September 6, 2016

Do you offer bribes to your child to get good behavior?  Parents often feel guilty about “using bribes” to get their children to comply with rules. I hear it all the time. They will say, I bribed my kid with video games to get him to take his medicine. Or, I bribed my little ones with M&M’s to get them to finish their dinner.

In this series, I review some simple language tweaks that can lead to big behavior changes. The  first small change to your words is a way to stop offering bribes for good behavior by not saying “If” and instead using my favorite three words to get children to follow rules.

What To Say Instead of Bribing Children

With a tiny tweak of your language, you can return responsibility to your children and get off the feel guilty merry go round of rewards and consequences without actually changing hardly anything you are already doing.

Ready for the magical 3 words…




That’s it!   Follow along with me as I demonstrate the difference between bribery and empowerment with these 3 words.

Instead of Bribes, Encourage Responsibility

Before:            IF you finish your homework, I will let you watch TV.

After:              AS SOON AS you have finished your homework, you can watch TV.

Why it Works?

This teaches children that they can have control over their environment. The child can decide how much time he can spend watching television by being responsible for completing his homework.

*Note…for some tasks, you have to add a qualifier, like “correctly” to discourage rushed or sloppy work. So, it might be, As soon as you have finished your homework correctly.

Instead of Bribes, Encourage Regulation Skills

Before:            IF you sit still in time-out for 5 minutes, you can play again.

After:              AS SOON AS you are calm and quiet, you can get out of time-out.

Why it Works?

This teaches children to learn to self-soothe and regulate big emotions. The purpose of time-out or time-in is to teach children how to regulate behaviors.  Why time-in may work better than time out?

If they can stop crying over the toy or make amends for their behavior, they are more likely to repeat that corrected behavior. This is especially easier than than arguing with them about staying in the time-out spot for five minutes.

Teach Children To Delay Gratification

Before:           IF you finish all of your dinner, you can have a popsicle.

After:              AS SOON AS you finish all of your dinner, you can have a Popsicle.

Why it Works?

This teaches children to wait for things that they would like to have. I also use this in the car, a lot. AS SOON AS we get there, you can have a drink of my water. This encourages waiting behavior without inducing the tantrum of being told no. This gives them the feeling of power and control even though you have not changed the rules at all.

Language That Promotes Compliance

Before:            If you don’t clean your room, you cannot have your video games.

After:              AS SOON AS YOU clean your room, you can have your video game.

Why it Works?

This teaches children that they earn more privileges faster when they comply with the expectations set by the parent.  The child becomes aware of the fact that they can become in charge or their own destiny.  They become more accountable. You are no longer the bad guy.

Bribes Increase Shame

Notice, never did we say, “If you are GOOD” or “Because you were BAD” you can or can not have this thing.  The essence of a bribe is that IF you are good, then you will get good things.  Those two phrases are designed to shame children into compliance. They make kids feel badly about themselves and actually DECREASE compliance.

They also make children angry with parents. The parent becomes the “bad guy” for not allowing the child to have the things that he/she wants.

Focus on the Child Rather Than The Behavior

However, AS SOON AS, puts the focus on the child rather than the adults behavior. It also gives children small amounts of power and control. The focus changes to the child’s CHOICES and actually encourages children to follow rules. They feel more competent, more capable and more accountable for their own actions.

Children who feel good about themselves behave better.  Children who feel a sense of control in their lives, behave better.

What Happens When This Doesn’t Work?

So this works great…most of the time. For those of who are saying, “Okay, Jennifer, but what if they never do it.” What is AS SOON AS never comes. They don’t finish homework, they don’t eat their dinner, they don’t clean their room. Then what?

Try This Phrase To Enforce Consequences

Well, that leads me to my second favorite language tweak.  YOU CHOSE/YOU DECIDED (more on that here). Learn how this phrase will  return responsibility back to your children when they do not follow through with rules.

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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