Why Threats and Bribes Don’t Lead to Cooperation and What to Try Instead

Getting children to cooperate can be tricky at times. Especially when you have more than one child and busy schedules. It’s not unusual to turn to quick fixes like threats and bribes to get children moving.

But…threats and bribes aren’t helpful parenting tools. Because they lead to power struggles, arguments and discouraged children.

But they work!…. Have you ever caught yourself thinking that? Have you seen first hand a little bribe getting children to cooperate? Threats and bribes often seem like a great,  quick fix. Especially in a tough situation where you need kids to listen up and cooperate. But threats and bribes fall right into that too good to be true and quick fixes tend to fail category. 

Bribes and threats steal opportunities for learning and connection. 

Pam leo, author of Connection Parenting explains “threats create disconnection and undermine the parent-child bond” 

Especially if you are using threats and bribes as the absolutely only way to get your children cooperating (a.k.a. the kids are tuning you out until the yelling and threatening starts) then all your child gets to practice is compliance. And compliance in the long term chips away at self-esteem, capability and wellbeing.

Children actually tend to feel frazzeled and discouraged when all they do is follow threats or “cooperate” for rewards. This power dynamic can also lead to children struggling to assert a healthy dose of  independence.  And your relationship with your child is likely to be muddled with resentment,arguments and conflicts. 

Here are three ways to move beyond bribes and threats and start inviting cooperation. 

#1. Avoid statements that are loaded and vague:

“You are being so bad…just you wait and see what happens!”

“If you don’t straighten up, I’m going to have to deal with you in a way you’ve never seen before!”

“Oh, I’ve had it, get moving or else!”

What does “stop being bad” really mean “straighten up” “or else”??? Children really need more specific information in order to stop or start something.These phrases are discouraging, make children fearful but also lead children to act out in retaliation, or continue doing what they are doing because they simply don’t have enough information to understand what it is you want them to do.

Alternative:  Describe the behavior that is not acceptable. 

“You may not hit.”

“Kicking my seat when I am driving is not ok.”

“Teasing your sister is not acceptable”

#2. Remember cooperation happens when children feel capable and encouraged: So instead of threatening try offering alternatives that involves your child in the process. It might sound like this: 

  • “Hitting the dog hurts. Do you want to brush him? The dog would love some special attention from you!”
  • “Would you like to look at this book while we drive? We are only 5 minutes away, so almost there!”
  • “Do you want to come over here and help me? Your sister would like to play alone right now, but I would like your company!”

#3. Use language that invites cooperation:

  • I’m looking for two assistants to set the table! Any takers?
  • Let’s work together: I’ll put these books on the shelf, would you like to put blocks away or animals in the drawer?
  • We still have five minutes before leaving, anyone need help with anything so we leave on time?
  • I am happy to keep you company while you sort your books.

Here are 35 more Examples of phrases that welcome cooperation.

Of course there are moments when children just really would rather have some space to cool off, or they may be having a hard time because they are tired or overwhelmed. In such situations, it helps to ask yourself “What do I want my child to learn from this situation?” and “What can I do to HELP my child cooperate?”  A “working with” attitude towards discipline and cooperation leads to more connection, trust and ultimately children that feel capable and that want to cooperate.

So, has there been a time when your thought you might need to use a threat or bribe and were able to turn the situation around? How did that work out?

Peace & Be Well,

Ariadne

For more information on a connected approach to discipline and parenting I highly reccomend “Connection Parenting” by Pam Leo. 

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and has completed several graduate courses in child development, psychology and family counseling. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

14 thoughts on “Why Threats and Bribes Don’t Lead to Cooperation and What to Try Instead

  • Mandy

    I am so guilty of doing the empty threats and reading this I see it’s not helpful in the least. Thank you for pointing me in a better direction. Fingers crossed I can do better!

  • Emily

    I still feel completely lost. I am realizing that I only use threats and bribes but cannot figure out ways to stop. When k need the children to go upstairs after dinner and brush their teeth/get ready for bed. Instead they sit on the couch/play while I’m cleaning up. I say “I really need you to go upstairs and brush your teeth”. They ignore so finally I resort to a threat. i need kids to put their toys away every day so the dog does not eat them. Day after day the dog eats them…so I state what they already know, put the toys in the toy room or the dog will eat them, they still don’t listen, so I have to tell them I am taking all the toys away but then how do they learn? It seems like natural consequence (dog eat you) doesn’t teach. My youngest climbs across the side table every day. Gets on it and jumps onto the couch. It is a rule not to jump on the couch or get on the table. I tell him every day “please get off the table. Sit on the couch, it’s not for jumping”. Why is it every day? Then I end up turning off the TV because that’s usually where he’s headed when he does it. four year old will not eat dinner with the family. We sit every night and have dinner but he gets up and doesn’t eat and then wants to eat later on. I don’t mind the eating part but I do mind that he won’t sit with the family. Without threats (sit with the family because you’re a part of the family or go spend time alone) or bribes (I will let you have xyz if you will sit with us) how do I get him to sit?

