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February 1, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 66

Should I Bribe My Kid?

Episode 66

No one wants to be that nagging parent. Dr. Lisa explains how the trickiest transition in parenting might be when nagging no longer works with your teen. At these times, is bribing a good strategy? Dr. Lisa walks us through different approaches to motivating kids and how to respond when they reflexively say “no.” Reena and Lisa discuss when it might make sense to bribe a teen to get better grades.

February 1, 2022 | 26 min

Transcript | Should I Bribe My Kid?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 66: Should I Bribe My Kid?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: What age do your kids actually do things that you don’t have to keep nagging them over and over and over again to do?


LISA: Thirty-five.


REENA: It sure feels that way.


LISA: It can feel that way. You know actually, Reena, what interests me here, what I think of when you ask the question, is actually how there’s a real shift, for a lot of pensive feels like overnight, in terms of how nagging goes down with your kids. So, when your kids are little, you know, pre-adolescent, I think what a lot of people find, I certainly find, is if you say, you know, you need to clean your room, you need to do this thing, they may grumble about it, but if you lean on them or if you get mad, they will do it, and then, really, like one day they wake up and you say to them, you need to clean your room, and they don’t want to do it and if you get mad, then they’re definitely not going to do it did, and they just dig in their heels, and it is so much for me if you want to mark the beginning of adolescence, like that’s the moment, and so for me that’s, I think, one of the trickiest transitions in parenting to lose all your power of nagging and all your power of getting mad and actually find that it only entrenches your kid further in their refusal is not the most fun moment in parenting but a very interesting one.


REENA: Interesting. I love when we’re reading our, going through our in boxes and all the letters of parents send it, and there’s so many of them constantly where I feel like, oh my gosh, I’m so validated by this one, and this parent sends in a question asking should you bribe your kid? And it reads: ‘Hi, Dr. Lisa, My son is 11, soon to be 12, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to convince him to do anything. I listened to your other episodes about adolescence, and I know that this is par for the course, but I’m wondering if bribery is sometimes an acceptable strategy. He used to never say no when I ask him to do something, but now it’s the first thing out of his mouth. Recently, I’ve been trying to get him to join some after school clubs. Otherwise, he just comes home, watches YouTube videos or computer games. He’s a great kid, and a great student, gets his work done on time, gets good grades and is for the most part very pleasant. I don’t want to over schedule him, but I think he needs to be doing something at least three days a week because he’s driving me crazy. We don’t bribe him to do things he’s supposed to do anyway, like try his best in school, do his chores, practice piano, but is it okay to offer rewards for trying something new? Or am I setting myself up for disaster down the line? And I guess another question is how busy should he be? In some ways, I think he deserves a break, but his attitude lately tells me he needs more structure. Thank you so much for all your helpful advice.’ How do you handle that reflexive no?


LISA: Right? Where she’s like, kid, here’s a great idea, and it’s so funny this kid is like right on time for adolescence, you know? She’s putting these great ideas in front of him and he’s like, nope, nope, nope, nope, and this is not unusual. I live with two members of my family who operate with the reflexive no, that whatever you offer, actually, I remember when, my husband’s one of them, and I remember years ago we used to have ice cream every night after dinner and I would go in the TV room and I’d say, do you want ice cream? And he’d say, no, and then I’d wait a minute and I’d say, how many scoops? And he’d say, two. So, I am very seasoned in the world of the reflexive no. Okay, there’s two things that I have found work at home, and also in my office, that I think are worth trying when parents are coming up against a kid who’s just saying no, maybe just because they don’t want to do it that minute or they just don’t want to think about it. So, one option is to say to the reflexive no-er, I have something I want to run by you. I actually don’t want an answer right now. I want you to think about it a little bit, chew on it. It may not be up your alley, but, you know, think it over and then let me know what you make of it. So, to slow down the process to not actually allow them to dismiss it out of hand. So, that’s one option.


