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Another Day, Another Bribe

November 16, 2010

Life with two toddlers has proven to be a an exercise in constant re-evaluation and self-doubt. And that’s just a fancy way of saying that nobody listens to me. By nobody, of course, I mean my children, and I realize that they are only two small people who don’t have any real power, by practical standards. But practical standards totally dismiss the psychological power they have. The screaming, and the crying, and the pouting, and the not caring what anyone around thinks of them or you when they let loose their worst tantrum in a public place, because you left their toy truck in the car, or when you remind them (again) that bedtime is approaching.

Oh, it’s exhausting. Knowing that pretty much everything I need them to do is going to involve a battle. There are days when I scream a lot, sometimes making myself hoarse, and then I hate myself, and my kids are no better for it. And while I have yet to find the perfect method of parenting (ha!), there IS something that has worked out pretty well for me in my times of need.

I have often come across the terms ‘positive reinforcement’, and ‘rewards’, but what this has boiled down to in our home is plain old bribes. Every kid is different, I should note, and so every bribe used must be tailored to the child in question. My first successful active bribe was when my daughter was potty-training. The only way I could entice her to go to the bathroom was to promise her a sticker afterwards. Obviously, this is not an innovative idea, since you can find oodles of stickers at pretty much any pediatrician’s office. But she LOVED the stickers, so she quietly went about the pottying, and soon we had a mural of stickers on the fridge, celebrating her achievements. “Oh, what great mothering this has been,” I applauded myself.

And with time, the bribes kept escalating. ‘Don’t want to take a nap? How about if you can watch a movie later?’ Naptime accomplished! …… But then I had to let her spend hours in front of the television. Sometimes I could persuade her with a new book, or something fun to color, or once I even ventured into watercolors (something so new and fun is atypical for me, and therefore a big deal). But the main draw continued to be the television, which is not so great. So let’s put an asterisk next to that win.

‘Don’t want to try (a reasonable amount of) what I made you for dinner? How about if you can have a popsicle afterwards?’ That one was my husband’s bribe. It was VERY successful, and morphed into an after-dinner candy once it got cold outside and we had some Halloween loot. That one still works, too… even though, yes, we are giving them candy, so… another asterisk.

But at some point, she (I only say “she” because, at 2, my son still doesn’t really seem to get any of this) started taking all of our bribes for granted. It started off cute enough. She happily told us that there would be a “surprise” after dinner one night, and “it’s a popsicle!” Then, every night after that, same thing. And when she goes down for naps, she informs me that after she sleeps really well, she can watch something on the television. Fantastic.

Well, this has stolen my power. And turned me to a darker place. And now, instead of offering her the wonderful things (within reason) that she wants in exchange for obedience and good behavior, I threaten to take those very things away. ‘If you don’t lay down right now and sleep quietly in your bed, no television for you.’ ‘If you don’t stop your whining right now, no candy after dinner.’ And I purposely omitted several exclamation marks, but it should be known that these things are not always said with such a level tone. So now I really am the bad guy, and what’s worse: it doesn’t work! So we’re back to where we started, nobody listening, nobody doing as I say.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned from all this. Try as I might to make my kids gentle, well-behaved and always-obedient, I’m assuredly going to lose more battles than I win. Because my daughter is three years old, my son is two, and that’s just how they operate. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to maintain focus on the things that really matter– how they treat us, others, and each other, for starters– and work my way up from there. And surely they will outgrow all the bad stuff, right? 🙂


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