We’ve all heard it before. “You’re just bribing him to be good!” And we sometimes have to wonder…is that true? Are we bribing our kids to be good? And if so, is it working?
Let’s look at what bribery means.
According to the Google dictionary on my phone, to bribe is to “persuade (someone) to act in one’s favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement.”
Is that what we’re doing with our kids? Well, it seems like maybe YES and NO. YES, we want to persuade them to act in our favor. (To behave in the grocery store, for instance.) But NO, that’s not illegal or dishonest. Also, with bribery the payment is given in advance in the expectation of some future action.
How well does that work? Well, picture this: we give our child a piece of candy when we arrive at the grocery store and say, “If I give you this now, will you be good in the store? No whining, crying, or begging for me to buy you things?” Of course, any kid would agree and take the candy. Once the candy is gone, though, so is the memory of the promise and the power of the bribe. Now we hear whining, crying, and begging for more candy. No matter how much we remind them that they promised to be good, it is too late. That candy is long gone, and so is any influence it may have had over their behavior.
Bribery doesn’t work, at least not for very long.
So, what to do instead?
We need to reinforce the behavior we want to see with rewards after the fact. And no, it’s not a bad idea to provide reinforcement for behaviors you want. Reinforcement is being paid after doing something. We all get paid for working, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That said, I would not recommend offering large, expensive reinforcers that would be difficult for you to provide (like a video game system), or that would be unhealthy for them (like an entire bag of candy). You don’t want to set up something extravagant that they will expect on every trip, but you do want something that is meaningful to them. Rather than offering to buy them a video game, offer extra time to use the video system you already own, or other screen time. Rather than a bag of candy, offer a smaller amount, such as a single small piece for every 15 minutes they show good behavior.
A FIRST-THEN agreement, with the reinforcement provided after the good behavior, can be very effective. (FIRST-THEN is preferable to IF-THEN, because the word “IF” implies that maybe it will happen and maybe it won’t.) FIRST, good behavior throughout the grocery store trip. THEN, a specified reinforcer. Make sure they understand what “good behavior” means to you. Try to keep it simple, especially with younger children. If you tell them, “No whining,” and they don’t know what the word “whining” means, you may need to coach them. If you make the agreement at home, before the trip, you will have time to coach them on what is expected. Model what whining means, saying, “I want that pleeeeeeease!” in a high-pitched wail. Do your best imitation of them, and make it fun. Then tell them that is whining. Next, model a low, calm voice, saying something like, “Mommy, may I please have that?” Let them practice with you at home so they know exactly what you’re talking about. When you explain the “FIRST-THEN” agreement, tell them that FIRST, you will go to the grocery store with no whining, and THEN they will get whatever reinforcer you have agreed on. If you don’t want your child to have candy, think of something else that they like. The chance to choose what you watch on TV for a half hour? An opportunity to play with your phone or electronic tablet for 5 or 10 minutes? If you’re already going to buy certain things, like cereal or cookies, you could offer them the chance to choose which kind. (You could set boundaries and make sugary cereals off-limits if you don’t want them in your home.) When you get to the aisle with the cookies or cereal, ask them which kind they would choose if they earn the privilege, and put it in the cart for now. Also choose the one you will buy if they do not earn the right to choose, and put that one in the cart, too. Let them know you will only buy one package of cookies, either their choice (chocolate chip) or your choice (fig bars). The other package will be put back on the shelf. This will provide a visual reminder of what they are working towards. When you get to the checkout, if behavior has been good, ask the clerk to put the fig bars back and buy the chocolate chip cookies. If they lost their privilege because of a tantrum, then buy the fig bars and ask the clerk to re-shelve the chocolate chip cookies. Will your child have a meltdown on the way to the car if this happens? I won’t lie to you, probably so. The first time. Maybe several times. But be strong! It is important for your child to learn that you mean what you say, and that whining or even screaming doesn’t work with you.
But, if they’re screaming and kicking, isn’t it better to give in just a little to make it easier to get him safely through the parking lot?
No. No, it’s not a good idea to give in even a little, and here’s why:
Your child is a learning machine. She is always learning, every minute of the day, soaking up knowledge and information like a spectacular sponge. But she’s not necessarily learning what you want her to learn. For example, if whining used to work in the past, and today it doesn’t work, she will need to escalate her behavior to get the desired result. She might go from whining to yelling, and from yelling to a high-pitched scream. If screaming doesn’t work, she might try kicking, or hitting, or pulling your hair. At this point, if you give in and let her have anything – even if in your mind it is a compromise from what she was asking for – if you give her anything after this behavior, then she has learned something. She learned that whining is not effective, but pulling your hair works. Next time she wants something the chances are high that she will either quickly move through the previous steps or go straight to hair-pulling to get what she wants.
But, this sounds monstrous! Your child is an angel, not some screaming, hair-pulling brat!
True, but even angels learn from their earliest youth what works in their environment to achieve their desired results. It does not mean they are “bad” or “naughty” children, just that they have learned a way of getting their needs/wants met that works for them. It is not easy, once learned, for them to change and learn a better way, but it can be done. It just takes a lot of work, patience and consistency from the adults in their lives.
Many grocery stores these days have baskets of free fruit for children to eat while shopping with their parents, and bless them for doing this! If your store doesn’t, you can buy a banana at the start of the trip. (Keep the receipt for proof of purchase.) For young children sitting in the cart, some parents have a special grocery store bag with toys and board books they only get to use in this setting. This can keep them busy and happy.
If your child has had a long history of impulsive, acting-out behaviors, and you don’t believe he are capable (yet) of making it through the entire grocery store without losing it, set small goals. If he gets through one aisle of the store with good behavior, he might earn one chocolate covered raisin or one tiny candy or one fish-shaped cracker at the end of the aisle. If he makes it down another aisle, he gets another. Let him know you are not randomly giving him these treats, but that he has earned them with his behavior. Also, make sure to provide a healthy snack right before the trip to the store so he is not hungry. These tiny bites should be extra because they are fun, not because he is actually hungry. The food he needs is not contingent on his behavior, but extra bits of candy or fun treats can be reinforcing. If he blows it in one aisle, he still has a chance to earn one on the next aisle. Another alternative is to have two bags, one with chocolate covered raisins or tiny candies, and another bag with small crackers. He could earn a treat from the sweet bag after an aisle with good behavior, and a small cracker (not a favorite brand of cracker) from the other bag if his behavior was less than perfect.
Older children might carry a card, and at the end of each aisle you can put a star on their card. If you don’t think they are able yet to make it through the entire store with no problems, create a level of reinforcers. Consider having up to 4 possible reinforcers: a pack of gum, a set of game cards, the privilege to choose the type of cookies purchased, and the privilege to choose the cereal. (Make sure you only offer things you want them to have and can afford.) If they get a star for every single aisle, they would earn all 4 things. For each aisle in which they did not have good behavior, they would lose one of the rewards (your choice, not theirs.) Make sure they can at least earn one so they can experience success, and then build on that success.
Remember, instead of bribing (before the fact) use reinforcement after the trip to the store is over. Stand your ground. Don’t give in when they up their game. Be pleasantly persistent and calmly consistent, and your reward will be groceries without grouchiness. You’ve got this!
Do you have any tips of your own to share about what helps you get your child through the store without staging a scene? Share in the comments, or email me with tips or questions. I love hearing from you!