To Bribe or Not to Bribe: That Is the Question


If you’ve ever kept company with a toddler like mine, these scenarios might sound a tad familiar: It’s time to get in the car, but guess who doesn’t want to climb into their seat? The “clean-up, clean-up” song fails to strike the right chord, so the room remains littered with toys; yesterday, they loved hot dogs–you stopped at three–but now, they can’t be bothered and only want cookies; getting dressed has been the same process since birth, but today they prefer to run around wearing mismatched socks and a grin.

When these moments occur, I’ve tried a few things, none of which seems to work consistently. I’ve repeated myself until I’m blue in the face, I’ve raised my voice to this shrill, screeching harpie-like status, I’ve lowered my voice to that “take me seriously or else” tone, and I’ve punted to dad, which does work sometimes–seriously, whose side is this kid on?

But, would you like to know what works every time? Spoiler alert: it’s probably also familiar to you. It’s lollipops. Those tiny, colorful bursts of flavor you buy by the bucketful at Trader Joe’s are like currency when it comes to my sanity and my three-year-old son.

Yes, there, I said it — my son becomes an attentive, listening, obedient angel when I use lollipop bribes. Usually, when things are mellow around here, buying his complacency doesn’t happen so much, but that is because he’s saving up for those moments when it really counts, like when we’re in a checkout line, or need to leave the house in two minutes, or when the school bus is rounding the corner with its cheery “honk honk!” to pick him up.

It turns out, I’m not alone. The other day, I was talking to an awesome mom friend with two sons. She openly admitted (hallelujah!) that if her kids aren’t toeing the line for her, incentives move the needle in her favor. So, when the occasion calls for it, she allows for sugary-sweet negotiations.

During our conversation, I learned something else. We both have a secret fear that we’re part of the Weaker Parents Who’ve Somehow Caved club. We’re both willing to defend our moves, but worry that somewhere out there, there are magical, perfect parents who have magical, perfect children and have never once used a bribe.


In my quest to see what part of these fears are rooted in truth, I turned to a place where everyone is honest all of the time: Facebook! I reached out my Hive of Moms hoping for some of that TMI “my kid pooped on the potty!” honesty. Thankfully, that’s exactly what I got via many colorful replies.

One mom boldly credited some of her parenting successes to both bribes and intimidation. She declared that parents who were able to forgo these entirely must be “unicorns among us.” Another didn’t consider her technique bribing, but admitted that gummy bears helped with her daughter’s potty training.

On the flip side, several moms (two of whom are peer and parent educators) recommended the “choices and consequences” method. This is essentially when children are given options (red shirt or blue shirt) and taught accountability for their actions. I felt my brain whimper, “But, he’s three…” Yet, these wise moms are onto something good, I think. One thing everyone admitted is that that from time-to-time, they had to remind their kids who’s in charge, so none of us is entirely an island.

I learned a lot about my own parenting style from asking this question, too. For example, I thought my command, “Finish your dinner and then you get ice cream,” was bribing, but have since learned that technically speaking, it isn’t. However, my command, “Get in your car seat and you can have a lollipop,” is totally bribing. (ARRRGH!)

A handful of my mom friends with older kids also encouraged me to wean off those lollipops early. Today’s lollipop could turn into tomorrow’s toy, they warned. And tomorrow’s toy could become tomorrow’s mobile phone or car…or trip to Cabo…see where this is going? The expectations continue to grow in tandem with the kid being bribed. While it’s hard to imagine my son attempting to bribe his way to anything but another lollipop, they do grow up quickly. And I don’t want to blink and find myself negotiating my way OUT of buying phones, cars and trips to Cabo.

While I’m on the fence about phasing out lollipop currency entirely, I’m open to trying the suggestions of my mom hive. That said, I’m also pretty sure our “incentive program” won’t be going away entirely anytime soon.

In fact, the other day, our son was being quite the pest and the eight-year-old boy he was annoying looked at me sweetly and said, “He’s not gonna stop on his own. Why don’t you just bribe him?”

Out of the mouths of babes.