08 March 2008

The Art and Science of Bribery

Bribery: A useful weapon in the parent's arsenal. I wish I could gloss this under the more-respectable sounding behavioral science category of "positive reinforcement," but I'm afraid it's not quite that noble.

Case Study: A mother, who happens to be 8.5 months pregnant, bundles her preschooler and toddler outside to play. It's cold but sunny, and a good time is being had by all on everyone's favorite snowpile at the far side of the yard (which, being continguous with church grounds, is quite sizable). But the windchill is turning nasty and Mom's back is killing her. It's time to go in--at least in Mom's opinion. She knows the boys are not of that opinion.

Now, she has two options:
1)Simply inform the kids that it's time to go in, at which point a happy situation will quickly degenerate into a worst-case scenario: whining, protests, coaxing, threats, screaming, culminating in the attempt to haul a 75+ lb. boy-octopus across the snowy yard.
2) Offer a bribe that will result in cheerful compliance.

Can you guess what I did? I brightly announced, "All right, boys, pick up your shovels and buckets. It's time to go inside and have some...[drumroll]...chocolate milk!" Immediate, cheerful cooperation did indeed result.

Before anyone gets too excited about me abdicating proper parental authority in favor of shameless, thoughtless bribery, allow me to point out the crucial nuances here. Then you can render your verdict:

1)It's still Mom, not the kids, deciding when the activity will end. The decision is handed down as a statement, not a question. The statement is not weakened by the tacking on of an "okay?" at the end. Actual, as well as seeming, parental authority is thereby upheld.

2)The picking up of one's toys is assumed, not optional. No negotiation there.

3)The terms of the bribe are thought out beforehand--again, no negotiation. Such an offer is never made in response to whining or a tantrum. (For instance, a tantrum in a checkout aisle will never result in candy being purchased there--though we've had very few incidents of that sort, once ground rules were established and understood.)

4)Had protests ensued after all, I would imemediately have clarified that chocolate milk is a privilege, not a right, and I would have somehow hauled them back inside sans treat.

5)Also note the benefits of regularly and un-American-ly depriving your children of food items that other kids misguidedly consider to be an on-demand right (other examples include gum, cereal with marshmallows, fruit snacks, American cheese slices, and other processed snack foods). Hence, food becomes a useful tool.

We are teaching (well, attempting to teach) our children to obey, not for expectation of reward, but because it's the right thing to do. That will mean occasional quite public humiliation. Case in point: Mr. Almost-Four and I had a heart-to-heart in the women's restroom during Wednesday evening's church service. I had to usher him out with a firm grip on his arm, with him saying, "but i don't WANT you to spank me!" all the way. I could have appeased him into quietude in the pew (thereby depriving the parishioners of their week's amusing topic of conversation) but that would not have been an artistic, scientific application of bribery and hence was eschewed. (For the record, I was not intending to and in fact did not spank him.)


Gauntlets said...

Flavored milk is the number one mode of bribery around here, too.

"Hey kids! Who wants to play Pick Up All the Sticks In the Yard? I'll give all hard workers some strawberry milk!"

And they start gathering like the tiny ants they are. I love motherhood.

johnqmercy said...

Or there's the other method, which some argue for here in Florida.
Mother Pressure-Washes Local Child

Reb. Mary said...

Let me get this straight: power washing to CALM the child? Now why didn't I think of that? All that Florida sunshine must be getting to people's brains. Send some up here, where our brains have been affected by lack of it.

Rebekah said...

Brilliant execution and analysis. I can't believe you're going outside to play at all--I'm committed to lying sluggishly on the couch all day when there's only one month left on my baby ticker.