Why Bribes Backfire

Being quarantined at home together during Covid-19 did not seem like a big deal until the announcement came that the quarantine had at least another month to go.

Frazzled parents are trying to run their work and business at home and maintain an air of professionalism, yet in the background their unsupervised children, who are supposed to be doing homework, are making a ruckus. Fighting and stress have skyrocketed.

Instead of bribes, try rewards
Frazzled parents are trying to run their work and business at home and maintain an air of professionalism.

In the recent Wall Street Journal article, “Parents Teach At Home, and Get Schooled”, one conscientious father describes how his initial plans deteriorated as three separate schedules for his children failed. He finally found himself throwing excessive amounts of money and unlimited screen time at his kids in the hopes of being able to maintain his job. Another mother described how her daughter no longer was interested in watching her favorite movie “Frozen” and had already watched almost every cartoon available on Disney Plus. Meanwhile, high schools are notifying many parents that their teens are not turning in the required assignments.

Parents are in the process of restructuring things at home to adjust for the long haul. They are keenly aware that the emergency measures they defaulted to will not maintain sanity for another month.

There are 3 simple strategies that can help your family get through the Covid-19 quarantines successfully.

#1: Nix the Bribes

Bribes are not the same as rewards
Bribes are not the same as rewards.

If you want to make things work in the long run, say good-bye to all the bribes. Use rewards instead.

Wait, you say. Aren’t rewards and bribes essentially the same thing? No. There are key differences. Bribes are not rewards, and rewards are not bribes.

Bribes are things your children are getting that they do NOT have to work for and have done nothing to earn. Bribes are pre-emptive strikes. They are handouts without the desired behavior first being demonstrated.

In contrast, rewards are things someone does honest work to earn beforehand.

Bribes are not the same as rewards
Is a lollipop a reward or a bribe?

Case in point: your 5-year-old is acting up in the store. You hand him a lollipop and beg him “for the love of all that’s holy” to please stop. That’s a bribe. The 5-year-old is holding you hostage. You have no guarantee of good behavior. You know you only have 5 minutes before that lollipop is gone before things are probably going to get bad again.

Bribes are not the same as rewards
Bribes seem to work in the short run, but they guarantee more problems in the long run.

Same situation. Your 5- year-old is acting up in the store. You tell him you have a lollipop. You show it to him. You tell him, “If you can go the next 10 minutes obeying and helping, you can earn the lollipop. If you disobey, however, I will start the 10-minute timer over.” Then, after 10 minutes of good behavior, you give him a lollipop. Now the lollipop is a reward, not a bribe. This was an honest deal that your son had to work for. You held the cards.

If you pay your kids any reward because they are acting up, it becomes a bribe. But why does that matter? The problem with bribes is that instead of encouraging kids to behave and work hard when they want something, they know that if they do the exact opposite and misbehave, that is when they will receive the reward. They are literally being rewarded for misbehaving. Bribes actually condition people to misbehave. Bribes seem to work in the short run, but they guarantee more problems in the long run.

Bribery teaches the wrong lessons
Rewarding kids for crying or fighting literally teaches them to misbehave.

During Covid-19 quarantines, say no to bribes even though you are in a desperate situation.

Try This Instead

Create a list of chores you want your kids to complete daily. Keep in mind, with everyone home all day, there are going to be more dishes and more messes in general. You will need more help from everyone.

Sit down with your kids and create a habit to-do list for each of your kids of about 10 items.

With the help of your kids, come up with a list of daily tasks.

Include a balance between homework goals for the day, emotional/spiritual goals, talents, and physical goals such as exercise and bedtimes. That way your children will maintain a sense of health and balance during the Covid-19 quarantines.

Set up reasonable rewards if they complete their tasks before 5:00pm. If the kids are younger, set up more frequent rewards but set time limits. For example, one hour of playing with blocks if they get their chores done before 9:00. A walk to the park if they take a nap without a fuss.

Set up reasonable rewards for accomplishing tasks.

If you set up rewards this way, your children will get their work and chores done independently and you will be able to focus on the work you need to get done as well.