REENA: So, just saying, think about it. You don’t have to answer right now. That buys you some time, and do they really think about it and do they change their mind?


LISA: I think they may still say no, but it ups your odds of getting a yes, or it ups your odds of actually getting a conversation, right? And that’s what we’re going to want to think through about this mom and this kid is how to have a conversation. The second option that you can use in a lot of different ways, and that I find very useful, especially clinically, is if you ask something like, hey, do you want to try this an after school activity, and the kid’s like, no, you might say back, okay I totally hear you. That’s your first reaction, and that’s a completely valid first reaction. I want to leave the door open that you might have a second reaction. That if you think it over a little bit or, you know, you have some more time to chew on it that you might change your mind. So, if you have a second reaction, let me know, and I think that can be helpful because, especially imagine this from the perspective of the 11- or 12-year-old. If you say, hey, do you want to add baseball to your schedule and they’re like, no, and they’re very firm about it, it actually takes a lot for kid to come back and say, you know, actually I was thinking it over and on second thought, I would like to add baseball to my schedule. So, doing something where you’re like, I hear you and the door is still open, can make it easier for the kid to walk back through that door.


REENA: That’s really good because I think we get into a confrontation, I get the no, and then I just lose it. I lose it, and there’s no second option because the nuclear option has been executed.


LISA: Exactly. You’ve gone nuclear, and it’s over. But what are your negotiations, like do you find yourself doing this with your kids where you’re trying or you’re saying no, or they’re saying no. What are you finding right now because you’ve got a kid right at this age?


REENA: Yeah, I think that the negotiations right now is about when do I get my iPhone, and at the end of fifth grade, a lot of parents, you know, because the next step is middle school, give their kids a phone, and I don’t feel ready to do that yet, and largely because of what what you said what you said, you know, once you hand your kid a phone, it just opens on so many things, and, you know, with COVID, especially right now, he’s just so much closer to home, you know, he’s here and it’s not like they’re off doing stuff to where I need to reach him, which is really my main concern for the phone, for giving him the phone, but I do notice him try to make a point of saying, mom look, I’m taking on this extra responsibility, see, don’t you think I’m ready for an iPhone? So, I feel him trying to be conscious about taking steps, but this is like a red line. Lisa,  I, in my mind, have said at least the age of 12, but, you know, we’ll still think about it even at 12.


LISA: So, here’s something I think that applies to your son and then also applies to this boy in the letter, which is, you know, that idea of a conversation and that part of what makes for a good conversation with kids when they want something or we want something, right? When you’re coming to the negotiation table or trying to get to the negotiation table with your kid, I think it can be very helpful to tell them what the negotiables are and what the non-negotiables are, and it really invites them into the conversation and it also means that there’s not going to be any unexpected tricks or they’re not going to feel like you promised one thing and did another, so thinking about your boy for a minute, like what’s the non-negotiable here? Like what’s not happening for sure?


REENA: Getting an iPhone in the middle of fifth grade, like at this point right now.


LISA: Okay, there you go. So, to say to them, it’s not going to happen, buddy, right? It’s not going to happen because we’re not doing that. What are the negotiables?


REENA: I guess when he would get it, which is definitely at some point in middle school. I’m not saying no to any iPhone, but I just have seen the research of the further you delay it the better it is, right? So, that’s my personal decision as a parent that I’ve chosen to make, but I really don’t know when that right time is, and I think he feels ostracized because so many kids have, you know, phones already.


LISA: Yeah. Is there anything he can do, if you’ve said, you know, fifth grade is a non-starter. Is there anything he can do that would bring it closer to him in the sixth grade?


REENA: That’s interesting. I’ve never thought of that before. I’ve always seen it from, like, well you don’t really need one, you know, you come from school, you’re back here, like we don’t really need to reach you, we know where you’re at, but the phone is obviously so much more for him than the way I’m looking at it. I don’t know that’s a great question, I guess taking on more responsibility around the house.


