

But chores, maybe there’s not that much enjoyment in it, but there’s this inner sense of accomplishment that we can have. I know for me, when I do clean up something… I’m not very tidy as a person, but when I do organize a drawer or something, I go back and I check that drawer out 20 times that day to enjoy my accomplishment. And this is what we want our children to have around all the challenges that they take on in life. So that’s number one.

(2) Bribes and threats aren’t positive for the relationship that most of us want to develop with our children, which is trust, mutual respect, a sense that we’re on the same team. I even respond when I hear it, and I hear it a lot in articles about parenting, and this parent says it: “In order to get him to do anything, I have to…” That idea that we’re getting children to do something, even that phrasing to me comes off as, right away they’re going at it from an us-against-them approach, instead of helping my child to do something or creating the environment that allows my child to do something, encourages my child. Not, I want to get you to do something.

Because children are so intuitive, especially around their relationship with us and the messages we’re giving them about what our relationship is, and they sense when they’re being tricked or when they’re being manipulated or we’re trying to get them to do something. It’s not that it damages them, but it takes us in a direction that is not going to ultimately help us or our children.

And that helps me go into the direction that I want to go into for the next three points I’m going to share, which are about why bribes and threats don’t work for us as parents. It starts with the same point, number two, about the relationship.

This relationship that we’re developing with our child, this is the main tool we have for creating the behavior that we hope that they’ll have — for gaining their cooperation, for lessening those defiant modes that children can get into. Our relationship is the most powerful tool that we have to get what we want from our children in regard to behavior. Because when children feel like they’re a part of a team with us and that we’re not working against them and we’re not trying to get them to do things, we’re polite, we don’t nag, we don’t nitpick, that we have a lot of empathy for their stage of development and their ability to function when they’re tired or when they’re going through a transition — we understand those things about them — they feel understood. They feel that safety. We’re going to try to help them to do better.

And sometimes we’re going to have to insist on things. “You’re using this unsafely, I’ve got to take it away.” Doing that with honesty, with these qualities that we want our children to emulate.

So, the relationship is important for our child, of course, so that they can thrive. And it’s very important for us, even on this practical level of helping us with their behavior. When children don’t feel that safety, then that discomfort is what creates resistance, defiance, overwhelm that makes it impossible for them to do things. Acting in ways that build connection is a win-win.

Okay, next…

(3) Threats and rewards don’t work very well. Yes, in a pinch, they might work. A little here and a little there, and pretty much everybody I know has done them at least once. I’m sure I have, I don’t remember a specific, but I’m sure there was a time where I said, “Oh, if you can stay in the store a little longer, I’ll get you that thing,” or some form of that. And we’re not wrong for doing that. But oftentimes, they don’t work.

And it’s interesting because the example this parent gives is about sleep — taking a nap. And, I’m really surprised that “you can have a snack when you wake up,” is working to help someone go to sleep, because I picture myself, someone telling me that, or telling me that I’m going to get to play with grandma when I wake up, and now I can’t go to sleep. Sleep is a very delicate thing, and for me at least, it only works when I’m feeling no pressure around it from anybody else or myself, especially. So that’s the situation where I can’t see how bribes could work very well.

And considering the intrinsic motivation aspect, rest feels good, it’s restorative, so we want to present it positively, not as a negative task.

For sleep, there are boundaries and then there’s letting go, because that comes under the category of “voluntary activities.” So there are basically two categories:

There are boundaries and limits that we can firmly set like “you’re throwing this toy or this object” or “I don’t want you getting in this drawer.” “We need to go in the house now.” Those are things that I can help my child physically do, or I can physically stop.

Then there’s this whole other category of voluntary activities: brushing teeth, cleaning up, doing chores.

Going to sleep, being able to actually physically go to sleep, we can’t really give a firm limit on or a boundary on. But the limit is: “this is rest time, and I’m going to go do some work or I’m going to rest. And this is your rest time. You don’t have to fall asleep, but this is time to be in your room.” Or “this is time to be in this place.” People call it quiet time. But to me, it doesn’t even have to be quiet. “This is your rest time. This is the time to be in your room and I’m going to be in this other place.”

But, what my child does within that boundary has to be up to them. That is the best chance that our child will go to sleep. And maybe some days they won’t. At three-and-a-half, it might be hit or miss sometimes. Sometimes they might not be able to settle down. But anyway, from my view, telling my child what’s going to happen when they wake up is a very unsettling thing.

(4) I feel it’s an undue burden to have to think of things to bribe our child with or threats that will get them to do things. It’s like, we’ve got to be constantly thinking of a new way, and then something won’t work anymore and we’ve got to think of another way. I feel similarly about some of the suggestions around playful parenting where parents are expected to think of a game so that they can get their child, again, there’s that word, get their child to do it. Pretend you’re this or that. And maybe in certain moments, we naturally feel like that and that’s great. But this idea that a parent trying to set a boundary has to think creatively about how to make this happen instead of doing something much more simple and honest, I don’t agree with that. I think parents need a break and I think it should be simple and streamlined, because that’s the kind of relationship that we want to have. We don’t want to have to keep thinking of new ways to make behavior happen. So, I feel it’s an undue burden on us.