Track everyone’s progress for the day and for the week. This can be done on paper or on an app like Moneypants.

If...Then statements help you know you are not bribing
If...Then statements help your kids know what you expect.

You will know you are using rewards and not bribes when you find yourself using IF-THEN statements. IF you get your homework done. THEN you can watch one TV episode before bedtime. IF you get your chores done all week, THEN you can play one hour of video games on Saturday. IF you complete seven of your habits every day, THEN you can order out pizza on Friday.

When you create the rewards, make sure you involve the whole family and get their ideas and input. You as the parent have the final say. However, if you collect input, you are much more likely to get cooperation and the rewards are more likely to be meaningful to your children.

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#2: Don't Over-Reward

Don't over-reward, no matter how cute your kids are.

You tried to reward your children for behaving and getting their work done quietly and independently, but the rewards aren’t working. Why not? In recent years many articles on social media have touted that rewards are ineffective and actually backfire. Yet, psychologists have proven time and time again that rewards are extremely effective in changing behavior. In fact, studies have proven that in prisons and mental health wards, rewards can successfully be used to modify behavior in the most extreme situations.

We know rewarding can work. Why isn’t it though? The answer is simple: over-rewarding is upending the system. Psychologists are very careful to keep their rewards in balance, and that is why their rewards have power.

“Over-rewarding? I’ve never heard of such a thing!???” Yes, you have!

Supply and demand teacher economics
Supply and demand apply at home, too.

Think back to basic high school level economics. The inverse relationship of supply and demand is probably the main concept you remember. If there is an oversupply of a good or service, demand goes down and so do prices. If contrast, if there is a low supply, demand goes up and so do prices for that item.

That same economic principle of supply and demand actually describes perfectly how rewards work. If you want your reward to be powerful and in high demand and you want someone to be willing to work for it (willing to pay a high price), there has to be a limited supply.

This makes sense in writing. However, when applied in a real situation however, this concept seems completely counterintuitive. Wouldn’t eight hours of TV a day motivate desired behavior more than an offer one hour of TV per week? The short answer is “no”.

Both offers of TV time would work equally well the first time the reward is given. However, the second time you used that same reward offer, only the “one hour of TV per week” would work well.


There was an oversupply of TV in the first offer. Your kids are literally sick of watching TV. Offering them tons of TV the second day would not be motivating.

Whether they admit it or not, your kids are literally sick of watching TV.

Rewards simply don’t work in the long run because people aren’t willing to work for something they already have too much of. Rewards ONLY work if there is a demand for them. Rewards have to be “special”. In order to be special, they have to be limited.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I rarely allow my children to eat candy or treats. I pull out five small jellybeans and say, “If you clean your room, you can have all five of these jellybeans”. My kids’ eyes would pop open and they would jump right to work. They rarely get candy! There is an undersupply of jellybeans and sweets in my house, so the jellybeans are in high demand. The jellybeans are worth working for in their particular situation.

Let’s examine the opposite scenario. Let’s say my kids have an entire bag of Halloween candy stuffed under their mattress. My offer of five jellybeans wouldn’t even be worth acknowledging. They would definitely not be willing to clean their room for five paltry jellybeans. That offer is insulting.

How could five jellybeans be more valuable than a whole bag?

The lesson? Five Jellybeans only have power to motivate work IF they are a special treat.

When I was little, if a child already had everything they could possibly want and didn’t have to work for any of it, people would refer to them as “spoiled”. The word spoiled means ruined. Why would having too much of everything have such a negative connotation? It was understood that it would be impossible to motivate that child to work for anything unless by some miracle they just had a naturally good heart despite having everything. Nowadays the new term people like to use is “entitled”.

Kids who have too much are known as "spoiled" and have no motive to work.

If you over-reward your child, there is a high likelihood they will become spoiled and unwilling to work for things.

Rewards for kids can include money, screen time, movies, games, TV, getting toys out, trips to the park, socializing with friends, treats, and so forth. Because of current desperation, many parents are throwing an unlimited amount of TV, treats, games, toys and money at their children as bribes for a couple hours of quiet. However, they are unwittingly sabotaging the next day of work by creating an oversupply of rewards.

