Stop Bribing and Start Teaching: One Family's StoryThe father sitting across from me is genuinely bewildered. He doesn’t understand what his wife is talking about. The immediate issue seems to be what it takes to get their three boys (ages 10, 9, and 7) to clean their rooms on Saturday mornings.

“You talk to him,” Anika said to me. “I can’t get through. He just doesn’t get it that bribing the kids to clean their rooms is a terrible idea.”

“Hold on,” said Jack. “You wanted me to take charge of the Saturday chores and that’s what I’m doing. You have to admit that it’s getting done now.”

“Yeah. But only because you promise them a trip to Red Lobster for lunch if they do it.” Anika was barely keeping her voice civil.

“What’s wrong with that?” asked Jack. “I get paid money for work. They get paid with a lobster roll. I don’t see why we had to come to a counselor just about fish.”

Anika turned to me. “You see what I’m dealing with? He doesn’t get it. Two weeks ago, they were satisfied with McDonald’s. Now it’s Red Lobster. The oldest has started to lobby for a trip to get ice cream after lunch for him to keep cooperating. He says he doesn’t care what his room looks like so if his dad wants him to straighten it up, he has to make it worth his time. And the other two are following his lead. Where will it end?”

Jack shook his head. “I told the kids that they can’t get a pay increase every week. They have to do their rooms for a month without complaining to get more. I figure that’s fair.”

“Ho-boy,” I thought. “This is going to be difficult. Jack has a point that money makes the world go around. But Anika is right to be concerned. Their boys have already figured out they can negotiate more out of Dad – just for doing the very basic routines of life. Bribery does work. But I’m with Anika on this one. Where will it all end? Filet mignon at the Ritz? More important, what are the kids learning from the situation?”

I asked Jack how his parents got him to do things.

“My dad just gave us a kick or a hard slap if we didn’t do what he said. I promised myself if I had kids I’d never do that!”

So that was it. This very nice man didn’t want to hurt his kids — either physically or emotionally — as he had been hurt. But he hadn’t given his approach much thought beyond that.

Not surprisingly, Anika came from a very different kind of family. She was taught from early on that doing chores was just something that had to be done. Yes, she and her sister got treats now and then for doing an especially good job, but generally not for doing what was expected. Treats were a fun surprise, not a reward for doing what they should.

It frustrated her enormously that Jack felt doing work around the house was an imposition on their children. He thought adults should do the heavy lifting and that kids shouldn’t have to do much more than be reasonably polite and do their homework. He and his guys had a great time together. They all saw Anika as demanding and a bit of a drag. Anika felt unsupported by her husband and seriously outnumbered. She was also upset that she saw the boys developing into spoiled kids who felt the world owed them a living.

So we talked. We talked about whether Jack thought kids should be paid to do everything they don’t really want to do. Should they be paid off for brushing their teeth? For taking their dishes to the sink after dinner? For doing their homework? We talked about whether parents have the right to insist that their kids do some chores without sweetening the deal with a bribe. We talked about how he could have some authority without cash involved. Most important, we talked about why it is that the two of them –reasonable people who loved each other and their children — had difficulty agreeing about how to parent.

Looking back on our work together, I’m impressed that Jack put up with more than a couple of sessions. Having initially complained that Anika was dragging him in, he became an active participant in our conversations. It soon became clear that he hadn’t wanted to upset Anika. He did want his boys to be good workers and to not take their mother for granted. But he hadn’t really thought through the implications of bribery as his chief method for enlisting cooperation. Once he could take a step back from the argument, he was interested. Once he was interested, Anika could stop fueling her concerns with anger. They came to a new understanding of each other and started setting mutual parenting goals.

For our kids to function independently in the world, it’s our job as parents to lay in basic habits of daily living. That means keeping themselves presentable, knowing how to organize their stuff, and doing the basic routines of household maintenance just because they need to be done — not because we are bribing them. Once Jack and Anika could put aside their exasperation with each other, they could agree that bribes are at best a short-term solution for getting the kids to be clean and orderly. The downside is that the kids don’t internalize the habits that will sustain them throughout life.

Jack and Anika made a short list of daily and weekly tasks that are just part of keeping oneself healthy and acceptable and keeping one’s house in order. The daily list included showering, tooth brushing, putting laundry in the hamper, and doing homework. The weekly list included making up their beds with clean sheets, straightening up and vacuuming their rooms, and doing one chore from a rotating list of general household tasks (vacuuming common space, washing the kitchen floor, cleaning a bathroom). They agreed one of them would help the 7-year-old but that the other two were old enough to do a good enough job on their own.

In recognition that Jack also had a point — that kids need to learn how to earn — an additional chore list was created for paid tasks. Since the kids were so young, these jobs were defined as “assisting,” not doing. These were jobs that either parent was glad to pay for having company and assistance. No surprise, tasks such as shoveling snow, big garden projects, washing windows, cleaning the garage or basement or attic made this list. They set a fair price for assisting with either all or part of the jobs and agreed to offer them to the kids before they hired the teenager down the street or resigned themselves to doing such chores alone.

Then came the hard part: Talking about what to do if the kids balked. For daily hygiene tasks, the consequence was simple. Anika and Jack already spent some alone time with each boy before he went to bed. It was a time that each boy saw as special. They agreed that if daily tasks weren’t done, they would regretfully decline to have the nightly bedtime story or talk. People who “stink” aren’t people they wanted to get close to for a cuddle or chat.

For weekly chores, they agreed that it made a kind of sense to teach the kids that one hand does wash the other in a lively household. If the kids didn’t do their jobs, perhaps they could stop doing some of theirs – like giving the boys rides or agreeing to have their friends come over. As long as such consequences are stated without anger but rather as a matter-of-fact result of behavior, they are surprisingly effective.

One way to surprise kids into paying attention in situations like this is to apologize for not teaching them as we should. The couple agreed to hold a family meeting to make their heartfelt apologies and to explain the new system. They made up the daily and weekly chore lists to post on the fridge. They decided to introduce a big word –k reciprocity — and to explain that some things just have to be done because it’s what people who care about each other and themselves do and do without complaint. So they wouldn’t fall into nagging about the lists, they decided they would tell the boys they would only be reminded once. If someone didn’t feel like doing his job, mom and dad wouldn’t feel like doing something they decided was proportionally inconvenient. There was no point in anyone getting mad. A deal is just a deal.

When I checked in several weeks later, Anika was cautiously optimistic. The boys were generally cooperating. Each had tested her or Jack once by refusing. Both of them had managed to hold to their end of the deal and to calmly say “Okay. But that means no rides today. You have an hour to change your mind or not. It’s up to you.” Each time, the boy had “changed his mind.” Everyone stayed friendly and life went on.

I asked for Jack to get on the phone too. He was especially happy with the system because he didn’t have to get mad to get things done. Best of all, he and Anika felt like they were working well together as parents for the first time in a long time.