And then, last but not least:

(5) When we’re bribing and threatening, we’re not practicing what this parent, what I desperately needed, what a lot of parents need, which is being a person who can set boundaries, being a person who understands that children will react sometimes very, very strongly to even the smallest boundary. And it’s those reactions, often, that are what’s been building in them and that they need to spill with the people that they trust most. More often than not, there’s an emotional reason our child was behaving in that way that we didn’t want them to behave, in that challenging way. And what they need is to be able to share the emotion behind what they’re doing, which they can only do if we stop them in an honest, loving way.

Again, that’s that first category of things that we can actually stop and physically help our child with. And there’s this other category of cooperative voluntary activities.

But first I want to talk about the nitty gritty boundary setting. As a people pleaser myself, this was a huge, steep learning curve for me to realize, first of all, how unloving I was being trying to avoid upsetting my children, and how much more loving it was to be what I had considered this bad guy, where I did things that I know were against what they wanted or I help them stop doing things or I said no to things or I insisted upon things where I had the power to insist — again, that first category of behaviors. But I could only learn this by practicing it: facing the music, setting the limit in a direct, honest way. And I soon realized one of the keys to this is doing it early, right at the beginning of… now my child’s reaching for that drawer of all my stuff that I don’t want them to get into it. And, instead of waiting until they’ve already opened it and gotten some stuff out and now we’ve got to put it all back… “You know what, I’m not going to let you go in that drawer. I’m going to stop you. And actually, let’s get out of this room now, into a safer play area, because I don’t want you to get in my stuff.”

So it’s not just for safety. It’s for all of those things that are going to annoy us, that we’re going to feel uncomfortable with, that are our right to set boundaries around. And were actually doing our child a huge favor to not let them be that annoying person, to not let them be that person who gets so stuck in testing that they’re not actually playing with their inner direction. Instead, they’re constantly testing our response. Children could get stuck doing that if we don’t set the boundaries. Children could start to go elsewhere to get boundaries, to unconsciously try to get them from teachers or grandparents or other people, and putting their behavior out to them because we didn’t help them see where the boundaries were.

So, every time I’ve tried this, with my own children, with other people’s children, yes, sometimes there were a lot of feelings that came at me around it that I did kind of feel bad and guilty about for moments, here and there. But ultimately, every single time, I’ve seen how this child gained more trust for me, how they got calmer in themselves, what a relief it was when I did those hard things. It is one of the highest forms of love to set boundaries.

The more we practice compassionate leadership, the more we can see, yes, not only do I have a right to do this, but it’s the best thing for my child as well. We can only learn this by experiencing it. Practice. Doing it in a way that, yes, in the moment we’re going to feel so guilty and mean, and my child is upset and I’m a failure. But a few minutes later, we’re going to realize, I was honest. I cared enough to do these hard things and my child knows that. And I even sense my child getting to settle into their role in the family, not as the other person on the end of manipulation, going back and forth and trying to work against each other and see if I can get you to do this and get you to do that. But, somebody that feels, okay, they’re not afraid of my feelings, I don’t have to be afraid of my feelings either. I’m going to be frustrated. I’m going to be disappointed in life. It’s okay.

It’s a different way of looking at love. And it’s not the model that most of us got.

There was a great quote going around. “People pleasers once needed to be parent pleasers.” And, that reflects the way a lot of us were raised, where it was about fear. If we didn’t please, if we weren’t good, we were going to lose our parents’ affection. We were going to be rejected. We were maybe going to be yelled at or punished. It was scary. So, we pleased. But a whole lot of shame and insecurity came along with that. So it’s heroic to be trying to do this work and do what this parent is doing. Trying to get out of a cycle? Huge. But it will free her, and it will free her son.

We get ourselves stuck in this bribe thing. It’s a trap for us. Our child will shift with us right away and be fine, but we’re stuck. That’s what I want to help this parent see. She can get out of this trap. Just take little baby steps out, and be honest, and know that feelings are healing and healthy. And the boundaries we give our children that they react to are a gift.

And then with this other category of cooperative activities, set yourself up for success with a routine where you’re not asking your child to clean up when they’re too tired at the end of playing, or in the late afternoon, or at bedtime. You accept less at those times. You keep it light, you keep it polite — on their team. This is where all that time we’ve spent working on this relationship pays off. “I need some help with this. Could you help me out here?”

