Using Bribes and Threats to Motivate your Kids- How’s it Working out for You?

Do you frequently find yourself drawn into a battle over homework with your daughter- or for that matter with any responsibility?  Does your son hurry through assignments, producing sub par work in order to spend more time watching TV or chatting with friends or does he just dilly-dally his time away?  Do you find yourself offering rewards, threatening to take away privileges or resorting to nagging, lecturing and even arguing?   Do you wonder how you can get your kids to be responsible for their work without having to battle?

The challenge you are engaged in needs to be won (by you!) because gaining a strong work ethic is essential for kids:  They need to develop strong mental habits and learn how to produce quality work. They need to learn how to be productive and responsible citizens.  Doing what they ought to be doing however is likely not what they want to be doing. To make one’s brain focus and attend to work is a struggle that requires some serious training!

Bribes and threats are common weapons parents use in this battle but if we are honest with ourselves, they are not very effective. Kids may step it up temporarily to get something they want, but external rewards quickly lose their motivational effectiveness and do little to grow an inner sense of responsibility.  Meanwhile the parent has to keep increasing the bribe AND remain in the driver’s seat directing the kid’s every step.  It’s exhausting!

When you get right down to it, we resort to bribes and threats because we don’t want to see our kids deal with the negative consequences of their personal choices; so we try to intimidate them into doing- or not doing something. For example your daughter has a major project due but wants to go to her friend’s party, so you threaten to not let her go unless she produces a quality project. Then you nag her incessantly because you secretly don’t want (or plan) to have her miss the party anyway. In order to become responsible, she needs to learn that HER good choices likely produce good outcomes:  good grades, encouragement, privileges, and even confidence. Likewise HER poor choices likely produce poor outcomes: low grades, disappointment, loss of privileges, and a loss of confidence.  Only by experiencing the “law of reaping and sowing” will she grow intrinsically motivated to make good decisions and choose to do what she ought to be doing.

And how about our ridiculously outlandish bribes and threats like “You will never watch TV again unless you do that assignmentorYou will be grounded from friends for the rest of the school year (or life!) unless you get a good grade on this test”  orIf you don’t pick up your toys I am never buying you anything again!” The over-the-top ones actually undermine confidence in the parent. They come off as off-the-cuff reactions (which they often are) that encourage kids to not take their parents seriously or trust their word or judgment.

Stand on your word. If you say you’re going to do something, follow through.  Otherwise don’t say it.

It’s the parent’s duty  to clarify  limits (Kids who complete their homework may watch TV, spend time with friends, etc) and then stand back calmly and quietly assuming they will follow through.  Expect your kids to understand the limits but recognize that it is their “duty” to test the limits to see if you really mean what you say.

Limits and threats sound similar but the message is vastly different. Setting a limit sounds like this:  “Kids who complete their homework can watch a TV show” or “kids who eat dinner get dessert”  A limit is a standing rule in your household that is consistently upheld. A threat on the other hand is manipulation intended to get the desired behavior and it sounds like this: “If you don’t do your homework, you can’t watch TV.”  To kids, a threat invites challenge and dissension because there is a level of emotion attached to it.  In addition, a threat feels like you are trying to manipulate and control them – which they fight against.  The goal needs to be for kids to learn – and practice how to – manage and control themselves.

Speaking of  the repeated reminders and warnings -they need to go, as do the lectures , if natural outcomes are to do the teaching instead. Besides, all this talking doesn’t work except to exhaust you and hold you responsible for making your kid work!  Kid benefit greatly when they learn to experience the joy that comes from independent success as well as the pain that comes from irresponsible decisions. The parent benefits (with time and renewed energy) when they quit assuming responsibilities that are not theirs in the first place and hold kids responsible instead.

Finally, be consistent.  Don’t give in to the limits you have set.  Hold on.  If you are inconsistent, you inadvertently encourage kids to test the limits.  Say what you mean and mean what you say!  Otherwise the challenge of finding out if they can “win” may well be worth the risk.  It’s like gambling:  “Maybe this time mom will give in.”  Once your kids know your limits are firm, they will settle down and focus on what they ought to be doing.  It is better to set fewer limits that you consistently hold to than many limits that you are inconsistent with.

A man reaps what he sows.  The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.

Galatians 6:7-8


  1. I like the part about giving multiple warnings…I have a tendency to do that and I can see why it’s bad.

  2. This is great! I have one quick question. With my 2-year-old, she’s really challenging me on hearing and obeying the first time. I’m finding that when I ask her to come/pick up something/etc. she is ignoring my first request. I’ve been resorting to “Hey, if you don’t listen and obey I’ll have to give you a spanking” but it’s starting to feel like a threat. It’s working for now, but I would like her to obey the first time and not have to constantly threaten spankings (or have her wait until I threaten a spanking to obey). Any advice for me?

    • Because she is “in training” I recommend that you tell her one time and if she does not respond, rather than repeat the command (which encourages her to not listen the first time) calmly and quickly count 1 -2- 3 and then walk over and deliver a consequence. The counting is a simple reminder that you expect her to obey quickly. (That means you can’t drag out the counting making 1-2-3 into more like 1 to 20.)

      Again because she is “in training” at 3 take her by the hand and try assisting her in following through or if she continues to be defiant, then spank her or remove her to an isolated place where she has to think and not have fun.

      • That’s a great tip….thx!

  3. Thank you for the toothbrush example because that is always a hard one for me to be ok with natural consequences of cavities. Great reminder of boundaries/limits. I need to reverse some of my sentences especially for my son who loves to check where the line is.


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