    • Hi Emily, I hear you want your children to listen and cooperate more. What jumps out here is the end of the day struggle…because the end of the day can be tricky . Parents typically have so much to do and we want the children to get ready quickly and independently. What I have noticed over and over again is that when parents are willing to take the time to slow down and work WITH their children, instead of expecting them to do it all on their own, children start moving through each step of the evening routine more willingly – and automatically the struggles and consequences dynamic dissolves and as a result you gain MORE time instead of having to struggle and threaten each step of the way. In what ways would you be willing to work WITH them for now? By WITH I mean can you keep them company, can you set up a picture chart that they can follow, can you create a fun ritual like doing a hug and kiss between each step or high fives after pajamas, then again after teeth brushing etc… the more present you can be the sooner the night routine becomes a safe, calm, “together” event that is plesant and the children are likely to stop resisting it, and in fact looking forward to it 🙂
      Also “Why everyday” is often a sign that a child has figured out a great way to grab attention – so it can be helpful to reflect on why this is happening and how you can change that routine? Relying on threats is often a sign that we aren’t being very clear with ourselves and our own limits and values – this is something that you can reflect on as well if you would like. I hope this is helpful to you.

    • Hi Patricia,
      I would define a bribe as a conditional exchange where are parent gives or allows the child something for complying with an expected behavior. Here are some specific examples of bribing: “I will give you a piece of candy IF you clear the table” or “If you get in the car nicely, at the zoo I will buy you a nice toy” “If you don’t hit your brother again until we get home I will let you have 30 minutes of ipad time.” “Smile for this picture and I’ll give you a gummy bear” Bribes, prizes and threats all work on the assumption of controlling behavior – Earning privileges can have a place in positive parenting – especially if it is based on a child showing capabilities and assuming the responsibility that comes with such a privileged —however it would be up to us parents to NOT take away such privileges as a control measure but instead to help the child find good solutions for when problems come up…. Here is an example…Say a child is 10 and has been going to bed at 815 each night, but they love to read and want a bit more time before lights out..they have thus far shown they are able to respect lights out and get up in the morning without a fuss…ok they can have 15 more minutes…so you might say “now that you are 10 years old, you may have 15 extra minutes of reading time in the evening. How will you remember to turn out the lights at 8:30?” This simultaneously gives the child a privileged and a responsibility. Now let’s say the child keeps going over the 15 minutes or refuses to turn out the lights? The positive approach here is not to threaten to take the time away or to bribe with a start for the nights they have done lights out on time—but rather to find a solution, perhaps an alarm, a reminder, or something the child suggests etc…This shows the child we have faith in their ability to grow into their responsibilities and confront challenges. I hope this helps!!

    • Hi Patricia,
      I would define a bribe as a conditional exchange where are parent gives or allows the child something for complying with an expected behavior. Here are some specific examples of bribing:
      “I will give you a piece of candy IF you clear the table” or “If you get in the car nicely, at the zoo I will buy you a nice toy”
      “If you don’t hit your brother again until we get home I will let you have 30 minutes of ipad time.”
      “Smile for this picture and I’ll give you a gummy bear”

      Bribes, prizes and threats all work on the assumption of controlling behavior – Earning privileges can have a place in positive parenting – especially if it is based on a child showing capabilities and assuming the responsibility that comes with such a privileged —however it would be up to us parents to NOT take away such privileges as a control measure but instead to help the child find good solutions for when problems come up….

      Here is an example…Say a child is 10 and has been going to bed at 815 each night, but they love to read and want a bit more time before lights out..they have thus far shown they are able to respect lights out and get up in the morning without a fuss…ok they can have 15 more minutes…so you might say “now that you are 10 years old, you may have 15 extra minutes of reading time in the evening. How will you remember to turn out the lights at 8:30?” This simultaneously gives the child a privileged and a responsibility.

