Why Threats and Bribes Don’t Lead to Cooperation and What to Try Instead

Why Threats and Bribes Don’t Lead to Cooperation and What to Try Instead

Getting children to cooperate can be tricky at times. Especially when you have more than one child and busy schedules. It’s not unusual to turn to quick fixes like threats and bribes to get children moving.

But…threats and bribes aren’t helpful parenting tools. Because they lead to power struggles, arguments and discouraged children.

But they work!…. Have you ever caught yourself thinking that? Have you seen first hand a little bribe getting children to cooperate? Threats and bribes often seem like a great,  quick fix. Especially in a tough situation where you need kids to listen up and cooperate. But threats and bribes fall right into that too good to be true and quick fixes tend to fail category. 

Bribes and threats steal opportunities for learning and connection. 

Pam leo, author of Connection Parenting explains “threats create disconnection and undermine the parent-child bond” 

Especially if you are using threats and bribes as the absolutely only way to get your children cooperating (a.k.a. the kids are tuning you out until the yelling and threatening starts) then all your child gets to practice is compliance. And compliance in the long term chips away at self-esteem, capability and wellbeing.

Children actually tend to feel frazzeled and discouraged when all they do is follow threats or “cooperate” for rewards. This power dynamic can also lead to children struggling to assert a healthy dose of  independence.  And your relationship with your child is likely to be muddled with resentment,arguments and conflicts.

Here are three ways to move beyond bribes and threats and start inviting cooperation. 

#1. Avoid statements that are loaded and vague:

“You are being so bad…just you wait and see what happens!”

“If you don’t straighten up, I’m going to have to deal with you in a way you’ve never seen before!”

“Oh, I’ve had it, get moving or else!”

What does “stop being bad” really mean “straighten up” “or else”??? Children really need more specific information in order to stop or start something.These phrases are discouraging, make children fearful but also lead children to act out in retaliation, or continue doing what they are doing because they simply don’t have enough information to understand what it is you want them to do.

Alternative:  Describe the behavior that is not acceptable. 

“You may not hit.”

“Kicking my seat when I am driving is not ok.”

“Teasing your sister is not acceptable”

#2. Remember cooperation happens when children feel capable and encouraged: So instead of threatening try offering alternatives that involves your child in the process. It might sound like this: 

  • “Hitting the dog hurts. Do you want to brush him? The dog would love some special attention from you!”
  • “Would you like to look at this book while we drive? We are only 5 minutes away, so almost there!”
  • “Do you want to come over here and help me? Your sister would like to play alone right now, but I would like your company!”

#3. Use language that invites cooperation:

  • I’m looking for two assistants to set the table! Any takers?
  • Let’s work together: I’ll put these books on the shelf, would you like to put blocks away or animals in the drawer?
  • We still have five minutes before leaving, anyone need help with anything so we leave on time?
  • I am happy to keep you company while you sort your books.

Here are 35 more Examples of phrases that welcome cooperation.

alternatives to threats and bribes when disciplining child

Of course there are moments when children just really would rather have some space to cool off, or they may be having a hard time because they are tired or overwhelmed.

In such situations, it helps to ask yourself :

  • “What do I want my child to learn from this situation?”
  •  “What can I do to HELP my child cooperate?”

“working with” attitude towards discipline and cooperation leads to more connection, trust and ultimately children that feel capable and that want to cooperate.

Do you currently have a parenting challenge where threats or bribes seem to be necessary?  Share in comments and I’d be so happy to offer some ideas and insights for turning things around.

Peace & Be Well,

Ariadne

For more information on a connected approach to discipline and parenting I highly recommend “Connection Parenting” by Pam Leo, and The Positive Discipline Book Series by Jane Nelsen.

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

28 Responses to Why Threats and Bribes Don’t Lead to Cooperation and What to Try Instead

  1. I am so guilty of doing the empty threats and reading this I see it’s not helpful in the least. Thank you for pointing me in a better direction. Fingers crossed I can do better!

  2. I still feel completely lost. I am realizing that I only use threats and bribes but cannot figure out ways to stop. When k need the children to go upstairs after dinner and brush their teeth/get ready for bed. Instead they sit on the couch/play while I’m cleaning up. I say “I really need you to go upstairs and brush your teeth”. They ignore so finally I resort to a threat. i need kids to put their toys away every day so the dog does not eat them. Day after day the dog eats them…so I state what they already know, put the toys in the toy room or the dog will eat them, they still don’t listen, so I have to tell them I am taking all the toys away but then how do they learn? It seems like natural consequence (dog eat you) doesn’t teach. My youngest climbs across the side table every day. Gets on it and jumps onto the couch. It is a rule not to jump on the couch or get on the table. I tell him every day “please get off the table. Sit on the couch, it’s not for jumping”. Why is it every day? Then I end up turning off the TV because that’s usually where he’s headed when he does it. four year old will not eat dinner with the family. We sit every night and have dinner but he gets up and doesn’t eat and then wants to eat later on. I don’t mind the eating part but I do mind that he won’t sit with the family. Without threats (sit with the family because you’re a part of the family or go spend time alone) or bribes (I will let you have xyz if you will sit with us) how do I get him to sit?

