"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn"-- Pride and Prejudice

It’s not Bribery. It’s an Incentive Program.

It’s not Bribery.  It’s an Incentive Program.

We recently started having problems getting Will to sleep in his own bed. I wrote about this before, wherein I described that ever since we converted Will’s toddler bed into the full-sized bed, he’s been hesitant to sleep in his room alone. So, what he did was as soon as we got downstairs after tucking him in, he’d haul ass into our dark room, climb into our king-sized bed, and fall asleep alone. Sometimes we’d move him back to his own bed, but towards the end of this debacle, even when we moved him back, he’d wake in the middle of the night and climb back into our bed between us. This isn’t so much of an issue except that Will sleeps like he’s in the middle of a mud wrestling tournament and Bill and I both got tired of taking a foot in the face in the middle of the night. Moreover, after I got pregnant, I didn’t want to risk getting kicked in the gut by our midnight interloper.

So, what to do? I started by locking Will out of our room. The problem with that was that I’d always unlock the door after Will was asleep because Bill often comes to bed after I’m asleep and he didn’t like being locked out of the bedroom. (I proposed he just re-enact that scene from Gone With the Wind when Rhett Butler kicks the bedroom door open exclaiming, “If I want into this room, no lock will keep me out!” But Bill’s a cheapskate and didn’t want to have to keep replacing doors. Whatever.) Anyway, the initial door-locking didn’t stop the midnight toddler invasion. I had to find a different way. One day, I was trying to get Will to go to the Little Gym without having a psychotic break and I finally said, “Will, if you go like a nice boy, I’ll buy you a toy airplane.” Bingo. He went. I spent $3 on a Matchbox car airplane and we all lived happily ever after. The next week, Will put up another, albeit smaller, fight about the Little Gym. So I said, “Will, if you go, I’ll give you a Hershey Nugget.” Bingo. He went and I gave him a $.05 piece of candy. The next time, I didn’t have to give him anything. He just went because he realized it was kind of fun on its own. At this point, I realized that I had stumbled onto a valuable parenting technique: Bribery An Incentive Program. I would bribe my son to sleep in his bed all night.

I ran this idea by my husband who’s a tightwad fiscally cautious man, and he was predictably against it. He said, “I don’t believe in paying a child to do what he’s supposed to do. He needs to learn the intrinsic value of doing the right thing.” Then he said, “Why are you on the phone?” And I said, “Oh, I’m calling your boss to tell him the good news that you’ll be working for free because you really enjoy the intrinsic value of your work and don’t need any financial remuneration.” After some stuttering and grumbling, Bill walked off. I put down the phone and took his response to mean that I could experiment with this technique. Let me tell you that the end result of this is that my child now goes to sleep by himself in his bed every night. He stays there all night and then awakens in the morning pleasant and cheerful… and because we aren’t being assaulted in our sleep, so do we. In short, bribing offering your kids incentives works. And here’s how:

Find the right currency

When bribing motivating your child, you can’t offer him what YOU think is cool simply because it may not be cool enough to him to make him change his behavior. Your child has to tell you what is valuable enough to him that he will comply with your desires. In our case, it was a big firetruck that Will saw at Target. I discovered Will’s currency by staging a trip to Target and just happening to pause near the toy aisle. I knew I wanted the bribe to equal about $15 for reasons I’ll explain later. Toys that were more expensive than $15, I either distracted Will away from, or made a big show out of putting them on his Christmas list. Then, Will saw this $15 firetruck and wanted it badly. I said, “Well, it’s $15. You have $10 in your piggy bank at home. That means you need five more dollars to get this firetruck. I will give you a dollar for every night that you stay in your bed all night. So that means that after five nights, we can come back and get this fire truck.” Will regarded me quietly for a moment. And then he said, “Okay.” The point is, only your child can determine what is worth it to him to do what you want. Let him choose, within reason, and you’re on the way to success.

Don’t set the goal too far into the future

Kids aren’t much for long-range planning, so the key to making a good bribe incentive program stick is to make the reward as immediate as possible without compromising your ultimate mission. In our situation, I made sure that Will already had $10 in his piggy bank and we took counting those ten dollars as an educational opportunity to learn about money. I also went in with a preconceived idea that I would encourage an incentive item around the $15 range. Five nights is a long time to a three year old, so each morning, when Will woke up, I gave him a dollar to give him some immediate gratification while also working towards the long-range goal. He put it in his piggy bank and then we talked about how many more dollars he needed. Five nights was a good time span for us because it was long enough to establish a habit, but it was short enough to keep Will’s interest and focus. I imagine different kids have different thresholds for gratification. Consider your own child’s patience when setting your distance, but if the time span is too long or too short, your bribe incentive program may not work.