And then sometimes there are consequences, what I like to call “honest consequences” that I guess some might see as threats. But they come out of us sharing ourselves with our child so they do bring us closer. And still, my expectation is not going to be 100% if my child doesn’t do this, then I’m going to be mad at them. We’re saying something like, “You know what? I want you to be able to take all this other stuff out, but I can’t take this other stuff out until we put this stuff away. So, let’s do this first.” Or, “let’s get this cleaned up. Maybe you could help me put some stuff over there in that box. Could you please? Because I want to get lunch ready.” It’s the way that we ask. It’s the way that we lean on that trust that we’ve built in those moments. And then we can feel good afterwards. We can approach boundaries in a way that makes us feel stronger and better and closer to our children and vice versa.

I hope some of that helps.

And I share a lot more about setting limits with respect in my book No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. And I also have another book, Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. They’re in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com and in audio at audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the LINK in the liner notes of this podcast or in the transcript on my website janetlansbury.com.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this. 



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I still feel like I need an answer on tooth brushing. It’s true that bribes and threats don’t work, but I can’t force it on a 4 year old so what can I do?

    1. We do something called the “snuggle brush” where, after they’ve had a chance to brush on their own, my daughters sits sideways in my lap and I help her with the rest. Jennifer Anderson talks about it in her teeth brushing highlight on her instagram page: kids.eat.in.colour. I also brush my teeth with my 3.5 year old and 16 month old, as it models the behaviour.

  2. This is exactly what we’re dealing with right now with our 2.5 year old son. I do appreciate this advice but I also don’t think it’s enough on the “cooperative activities” side of things. Our son has become very resistant to things like helping pick up toys, going to potty/wash hands before meals, and helping set the table.

    If we just tell him that we have to put away toys before taking out new toys, he just will leave out the old toys and not take out new toys. We have had to take it a step further and tell him that if he can’t put away certain toys after playing with them, then he can’t play with those particular toys for the rest of the day because that is the deal with using toys. It does feel like a threat but otherwise I’m just cleaning up his toys and feeling like I’m getting steamrolled :/

    And for setting the table, I want to teach him that everyone in our family is important, has responsibilities and helps out in our family community. And I explain this to him. I’m sure he understands because he’s very precocious in language and surprisingly rational. But that doesn’t always convince him. Sometimes he’d rather be playing with something and then we have said to him that if the thing that he’s playing with is distracting him from his family responsibilities, then we are going to have to remove that particular toy for now.

    He’s generally a helpful guy and often asks to help with my chores. But it doesn’t always work to just ask him politely to do *his* chores if there are no consequences for not doing them.

  3. I agree that bribes and threats don’t work and are not conducive to developing a healthy relationship. But I think you need to provide more of a solution for the mom who’s problem does not revolve around something clear and simple like safety, but rather something more abstract around mental health. I don’t think that preschoolers understand that they need to nap so they can function better; they seem to think that they are missing out on something more fun than a nap. In which case I don’t see it as a bribe to say something like “you need to take a nap so we can do more fun things (or specify the activities) in the afternoon otherwise we will only be able to do XYZ (and maybe even add in “because you will be grumpy”, if that’s your child’s disposition).” It gives the child a concrete concept to grasp onto, potentially identifies an emotion for them, and gives a concrete consequence of if/when they do not nap, provided that the parent actually follows up with what they say.

  4. Yes, I too feel like the solution needs to be more clear. My 4 year old refuses to do everything: taking a shower, brushing teeth, washing hands before meals, eating more balanced meal instead of just one thing on her plate (ie only bread) – just really basic things that I feel are essential and she needs to do, and there is no way I can get her to do any of them without a bribe or threat.

  5. Anne Cutler says:

    I agree about needing more examples and information. I happily set boundaries, and am in agreement with everything you wrote. However, I also need advise on what to do when there is a situation with no boundary to set. For example, you say the boundary you give for a child around “rest time” is that it’s their time to be in their room. But what if the child continues to leave the room? I suppose there is an obvious option to lock the door, if a parent was comfortable with that.

    Even if you advocate for locking the door, there are other examples that don’t have such an obvious option. For example, my 5 year old will sometime screams or bang on the door to disturb the baby while she’s sleeping or while we’re trying to get her to sleep. If the baby is asleep in the other room on her own, I can in theory physically contain the 5 year old if she starts heading that way and set that limit (though in practice I’m not always quick enough). But if I have to hold the baby during her nap or am trying to get her down, and nobody else is home, how can I set a boundary with this? Locking the door only leads to loud banging.

    It is clear something else is going on and the adjustment to the new addition is not easy for the older one, which I’m very empathetic to. We are doing our best to make more and more special time with her and allow her feelings around it (and everything else). It seems she needs a boundary with this though, and I just don’t have one. You’re advocating boundaries, but there is no boundary I can see here without a threat or reward. My solution is to allow her to watch TV during these times, which may just be the age appropriate thing to do. However, am I just in this case teaching her that if she is loud enough that I’ll let her watch her show?

    Please advise.

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