I Bribe My Kids And I’m Not Ashamed (Thanks, Supernanny!)

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Call it negotiation or compromise, but a bribe is a bribe. And nothing beats extrinsic rewards when dealing with a four-year-old. Thanks to my years of watching Supernanny, I’ve discovered the invaluable parenting techniques of positive reinforcement, reward charts and the promise of toys and treats to alter any difficult child behavior that I encounter. And is my son ever amenable to it!

Like all parents, I’m constantly dealing with the ever-changing emotions, wants and needs of my son. And it seems like there is a three-day shelf life for all of his behavior. For three days, he’ll go to bed easily, run to the bathroom to pee without complaint, and will snuggle with me in bed at night and not wake me up every five minutes to ask me a question. But once those three days of reprieve are over, it’s back to discipline and getting frustrated when he won’t do what I’m asking of him. And though I appreciate his strength of character and independent nature, life seems much easier when he listens to me.

After my daughter was born, the listening took a turn for the worse, and bedtimes were becoming increasingly difficult. It was summer, and that was already an issue in getting him to bed before 10 p.m. because it was still light out. And he was having a hard time knowing that Mommy and his baby sister would be awake together much of the night while he was, unfairly, sleeping. But he was exhausted in the mornings, and so was I from the round-the-clock feedings.

Something had to change. After trying to verbally negotiate with him over his TV time, getting dressed for school and brushing his teeth, I remembered the wisdom of Supernanny. Many a time, she has transformed stubborn, uncooperative children into veritable apple-cheeked darlings who are a constant pleasure to be around.

What’s her magic solution? The reward chart: A piece of construction paper, some stickers and a toy that my son really, really wants. Well, that was simple because my son loves new things. Every time he gets a brand new toy, he’ll exclaim, “Thank you, Mommy, it’s what I’ve always wanted!” And my heart melts a little that it is so easy to make him happy.

Last summer, my son was aching for the latest Buzz Lightyear — the hard toy with lights, a voice and retractable wings. But it was expensive, and I wanted him to understand the value of a dollar and to know that if you really want something, you have to work for it. So work for it he did.

I made a weekly calendar and wrote down (with pictures since he can’t yet read) all of the behaviors I sought to change: Going to bed easily, listening to Mommy and Daddy, getting dressed by himself and using his words instead of whining. At the end of each day, we reviewed the chart together, deciding if he had done what he was supposed to. If he had, he would get a sticker. Well, I thought there was a slim chance that it might work so I was gobsmacked when it turned out brilliantly. For that entire week, bedtimes were a breeze, he was so proud of putting his own clothes on and began to understand that his actions had consequences, be they good or bad. In a short time, he was clutching his Buzz Lightyear and flying it around the house. For a day or two, that is, until he got bored of it.

It’s not a perfect plan, I discovered. The thrill of something shiny and new tends to wear off quickly, and by the time he tired of the latest toy, he was wrangling for another. And though we seem to only need a new reward chart every month or so, if we continue on this reward-chart path, my boy is going to need a separate room for all of the toys he’s earned. And that would just be ridiculous. Sadly, small rewards like stickers, shiny pencils and simple coloring books don’t seem to cut it with him. And I don’t want to offer him food as a reward because apparently, that’s a big no-no.

Much research has been done on giving children food as a reward, and I certainly don’t believe in teaching him to eat when he’s not hungry, to reward himself with food and to connect eating to his mood. With childhood obesity on the rise, I don’t want to contribute to the problem. So, what to do? Make the lengths of times he needs to follow certain behaviors longer? Not give him material items as rewards but perhaps a trip to the museum or library? Cultural and motivating. I will definitely have to up the game and alter it if this is going to work for the long term.

Psychologists say that the technique is supposed to instill a sense of right and wrong; ultimately, I won’t need the reward chart because my son will understand that positive behavior is reward in itself. I giggle a little at this. Yes, he is proud when he’s done something I’ve asked him to. He does want to make me and others around him happy and feel good, and he is such a sweet, happy, vibrant kid. But he wants his toys, and he will do anything to get them. I want my nights free and a home filled with laughter, love and as little stress as possible. Until he’s old enough to fully appreciate the power of positive behavior, I will use my trusty reward chart and hope that the toys he wants either get smaller or he’ll develop a sudden interest in erasers and cheap dollar-store gadgets.

My 15-month-old daughter is not immune to a little bribery either. She’s not too fond of being forced to sit somewhere, like her high chair and car seat, because she wants to move around as freely as her big brother. But she needs to eat, and I often need to drive places. What does my daughter love more than her dolls, trucks and blocks? My cellphone. And yes, I give it to her, desperately hoping she doesn’t download an app or make a long distance call to China.

Since I’ve started this reward-chart strategy, I have become the quasi-child behavior expert for many of my mommy friends. They have seen how my son responds to the bright colors of the chart and revels in his new toys and want to know exactly what they should do to modify their own kids’ behaviors. I’m happy to help, but I’m certainly no expert. All the credit goes to Supernanny. I don’t agree with all of her parenting techniques, but on this one, she’s my behavior guru.

Perhaps I’m choosing the easy way out by giving my kids the material things they most desire. But I’m also teaching them that if you follow the rules and listen to what people are asking you to do, you will reap the rewards of that behavior. New toys don’t come for free and appreciating delayed gratification will serve them well for the rest of their lives. Positive reinforcement is the way to go; it’s finding the right rewards that’s the tricky part. Hopefully, this phase of their lives will end before their teen years, and I’m purchasing new condos and cars for my kids. Or the psychologists will be right, and my kids will do what’s expected of them because I have taught them that behaving well results in the intrinsic rewards of pride and self-worth. Maybe I should start saving now, just in case.