The next day there are no rewards left to offer and there is a huge oversupply of the rewards already available. Parents think their only option is to think of something bigger and better the next day, but as time goes on their options are running out and so is their patience. Hello fighting. Or worse, threats and power struggles. That’s not a good home environment, nor is it what parents want for their relationship with their kids.

The solution: do the exact opposite.

  • Put the toys in bins out of reach or in the garage.
  • Get rid of the unlimited treats.
  • Only allow educational internet sites for school.
  • Turn off the TV, YouTube, and video games.
To make toys special, put them out of reach in the garage.

Let your kids know they can earn these treats and privileges by completing their chores and homework, practicing the piano, preparing lunch, washing the dog, and not fighting with their siblings (being a peacemaker). Make the rewards small and limited and stick to what you set up. Once your kids know you mean business, they will take you seriously and things will go much smoother.

Rewards for kids can include money, screen time, movies, games, TV, getting toys out, trips to the park, socializing with friends, treats, and so forth.

If you are comfortable using money as a reward for your child or teen’s accomplishments, use the Moneypants app. It is the only app designed to keep working in long-term scenarios. Ideally, you want to use both money and privileges as rewards. Just remember that less is actually more. You need your system to work for at least a month longer.

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#3: The Magic of Individual Time

Nothing says "I love you" more than individual attention.

Kids want to know their parents love them, and nothing screams “I love you” more than individual attention. With parents feeling overwhelmed and the home being out of control, many parents are so stressed out, they aren’t taking time to spend with their kids. This leads to kids acting up. As one psychologist put it, “bad breath is better than no breath at all”, meaning sometimes kids will seek negative attention because it is better than not getting attention at all.

When my oldest was a toddler and her baby brother was born, she went from having all the attention of her mom to not getting any individual attention. When her baby brother was three months old, her feelings became hurt and she became jealous of the new baby and began to purposely hurt him. The more shocked and upset I became at her, the more she would hurt him. This was a classic case of “bad breath was better than no breath at all”.

I finally confided my problem to Anne Everett, a grandmother I knew who had already raised six children of her own. She told me a trick she had learned. She said that if I put the baby in another room and spent just 15 minutes a day doing something with my little two-year-old daughter, things would most likely change. “Just 15 minutes each day. That’s all!” she assured me. I tried out her advice and to my surprise, it immediately changed things. My daughter calmed down. She began playing happily on her own. She began being nice to her baby brother again and soon became good friends.

Spending individual time with my daughter completely changed her behavior for the better.

You are probably thinking, “Duh! Why didn’t she figure this out on her own?” Well, it wasn’t as obvious as it seemed. You see, I was a stay-at-home mom. I spent my ENTIRE day with my kids, that was the point of being a stay-at-home mom. I was spending ALL my time with my daughter, so it didn’t occur to me that she was looking for more attention. However, there is a difference between being around someone all day and giving them individual attention.

Similarly, during Covid-19 quarantine, you may be in the exact same situation. You are spending 100% of your time cooped up in the house with your kids. How could they possibly want to spend MORE time with you. You’ve never spent more time with them in your life!

However, you may find that if you put your work aside and go on just a 15-minute walk with just your son or your daughter individually and give them your undivided attention for just 15 minutes, magic will happen. Make lunch or do a baking project with just one of your kids. Paint nails. Try out a new hair style. Play a board game. Try cutting their hair. Shoot baskets with just that one child. Run an errand together. Just 15 minutes. It will change things at home. There will be less fighting and more cooperation. Your family will get through Covid-19 and not hate each other. Who knows, you could get through this and actually like each other more.

A mere fifteen minutes of individual time...
...will help during quarantine.


What about you? Do you work at home? What methods do you use to keep your children occupied so you can get work done? Leave a comment below.

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Hannah Judd

Hannah Judd

Hannah is the co-creator of Moneypants and is the mother of 15 amazing kids.

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