The Bribe

I learned an important lesson this week. It’s one that many parents have already learned—possibly the hard way—as I did. I did something that should have been prevented by common sense, but unfortunately it was nowhere to be found.


Specifically, my son.

Yes, I am guilty of the age-old parenting sin of using bribery to get my son to do what I wanted. The long list of potential pitfalls of this approach didn’t come to mind in my moment of desperation. Before I explain my reasoning for using this particular tactic with my son, I should state that I have (somewhat) successfully used it on more than one occasion with my daughter in the last eleven years without any noticeable side-affects. Although. as I write this, I am now concerned that I should possibly look a little closer at her current behaviors (in particular, the less-appealing ones) to see if bribery could have been the root cause. But that is for another day . . .

Back to my son.

The incident happened two weeks ago. I have probably mentioned that my son does taekwondo, and he absolutely loves it. When he first began eighteen months ago, he asked everyday if he could go. Because I got tired of hearing his complaints on the days he couldn’t go, I decided to sign him up for a three-year commitment that would allow him to go as often as he wanted.

Since then, rarely a day has gone by without him eagerly going to class. In fact, he loves it so much that he even joined the school’s performance taekwondo team, called SWAT. With a big competition approaching, the Master has recently begun spending more and more time working on the routines with the older kids. My son and a few of his friends have been sitting on the sidelines watching. Two weeks ago, he told me that he thought the Master didn’t think he was good enough, and he wanted to quit the team. Because I didn’t want him to give up, I decided to talk to the Master about how he had been feeling.

Although it seemed he understood the point I was trying to make, because the Master is not fluent in English, I couldn’t be certain. He smiled, and told me that he would talk to my son. He then pulled him out of class to talk in the back room. This is when things started to go downhill. My son thought he was in trouble, and within minutes of returning to class, he began to cry. He was then sent out of the class in order to get himself together—which then prompted a complete meltdown. He sobbed into my arms; he was inconsolable.

The meltdown lasted for the rest of the class, and continued on into his SWAT practice. Even when the tears finally stopped, he refused to practice with the team, but instead chose to sit in the back and pout. It was horrible—both for him and for me. I felt powerless to help him because I knew that if I took him out of the class that it would just make things worse. I needed him to get through it. When we finally left two hours later, his breakdown had turned into outrage. He felt betrayed by his Master, and he swore he was never going back.


I tried to explain that he wasn’t in trouble, that no one was mad at him, but he wouldn’t listen—he was too busy screaming in the backseat. I tried everything I could think of to make him understand what had happened, but it was to no avail. This was on a Thursday—his next class wasn’t until Monday—so I decided to stop talking about it, in the hopes that he would calm down and (possibly) forget about it.

Come Monday evening, when I told him to get dressed for taekwondo, he refused. He told me that he was “too afraid to go.” I tried the same reasoning I had used on Thursday, even going so far as to explain the details of a contract. He didn’t seem to care that I’d be obligated to pay the school whether he went or not. He was going!

We were at an impasse.

Because I knew that if he just went he’d be able to get over his fear, in a moment of desperation, I told him if he went to class, I would get him a toy afterward. The bribe. He thought about the offer for a few minutes, and then agreed. And of course, class was just as I had expected. Within a few minutes of it beginning, everything was back to as it was—he once again loved taekwondo. And after class, we found ourselves walking up and down the —very small—toy aisle at CVS until he settled on some ninja accessories. He was over-joyed, and I thought to myself It was worth it.

Then the aftermath hit.

Since that day two weeks ago, he now thinks he should be bribed for everything. He had Strep and needed to take medicine—he wanted me to bribe him with candy. He had extra homework to complete because he had missed school, he thought he should be rewarded for finishing it with an extra hour of bedtime. When he takes a shower, he thinks he deserves a cookie. He has actually used the words “You have to bribe me,” in reaction to me asking him to do something. I have created a monster!

If he had been a little bit more subtle about it—possibly refusing to take his medicine or going days without showering—I may have resorted to using this tactic once again. But, because he obviously thought that this was an easy way to cash in on his everyday obligations, I began saying “No” to every demand. Today, he only asked me to bribe him once, and that was to get dressed for a playdate—a reward in itself.

What advice can I possible have after this? It’s simple: use bribery only under the most dire of circumstances, the rest of the time, stand firm and just make them do what I want. We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.

Published by Erin Rehill

A few years ago, my then eight-year-old daughter told me that she wished I could write down all the things I told her so that she wouldn’t forget them when she got older. In that moment, my daughter gave me such a sense of validation, something I hadn’t really experienced in that way. As parents, we don’t often receive confirmation from our children that we are doing a good job, or that we even know what we are talking about. Since that time, I’ve started to pay more attention to the things I tell her, often thinking to myself “Will she remember this when she is older?” So, this is for her, my words of advice to be read, thought about, laughed at, and maybe even used, when she is older.

Join the Conversation


    1. My daughter is the same way. Threats, bribes, it doesn’t matter which, if she doesn’t want to do something, it’s like trying to move a mountain. My son, on the other hand is usually so accommodating, that it’s shocking when he puts his foot down.

  1. I have gone down the slippery slope toward briberdom, too, and it’s a long uphill climb back.
    My husband is a repeat offender, too. He promises the kids toys if they make a soccer goal or sink a basket. I’m sure this is all very healthy and character-building.
    But hey! It works.

  2. Kids can be like little terrorists. Even my nephew tries it and he is not even talking yet. They know we fall for it. lol. Glad he got over his taekwondo episode though…bribe and all.

  3. Ah yes, The Bribe. I learned the same lesson the hard way. Bribes are very effective with my kids, but then you’re doomed! Glad your son is excited about taekwondo again!

    A belated (but huge) congrats on your SITS day! So happy for you!

  4. I’ve definitely resorted to bribery a few times, and it always works out the way you described with them asking to be bribed. Usually we’ll hear, “What can I do for you to get (something I want)?” Most of the time it’s things like, “I’ll clean my room,” or “I’ll watch my brother.” To which we respond, “You have to do those things anyway. No bribe.”

  5. Aren’t kids too smart for their own good?
    I’ve gotten ensnared in the exact same “bribery” trap, but I’d do it again. Long live bribery I say, if it gets you out of a parenting pickle. (-:

  6. If you can find a parent who hasn’t resorted to bribery at least once I will buy you a cupcake. These rascals put us in sticky situations and we need something to get them to budge. 🙂

  7. we try bribery sometimes with our son who has ASD. Sometimes it can help ease a situation at other times he is just too rigid ! There’s nothing wrong with a bit of “negotiation” – just call it corporate hospitality, businesses do it all the time 😉

  8. Wow…not fun! I’m not a mom, so I can’t imagine how hard these kinds of things must be. How do you ever know that you’re doing the right thing? I would have done exactly what you did in that situation. Maybe he’ll realize that bribery can’t be used as his tool soon enough.

  9. Mine are young enough to except pennies… this too shall pass. I hope anyway – for my sake too!!

  10. I’ve bribed. I’ve threatened. I’ve pretty much done it all at different times and in different situations by now. Whatever works, I say! Hmmm… Maybe I should rethink my parenting techniques (or lack thereof)….

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