No More Oreos

June 16, 2008

As I stood in line to return an item at my local IKEA, I spotted a four-year old nearby having an argument with her parents.  The adults wanted her to follow them so they could do some shopping, but the child was apparently in no mood to trudge through the enormous store.

“If you give me an Oreo, I’ll do it,” she cockily bargained with her parents.  I couldn’t help but cringe as a look of shock and recognition flitted across the mother’s face.  She realized at that very moment that her manipulation tool of choice had now been used against her!  As our eyes met across the room, she managed a trembling smile and turned back to the child.

“Uh, no honey, that’s not the way it works,” she said meekly, as she took the child’s hand and led her towards the stairs.  The child’s objections could be heard across the room.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as the child turned the table on her parents.  As you have just seen, using rewards (cookies, outings, TV… anything) as a means to manipulate behavior is devious, controlling, disrespectful, and in the end… completely ineffective and enormously damaging.

Sure, in the short-term, the offer of a reward might convince a willful child to acquiesce to the desires of the parent.  But at what price?

I think it all boils down to what phdinparenting calls “short-term” vs. “long-term” parenting.  In the short-term, bribing a child with rewards in exchange for desired behavior is a pretty effective means of controlling the outcome of a situation.  The parent obtains the requested behavior, the child receives the reward, and everyone is “happy”.  But are they, really?  What messages and perceptions will the child take with him for the long-term?

Think about a situation when you were controlled and manipulated into doing something for which you had a compelling reason not to want to do.  Perhaps your boss told you that he would give you a much-needed bonus if you fired three employees you know are a great asset to the company.  Or your spouse told you he would pay for your dream beach vacation if you lost 20 lbs. (although you  know you look and feel fine at your current weight).  You try to voice your opinion, but you’re told: “Come on, I know you really need the money/trip.”  Nobody tells you why, they just want you to do it.  How would you feel: dignified, respected, appreciated, and understood?   Or would you feel controlled, manipulated, voiceless, and defeated?

Very likely, you’ll go along with the request (because we’ve been conditioned to respond blindly to rewards).  How would you feel once you accomplished the task and received the reward?  If you’re even slightly human, you’d be left with a bitter aftertaste and an unnerving sense that you’re not really behind the wheel of your own life.  However, since you’ve been brought up in a rewards-based system, you’d try to brush off the feeling… Until the next time.  Except the next time, you’d want a bigger bonus or a longer vacation because you unconsciously recall the feeling of dissatisfaction you obtained from the previous “transaction”.

Do you want your children to grow up feeling controlled, manipulated, unimportant and powerless?  Because believe it or not, that is how they feel each and every time they perform an action in response to a bribe from you.  A devoted and well-meaning mother I know offered her son $50 if he would cut his unruly, shoulder-length red hair before posing for his Senior picture.  To the teen’s credit, he refused her bribe and posed in all his red-headed glory, but I think the damage was done the moment his mother offered the reward.  Her message to him was: “You’re not good enough the way you are.”

If you’re thinking, “I would never offer rewards for things like that!  I only offer rewards in situations that aren’t damaging to my child’s self-esteem,” consider your actions and their repercussions very carefully.  The problem does not lie in the situation nor in the reward; it lies in the power shift, the destruction of the child’s will and self-esteem, and the loss of mutual respect.

“If you finish your homework you can play video games.”  It’s a phrase uttered in households across the country.  How harmful is this statement?  On the surface, it seems harmless enough.  It even seems like it would be a great opportunity to show your child that he needs to take care of his responsibilities before he can enjoy other activities.  You pat yourself on the back and walk away, while your child grinds his teeth and stares at his Math homework.

How is your child being harmed?  First of all, he’s learning to link a behavior to a reward.  You’re creating an adult whose approach to life will be: “What’s in it for me?”.  You’re also diminishing the importance of homework (or any work, for that matter).  It’s no longer an important part of his intellectual development, but merely a means to an end (in this case, playing video games).  Thirdly, you’re not showing concern for the reasons your child doesn’t want to do his homework.  Maybe he didn’t understand the assignment, feels overwhelmed by his class load, is distracted by personal issues, or has an undiscovered learning disability.  The repercussions are many, but I think you get the picture…

What would happen if, instead of bribing your son, you took the time to ask him what is deterring him from finishing his assignment?  You would be giving him the message: “I care about you and want you to be successful.”  You might also gain some insight into the person your child is becoming, including his social situation and personal goals, and you would be in a better position to offer guidance.  The playing field would be leveled (much to the horror of many parents) and your child would have a much better chance of successfully reaching his goals.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “I’ve asked my child what the problem is, but he won’t talk to me.”  Gee, would you try talking to your boss if he has repeatedly “shut the door on you” by bribing you with rewards?  It’s up to the parents to change their way of educating their children.  It might take time to see results; after all, you have been bribing your child for five, ten, fifteen years.  But just like explaining “why” is an investment, so is finding out “why”.

Suggested reading: Punished By Rewards, by Alfie Kohn.



  1. Yes, yes, yes! I want to be a ‘why’ kind of parent and leader to my child. I think so many fail when it comes to the leadership aspect of being a mom or dad. How ever can we expect to hold these little individuals to a standard we are unable (or unwilling) to meet ourselves. That has failure written all over it. I want to plan for, anticipate and yes, expect success with raising our child.

  2. Great! Thanks for linking to my post too. FYI, I wrote more about short-term vs. long term parenting in a follow-up post: http://phdinparenting.wordpress.com/2008/06/18/short-term-versus-long-term-parenting

    And I love juliness’ comment above too – nicely said!

  3. Wow, thank you for the link! 🙂

  4. Hello, Such a challenging site. I think the universe directed me here for a reason. I’ve been eating a lot more meat these last few months. Watching Earthlings shook me. Thinking about bribing has me wondering. I’ll be around. Thanks.


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