Don’t micromanage how your child does what you want

When you enter into the bribe incentive process, figure out what your ultimate goal is and let that be the only thing you focus on. Let your kid determine how you end up getting what you want. In other words, in this case, the ends do justify the means. For example, the first two nights that Will slept alone, he immediately got out of his bed when we left the room and turned his light on. On the first night, he played with his cars until he fell asleep in the middle of the floor. The second night, he slept in his bed all night, but kept his light on. The third night, he went on to sleep with his light off, which he continues to do now. The point is, on the first night, I was itching to go in there and make him turn off his light, put the cars away and go to sleep. I reasoned with myself, though, that I ultimately wanted him to sleep alone in his room. How that came about wasn’t really important. And as it was, he eventually got to where I wanted him to be without my interference. Especially if the behavior you want from your child is way out of his/her daily habits, be flexible about how you end up getting what you want. Keep your eye on the ultimate goal you want your kid to achieve and let your kid determine how he achieves it.

Hold up your end of the contract, no matter what

A deal is a deal. Don’t add clauses into the contract after the fact to correct other behavior or your kid will stop trusting your word and your bribe incentive program won’t work. For example, Will woke up one morning mad at the world and he and his father tangled a bit over Will’s attitude. Bill told me when I got downstairs, “Do not give Will his dollar today. He has made bad choices.” Will started sobbing and we sent Will to time out and I said, “Bill, I know you’re pissed, but that’s not fair. We didn’t establish good morning behavior as part of the deal. He earned his dollar fair and square and I think he should have it. I think we should deal with his behavior this morning as a separate issue.” Bill ultimately agreed with me and Will got his dollar. We gave it to him, being sure to explain that we have a contract and that he earned his dollar fair and square. Then we dealt with his shitty attitude as a separate issue. It was hard not to hold the firetruck over his head because he wanted it really badly, but we ultimately knew that we had to be fair and trustworthy or we’d ruin the effect of the bribe incentive.

Let your kid take full responsibility for obtaining his reward

The neatest thing about this process was the day that we were able to go to Target and get the firetruck. Will has a little wallet, so we made a big production out of taking the money from his piggy bank and putting it into his wallet, which he took with him to Target.


Then, we went to the toys and he took his firetruck from the shelf.


After that, we took the cart to the check out counter, and he took his money out of his wallet and paid for his reward.


After that, he took his firetruck home, and I swear, it’s his favorite toy. Whereas so many of his toys lose their magic after a day or two, he carries this one around a lot and he tells everyone that he bought it himself. This brings me to my last two pearls of wisdom about child bribery incentive programs:

They have the added bonus of teaching a child the value of things

Hopefully we’ve all experienced, at least once, the magic of saving up for something and then finally being able to buy it. It means more when you work for what you have. I remember when I bought my first car. I drove a spare car of my parents’ for years while I saved money to buy my 2001 VW Jetta and while I could walk up to my dad’s ’88 Isuzu I-Mark in the parking lot, get in, and drive away without a thought, when I bought my own car, I kept a shit-eating grin on my face for weeks after having bought it. I felt so proud of the fact that I bought it myself and that I was paying for it myself. I saw that happen with Will. Not only did he learn a little bit about money and saving up/working for something he wanted, he learned how much more valuable things are when we have to sacrifice for them. For Will, that wasn’t just a firetruck. That was the culmination of multiple nights in bed by himself when he wanted so badly to come into our room. I could see his pride in himself, not just for having saved the money, but for having conquered his own fears to earn it.

The power of the bribe incentive doesn’t fade

You may be wondering if we’re still paying Will a dollar a night to sleep in his bed. The answer is no. For one, when he got the firetruck, he saw about eight other toys that he wanted to start working towards and agreed to sleep in his bed for $.25 a night. However, I can report that we’ve not paid him any money since he got his firetruck and he hasn’t asked for any, nor has he mentioned the other toys. Sleeping in his bed is habit now and he just does it. Maybe when he’s older, he’ll be more savvy about negotiating his contracts and seeing them fulfilled, but for now, he’s happy with what he’s done, the bad habit has been broken, and we’re all getting a better night’s sleep.

I don’t have too many parenting success stories, but this is definitely one, so I thought I’d share what I learned with other parents out there in case it might work for you too. Hell, you don’t even have to be a parent to employ this technique. You might find that you can bribe your significant other, your co-worker, the cop who pulls you over, etc. just as effectively. Anyway, just thought I’d share.

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