LISA: Well, the one way to think about it, right? And then we’ll come back to this boy with the after school stuff, is we often have  to say no to our kids. They often prefer if we can say yes, when. You know, yes when you are doing this, yes when you have taken on this responsibility or yes when you are you know getting the great that we’ve agreed to, and so I wonder as you think through this with your son if there’s a yes, when that you can offer him.


REENA: That’s good, that’s really good. I want to get back to this letter, Lisa, about is it okay to bribe a kid? And the mom’s asking, here, to do more activities.


LISA: Well, all right. So, let’s think about what’s driving it because I heard two key drivers in her letter that I think are really important because if we’re going to do something like bribing, we want to have a why, we want to have a reason, and the two key drivers I heard, one was that when he comes home and is unstructured, it’s a lot of YouTube and computer.




LISA: Which you’d really rather not have happening.




LISA: And then the other, which she says right at the end, is that she gets the sense he could use more structure, right? So, these two together, and they’re very closely related, do make the case for leaning on this kid, for trying to make it happen, and I want to rest on those for a minute because otherwise, this is a great kid, I mean he is a great kid, but it’s not otherwise really clear that he needs a whole lot more activities. Like, she says he’s doing all the right things, he’s, you know, totally well behaved, he’s doing things without being bribed, you kno,  there’s all the stuff that argues for not leaning on this kid too much, but she doesn’t love the YouTube and  computer and she has the sense that he needs more structure. So, one option is bribing, and she could say, I totally hear you that you don’t want to try, you know, this coding camp after school, and I’m going to offer you this carrot to just try it, right? Because sometimes for kids once they try it, they’ll like it, and so she might feel like it’s worth using the bribe to get him over that hump. But if she remains very uncomfortable with bribing, I think there’s a couple other paths to pursue, and I always like to think what’s the path with fewer hesitations, the things I’m less concerned about, and I’ll try those first and if those don’t work, maybe we’ll fall back on bribing. So, one thing I wonder is if the issue is more about the YouTube and the computer, could the way she negotiates us with the kid go something like her saying, okay fine, you don’t have to do more activities, but actually if you’re not going to be doing stuff outside the house, when you’re in the house after school, I don’t want you spending so much time on YouTube and computer. That has to be replaced with reading or something like that. So, that’s the negotiation. Like, alright buddy, I’ll ease up on you about the activities, but the trade off is, I need for you to not be doing YouTube and computer. So, that’s one option.


REENA: What’s your other strategy?


LISA: The other option, and this goes back to the negotiables and non-negotiables, would be to say to him, listen, the non-negotiable is that you’re adding an activity. The negotiable is what you’re adding. So, I can come up with, you know, this coding camp and this chess club and this ski club and, you know, something else. Those are the ones I can think of. If you want to add something to that pile, that sounds good to me, I’m here for it. It’s not that I have to say what you’re going to be doing, but I am going to say that you will be doing something more. So, you have a choice, my sweet son, about what you’re going to be doing, but you don’t have a choice about whether or not you’re going to be doing more, and so those are two half step options, you know, like it’s reading not YouTube, or it’s something but you get to choose, that if those don’t work, and this mom remains uncomfortable with bribing, I would try those first, and then if all else fails, be like, all right kid, I’m going to, you know, do x, y and z that you’ve been wanting to do if you at least try the computer camp or chess club or whatever. That can be a way to go.


REENA: So, what about grades, Lisa? Do you think it’s a good idea to bribe your kids to up their grades?


