Parents have been bribing specific kinds of behavior from children since long before any of us can remember. Children respond to this method, so it makes sense. I’ve had people tell me that this is a way to spoil a child. I have a hard time with that. In adulthood, people have to understand how to barter–how to negotiate. What better way to teach a child those skills, than to barter and negotiate with them as children?
Lets look at some scenarios that show this system in action:
We are getting ready to go to the mall. I know that my four-year-old is very curious, and likes to wander off. I sit down with her to make a deal. I tell her that I am going to bring a scarf with me to the mall, and tie one end to my wrist. If she agrees to tie the other end to her wrist, keeping her close to me, she can have her choice of reward–either an extra half an hour of TV time tonight, or her choice of a game to play.
After getting ready for my friends wedding, we have to traverse a garden path to get to the patio where the reception is taking place. My ten-year-old son is a magnet for dirt. I make a deal with him that if he stays with me on the stone path, stays clean, and promises to wait until I can get his shirt and jacket off before he starts eating, I will make sure he gets an extra piece of wedding cake.
These sorts of deals are not only common, they are healthy. They teach children the vital negotiation skills they will need later on in life. Where these sorts of things go terribly wrong is when parents start using this bartering system for their own personal control, dominance, or selfishness.
When parents make a deal like this, and the child holds up his/her end of the bargain, then the parent does not deliver, that breeds an air of distrust. The child obviously cannot trust his/her parents, and that distrust will extend to the rest of the world. Some parents simply don’t realize what they are doing. They made a promise to extend TV time, then forgot. When bedtime rolls around, they turn the TV off, and get everything ready for bed as usual. The child simply feels cheated. Other parents do so on purpose, with the intent to teach the child that “life’s not fair.” However true that statement is, the last people a child should feel antagonistic towards, is his/her parents.
Bribery with pets is especially problematic, in my opinion. The potential for disaster rises to epic levels. If the thing a child wants more than anything else is a puppy, it makes sense that getting the child a puppy would be the best bribe, right? Wrong! Parents always put conditions on pets, and it’s always up in the air as to whether or not those conditions are going to be the only ones enforced.
The first condition that parents always enact is: the child will be solely responsible for everything concerning the pet. This means walking it, feeding it, cleaning up after it, and making sure that the pet is happy, along with whatever else needs to be done. Of course, many parents make this task as difficult as possible by making sure that the child has many other chores to complete instead of taking care of the pet. When something is amiss with the pet, it is obviously the child’s fault, not the parents’ for ensuring that the child was unavailable for the pet.
Parents often forget that pets are living creatures, not just toys that can be put aside when the child is no longer playing with it. I have actually been to a friend’s house where the mother heard a noise from the daughter’s room and asked, “What was that?” Her daughter replied, “Snowball.” The mom said, “Who?” At this the little girl gave her mom a funny look and said, “Snowball…the kitten you gave me for my birthday…”
The worst scenario, in my opinion, with pets, is unnecessarily breaking a child’s heart. It is one thing not to allow a pet at all. It is something completely different to bring a pet in just to rip back away from that child, force the animal into the wild while the child watches, or keep the animal in bad conditions that the child wants to change, but can’t. If a parent has dogs, and their child wants a cat, but the parent doesn’t want cats around the dogs, it is cruel to let the child get a cat that is confined to a tiny room. The child, regardless of his/her age, will understand the pain of the cat, and want to alleviate that pain. Forcing the cat to live completely outdoors, depending on the environment, is not a much better solution. A child watching a beloved pet turn feral, and turn away from them is very painful for the child.
Scenarios tend to differ with dogs. More often than not, the parents will usurp the child’s position with the dog. The most common “explanation” is, “Since I do most of the work to care for the dog, it’s my dog, not yours.” This ties back into the trust issue we discussed earlier. By giving something, then taking it away, the child learns to distrust his/her parent.
In summary, negotiation and bartering skills are good; they are necessary for survival in this modern world. Teaching our children how to properly negotiate for the things they want and need in life at an early age is a good thing. Using bribery as a way to control, hurt, manipulate, or overpower our already defenseless children is not only wrong, it is not preparing them for anything but prisons and workhouses later on in life. I, for one, would prefer to prepare our children for success, not failure.