      Now let’s say the child keeps going over the 15 minutes or refuses to turn out the lights? The positive approach here is not to threaten to take the time away or to bribe for the nights they have done lights out on time—but rather to find a solution, perhaps an alarm, a reminder, or something the child suggests would help them etc…This shows the child we have faith in their ability to grow into their responsibilities and confront challenges. This promotes capability, self-discipline and trust!! I hope this helps!!

  • Tina

    I like how many of the alternative statements are just that, statements. “It’s time to cleanup, lets pick up toys together.”. I see many parents replace polite teaching with questions. “Do you want to pick up your toys”. Way too many moms use a question mark at the end of any statement, making it sound optional. Worse yet is how many children feel they need to make most of the decisions in the house of the “?”. Moms are putting unnecessary stress on their little ones while trying to be polite. Moms, step up and lead you children. Don’t ask your kids if you should buy carrots today, tell them you need carrots and show them how to select a good purchase. When this was pointed out to me I completely changed my parenting. Great article, filled with good advice.

    • Hi Tina,
      The ? at the end of every request really can lead to a lot of power struggles! it’s wonderful to offer choices and include children in decisions and there are times where that is just not a good choice. Particularly when siblings are in the mix or schedules are tight it’s often more helpful to set expectations and make kind and clear requests. You are correct that in some homes children are left to make decisions far too often and this can create a lot of stress. Asking questions can be an excellent tool but like all parenting tools, there is a time and a way to make it most effective. Thank you for sharing your reflections and experiences.

  • I love this. I work with parents of struggling readers and kids who say, “I hate to read” and instead won’t stop playing video games. My parents have these exact issues too, and your points about working with your child are very helpful. I tell them to read with their child, just don’t tell them to go read. When we plan out how they can do that, exactly, it works wonders! I’ll be sharing this post with my families.

  • Ceistina

    Thank you, this is so helpful. I was raised with smacks and threats and now that I am a mother I tuse positive discipline. It is a struggle though because I do slip too, sometimes I say the wrong sentences, some of which you describe above. My boy who is four has the most infuriating anger when we say no, I dont know where it comes from since we dont raise our voices, we dont hit, etc
    Im at loss because the outburst scare me and I dont know what to do anymore, help!

  • Rachel

    These are great tips! But what about when I say a
    Cooperative phrase and my son (4yo) refuses? For example “let’s clean up the cereal you spilled together” and he says “no mommy, you do it!” Which of course results in me getting upset he won’t clean up the mess he made and then saying something like no more tv until it’s cleaned up (threat) etc???

    • Hi Rachel,

      great question!! It’s very true that kids don’t cooperate just because we use those phrases…sometimes it will take some extra talking and waiting for those initial emotions to pass. An alternative to threatening in this case is simply making a simple and calm decision “when the mess is cleaned up then we can move on to (insert next thing on that day’s routine here).” The when/then only works if we use it in a very calm and non threatening manner to give the child a very clear sense that cleaning up is simply what needs to happen. you can combine it with empathy and limited choices as well. “I hear you want me to help clean up, so you can choose to soak it up or rinse the rag, which do you want me to do? which will you do?” IF the child is really using that moment to have a meltdown and you can’t convince them to participate, you can also offer them an exchange. It might sound like “ok you don’t feel ready to clean this up, I will be helpful to you and do you a favor, you can do me a favor later on today!” and then find a way later in the day to have the child do you a helpful favor. RESERVE these helpful favors as exceptions – not the usual routine though or they loose value and lead to too much negotiations. Hope that helps.

  • Kristin P

    A problem in our house is that we have 2 boys 19 months apart, who when they are together their only goal is to goof off & make each other laugh. It’s a constant struggle during meal times, trying to get them off to school in the morning & of course bed time. I’ve tried to explain to them that there is a time to be silly and goof off, but during the above mentioned times it’s not OK. I feel like whenever they are awake and together it’s always mad chaos at our house. For instance, at meal time one of the boys will say something to make the other one laugh and then it perpetuates from there and they keep going back and forth. We usually end up threatening to send them to their rooms, which I hate to do… but I don’t know what else can work?

  • Megan

    I like the idea of offering alternatives when a child is doing something that goes beyond a set limit. It really involves thinking on your toes but it works well for my three year old and allows him to avoid feeling stripped of his own power. If a child does ignore the alternative(s) offered and continues to engage in the activity that is off limits, is it ok to physically remove him from the activity or remove an item from his hand in order to establish the limit? I do this sometimes because it is what another “positive parenting” author recommends. She refers to it as being a momma bear. Is that age appropriate for a 3.5 year old?

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