LISA: This is a really interesting question and, you know, so she makes very clear in this letter that she doesn’t need to, that this is a a boy who does earnest work in school without being bribed to do so, but this comes up about whether or not parents should bribe kids for grades, and my general rule is no, but I will tell you the exceptions. So, the general rule is no, like it’s kids’ jobs to do their school work, it’s our jobs to do our jobs, and usually, instead of bribing them, what you can do is you can attach responsibility to freedom. So, if the kid isn’t doing well academically or doing as well academically as they should be doing, it’s perfectly reasonable for parents to say, look, like this where I can see your good judgment, and if you’re not showing me good judgment at school, no you cannot go running around the block, you know, unsupervised because I need your good judgment there. So, if you want that kind of freedom, then you get better grades and I will give you that kind of freedom. So, usually that can take the place of bribing. Now, the exception I have seen in my practice is with a 13- or 14-year-old, say a ninth grader, who is not that motivated by freedom, they don’t really care, and they don’t have much interest in school and they actually may not have that much interest in other things either, and so they’re not really doing very well academically and the parents are like, all right, kiddo, you know, we’re going to put the screws to you, if you don’t do better at school, you can’t go out on the weekends, and they go, fine, I won’t go out on the weekends, and then the parent’s like, oh no, right? Here I have a ninth grader who’s not that motivated at this moment who is shooting themselves in the foot academically and who is making part of a record that will follow them, grades, that they’re not going to be happy with in two years, and under those conditions, I have said to parents, you certainly have my permission to say to the young person, look I get it that you’re not motivated by freedom, I get it that you’re not motivated by increased, you know, privileges, but we really worry that you’re going to hit 16 and be really frustrated that these are the grades you’ve got, so we’ll bribe you to get better grades in the name of you feeling like you haven’t closed doors that you didn’t mean to close. That’s the exception I will see.


REENA: Can I tell you? I have to admit, I believe in bribing. Is that bad to say?

LISA: Do you?


REENA: I do. Because I sort of feel like in the real world you produce and, you know, in the corporate world you get a bonus structure for hitting certain targets, and it’s a motivator, right? So, I, you know, for kids for school we do an end of the year sort of like gift where it’s 20 bucks, you can go to toy store in town and pick out something for $20, but the deal is you’ve got to keep doing well and applying yourself and doing your reading and, you know, it’s not an ABCD sort of report card that the kids get in our school system, so, you know, yeah. So, it just is an incentive at the end. It’s not a big deal. It’s not like the $100 whatever that they’re asking for for Christmas. It’s a small little thing, but they look forward to it and I feel it keeps him motivated, but you’re saying it’s really not good to set up that precedent of bribing your kids, like, you get all As, or you get As and Bs and we’ll buy you whatever that thing is that you want.


LISA: Well, what’s interesting, Reena, is you’re getting us into I think a very important and subtle distinction, which is bribing versus celebratory gifts, and I think we don’t necessarily, we don’t usually take the timely that we should to sort of kind of pull these apart and think about them differently. So, it sounds to me like what you’re describing is your kids, on their own, do a pretty good job of bringing their energy and taking school seriously and doing a good job, and then you’re like, well done, congratulations, we’re proud of you.


REENA: Yeah. Yeah.


LISA: And that’s something we’ve done as well. It’s funny, it feels like it’s falling apart a little bit in the pandemic, but it used to be at the end of the school year, the restaurant at Nordstrom’s is a place my kids really like.


REENA: Yeah, it is nice.


LISA: Yeah so before the pandemic we would have sort of the end of the school year lovely, you know, celebratory dinner at the restaurant at Nordstrom’s.


REENA: Oooh, I like that.


