Should You Bribe Your Kids?

Alright, already. Lets call it incentivize instead of bribe. Some parents bristle at the mere thought of bribing their kids. But let’s be honest: we’ve all done it. Like: “Come on now, just one more bite and you can have your dessert.” Or, “If you finish your chores by 5:00, I’ll let you watch that Tivo’d episode of iCarly later.”

I’m all for bribery, when it’s used judiciously. Obviously it shouldn’t be the go-to strategy you use on a daily basis. It’s all about moderation but when used sparingly with a dash of creativity behind it, a bribe (or incentive) can really help to get things moving in the right direction. As Mary Poppins, that famous nanny who set the gold standard for positive, effective child rearing once said, “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

One place where an incentive plan can really pay big dividends is in the area of reading — particularly vacation-time reading. You might have started off the summer determined to see your kids with their noses in a book for at least part of the time. But with so many other distractions and a less-than-enthusiastic response from the kids when the subject came up, you may have decided to give in and let it go.

Some recent news from the research world may give you reason to rethink that decision. The researchers were trying to figure out whether the kind of reading material a child chose made a difference when it came to improving their test scores, building their vocabularies or improving their performances in other non-related subjects. Much to their surprise they found that it didn’t matter at all. Instead, they discovered that reading anything did the trick in all the areas mentioned.

That really made my day because I was one of those parents who happily included the occasional comic book or sports anthology right along with the Newberry Award winners when it came time for summer reading. And I was definitely not beyond offering incentives (okay, bribes) to my kids to get them settled down with a book.

One of the things that we did was visit the book store at the beginning of summer to get ideas about the kinds of books they might like to read. I would buy them one to get them started and then make a list of others to borrow from the library. I promised a penny-a-page but they had to prove that they had actually read the book by giving me a short little book report when they had finished it. Basically, they just had to tell me about the book and then I might flip through it and ask a few questions to make sure they weren’t just trying to con the con man (me). We kept a tally of pages read and at the end of the summer they got their reward.

Another thing we tried was setting up a contest to see who read the most over the summer. Prizes were given to the top three winners. Since I had three kids they were all covered, but the top reader got the best prize by far. Kids love a challenge and they love to compete. This strategy works well and you might want to give it a try now that back-to-school-time is closing in fast. It’s a good way for them to reengage their brains and get back in the habit of reading quietly, on their own.

This Booklist of Children’s Literature can help you find some wonderful books for the kids at your house.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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