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Bribing Toddlers Is Fine Because It Works and I’m Tired

We love and provide for our kids, but we don't have time for gentle encouragement or teachable moments.

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We have four kids. All of the good intentions and confidence we had during with our first went to complete shit with the birth of three more. It’s hard to remember what we did with each child, but I recall all the things we thought would work with our first, since we were armed with all the newfound parenting knowledge. Sorry, I should have put “knowledge” in quotes.

Most of this “knowledge” in our case had come from books and online forums that my wife liked to read. At her job, clients ask her a lot of questions. While she is very knowledgeable (notice no quotes), she often seeks additional information from specialists to better respond to the questions. Looking for answers outside of herself is just a natural and useful strategy for her.

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As a carpenter, I usually have to figure problems out on the fly. I look to my own past experiences for insight and tend to use the same strategy in all aspects of my life, including parenting. I’ve never been a big believer in the best-selling author or a noted psychologist telling me how my child will respond to certain things because I feel that each situation is so drastically different due to…reality. Kids are different, circumstances are different, parents are different, and belief systems are different. 

I am all for plans and outlines, but I know from vast personal experience that the expected can, in the blink of an eye, fall into chaos and doubt. Or a rock thrown at the head. Or a child going to the bathroom, after being fully potty-trained for awhile, in a corner of her bedroom in one of those fabric storage boxes that won’t be opened for a couple of months. I definitely didn’t hear about that last one in any of those books.

One of my favorite guidelines is that we shouldn’t say “if” and “then” when attempting to get our kid to do something. These particular words are threatening and coercive and basically constitute bribery. This is all true, and…? What. Is that wrong or something to be ashamed of? The book according to me states that you do what works for you as long as it’s not illegal or harmful. No matter what you’re doing, it’s all bribery anyway. We might as well be up-front and truthful about it.

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We tried for awhile to show our boy why he needed to do certain actions with unwavering encouragement and subtle rewards. The truth is that you can achieve those results with time and with varying the language that you use to guide behavior. The problem is that as normal parents, we aren’t raising our children to prove a hypothesis and we’re not doing it in a trial setting. We work. We work hard. We don’t have time for experimentation and small victories. One step forward and two steps back is not in our playbook. Even two steps forward and one step back takes more time than we have.

And so, we use bribery to its fullest coercive power. We dangle desserts and TV time to our kids like we’re playing with a cat. We threaten our 3-year-old with bans on nonexistent or long past parties to get her to do our bidding. We tell of great rewards within our kids’ tiny reaches, but only after their stints of indentured servitude are complete.

Thankfully the rules of normal, civilized society are suspended when parents are dealing with their own kids: We can force them into our service. We can kidnap them and transport them to go where they have no desire to be. We can water torture them, although my wife and I call them showers. We can make them do labor for a pittance. We damn sure can bribe the hell out of them. It’s quick and effective (except for the aggravating process that usually leads up to it).

No matter if we use certain words or not, the premise behind all the different strategies is ultimately the same: getting them to do what we want, when we want. Whether you take the high, middle, or low road, as long as you love your kids and provide for them, my only advice: bribe the hell of them. It works. It’s painless. It’s life.

Garth Johnson is a dad and a carpenter in Fairbanks, Alaska. When not bribing his four kids, all under 9 years old, he loves to tickle, play, and wrestle with them.