LISA: And I would usually have gifts for them, you know, little bracelets, and I was just saying, we see how hard you work, we’re so proud of you, that’s such a good job, and I’m right there with you, like that felt good, feels good, I feel like we’ve got to figure out how to do it again, and I’m trying to just think about how that differs from saying to a kid who’s not bringing it, doesn’t want to do it, look, here’s this pretty bracelet. You get this when you do what we’re asking, and they feel materially different because the celebration is, you did great, we’re so proud of you, and we want you to know that we appreciate it, and appreciate you, and here’s how we celebrate. That, to me, somehow, for reasons I don’t even know that I can describe, that feels good. That feels fine. The carrot, right? Here’s the thing I’m going to offer you to do what I’m asking. That hazard there, and I think that the mom actually raises this in the letter, like am I setting myself up? The hazard there is then the kid might be like, well then I’m not going to do anything unless I know there’s a prize at the end, and so what we’re getting to, and I love the way just as we sort of scrape away, scrape away this all becomes more clear, what we’re getting to is there’s, I guess, two categories of things that we want our kids to do. You know one is the stuff they should do, like do well in school and, you know, not make grades that they’re going to be sorry about, and we really want to assume that they will have their own motivation and really use bribing as a kind of break glass in case of emergency option for that. The other category is where the kid doesn’t want to, has no interest, and they have a point, right? This kid kind of has a point, and the mom knows he has a point, and yet the parent has decided it really matters to me, do it for me, and I think if we’re able to say to a kid, it matters to me, do it for me, I think bribing is probably much more acceptable under those conditions because it is in this negotiable, you know, you don’t really have to do the extra activity, but I want you to category. What do you think?


REENA: You know you’ve opened my eyes about the bribing versus the celebratory gifts, that, you know, there’s a difference in the way it’s presented and the feel of it. I’m curious, though, it’s something that a lot of parents struggle with, is the question that the parent ask here is how busy should my kid be? How much structure should they have? You talk about warmth and structure all the time, Lisa, how important warmth and structure is, but when is over scheduling, like you’ve just gone overboard at this point, and when is it not enough?


LISA: This is a great question, and I love that she asks it, and I also love that she says, you know, my sense is he needs more structure. So, my sense is, go with your gut, right? If you feel like your kid needs more structure, he needs more structure, give him more structure, but I love that this parent is paying attention to the question of whether she’s going to push it too far.


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: So, here’s how busy kids should be, because it’s actually good for kids to be busy. We know this, right? Like I say, warmth and structure, structure’s good. What a lot of parents find right around this boy’s age, 11, 12, is it’s often the kid driving the wish to be busier. That their friends are doing a lot of activities , they want to sign up for a lot of activities. In this letter, the mom is one who’s pushing it more, but often it’s the kid, and so this question comes up from one direction or another, like how busy should the kid be? And I remember having this with my older daughter when she was, I think, in the fifth or sixth grade, so right at this moment and she wanted to do everything, and the way I worked it out with her is I said, sleep is the non-negotiable. You must get 10 hours of sleep a night because that’s what middle school kids need, and the moment I am standing at your bedroom door telling you to stop doing your homework because you have to go to bed is the moment that activities start coming off your plate.




LISA: And so that, for me, feels like a really good neutral rule about activity. They should not have so much activity that it is interfering with 10 hours of sleep a night. That’s too much, and then parents can work from there, and I also think, and this is such a beautiful thing that comes up in the letter, they should not have so little activity that they’re spending a lot of time on YouTube and computers in ways that don’t feel good.


REENA: That’s such a great point, such a great point, and a quick reminder about sleep. I think sometimes we forget. I was at the pediatrician a couple months ago and she’s like, you know, not getting enough sleep, that could also be causing problems. So, it made us rethink bedtime routines and getting them to fall asleep at the right time.


LISA: Yeah. So important, so important.


REENA: Wow. Well this is a lot of that we’ve dug into with bribing. What do you have for us for parenting to go?


LISA: I think for me the key parenting to go is to realize that you’ve got different options available to get your kids to do the things you want them to do. Sometimes, it’s praise, sometimes it’s attaching meeting their responsibilities to having expanded privileges that works really well as kids move into adolescence, and sometimes maybe it’s a bribe.


REENA: Sometimes it’s a bribe. And you believe that appropriately when you should pull the lever on the bribery.


LISA: Yep. It can come in handy.


REENA: And next week, Lisa, we’re going to talk about should my teen go to a sleepover with her boyfriend. I’ll see next week?


LISA: See you next week.



The advice provided here by Dr. Damour and the resources shared by her AI-powered librarian, Rosalie, will not and do not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.