    • Hi Emily, I hear you want your children to listen and cooperate more. What jumps out here is the end of the day struggle…because the end of the day can be tricky . Parents typically have so much to do and we want the children to get ready quickly and independently. What I have noticed over and over again is that when parents are willing to take the time to slow down and work WITH their children, instead of expecting them to do it all on their own, children start moving through each step of the evening routine more willingly – and automatically the struggles and consequences dynamic dissolves and as a result you gain MORE time instead of having to struggle and threaten each step of the way. In what ways would you be willing to work WITH them for now? By WITH I mean can you keep them company, can you set up a picture chart that they can follow, can you create a fun ritual like doing a hug and kiss between each step or high fives after pajamas, then again after teeth brushing etc… the more present you can be the sooner the night routine becomes a safe, calm, “together” event that is plesant and the children are likely to stop resisting it, and in fact looking forward to it 🙂
      Also “Why everyday” is often a sign that a child has figured out a great way to grab attention – so it can be helpful to reflect on why this is happening and how you can change that routine? Relying on threats is often a sign that we aren’t being very clear with ourselves and our own limits and values – this is something that you can reflect on as well if you would like. I hope this is helpful to you.

    • Hi Patricia,
      I would define a bribe as a conditional exchange where are parent gives or allows the child something for complying with an expected behavior. Here are some specific examples of bribing: “I will give you a piece of candy IF you clear the table” or “If you get in the car nicely, at the zoo I will buy you a nice toy” “If you don’t hit your brother again until we get home I will let you have 30 minutes of ipad time.” “Smile for this picture and I’ll give you a gummy bear” Bribes, prizes and threats all work on the assumption of controlling behavior – Earning privileges can have a place in positive parenting – especially if it is based on a child showing capabilities and assuming the responsibility that comes with such a privileged —however it would be up to us parents to NOT take away such privileges as a control measure but instead to help the child find good solutions for when problems come up…. Here is an example…Say a child is 10 and has been going to bed at 815 each night, but they love to read and want a bit more time before lights out..they have thus far shown they are able to respect lights out and get up in the morning without a fuss…ok they can have 15 more minutes…so you might say “now that you are 10 years old, you may have 15 extra minutes of reading time in the evening. How will you remember to turn out the lights at 8:30?” This simultaneously gives the child a privileged and a responsibility. Now let’s say the child keeps going over the 15 minutes or refuses to turn out the lights? The positive approach here is not to threaten to take the time away or to bribe with a start for the nights they have done lights out on time—but rather to find a solution, perhaps an alarm, a reminder, or something the child suggests etc…This shows the child we have faith in their ability to grow into their responsibilities and confront challenges. I hope this helps!!

      • What if they have an alarm and read past that? And get out of bed after that? I think that would warrant taking it away and telling them that they cannot have the privilege of they can’t be responsible. But I think it’s imporient to give them a warning, that if they cont to be irresponsible, we are going to take ithe privilege of staying up later to read away. I think this is more challenging bc I hate discouraging and taking reading time away.

        • Hi Rachel,

          If you have made an agreement with your children that they will use an alarm and that your expectation is that they respect the alarm and that doesn’t happen, it would be time to revisit your agreement. If you strongly believe they are not ready to agree and follow this expectation then it would be important to re-evaluate your expectations and how you are communicating these. If in the heat of the moment you just threaten “you didn’t respect the alarm, you can’t have your privilege any longer” HOW do you think they will develop the skill to follow your expectations? How do they learn to manage their wants and responsibilities? (want to read / must go to sleep) This can only be learned with practice and guidance. One place to start is to get curious and empathetic “wow that story must be so very good if you are reading past our agreed alarm time!” Or at a non critical time (so not at bed time after the alarm already rang) talk to them and say “I noticed it’s hard to respect the alarm time at bed time to stop reading. I’d like to help you do this better. How can we make this agreement work for both of us?”

          In our Mission Cooperation course we dedicate a few lessons to problem solving and making agreements because these really are important as a way to encourage critical thinking, good decision making and the ability to respect family rules without having to fear consequences and lectures 😉 As you said, it’s discouraging to take reading time away, so instead, why not focus on a solution? I bet you will be happy with the outcomes and your child as well.

    • Hi Patricia,
      I would define a bribe as a conditional exchange where are parent gives or allows the child something for complying with an expected behavior. Here are some specific examples of bribing:
      “I will give you a piece of candy IF you clear the table” or “If you get in the car nicely, at the zoo I will buy you a nice toy”
      “If you don’t hit your brother again until we get home I will let you have 30 minutes of ipad time.”
      “Smile for this picture and I’ll give you a gummy bear”

      Bribes, prizes and threats all work on the assumption of controlling behavior – Earning privileges can have a place in positive parenting – especially if it is based on a child showing capabilities and assuming the responsibility that comes with such a privileged —however it would be up to us parents to NOT take away such privileges as a control measure but instead to help the child find good solutions for when problems come up….

      Here is an example…Say a child is 10 and has been going to bed at 815 each night, but they love to read and want a bit more time before lights out..they have thus far shown they are able to respect lights out and get up in the morning without a fuss…ok they can have 15 more minutes…so you might say “now that you are 10 years old, you may have 15 extra minutes of reading time in the evening. How will you remember to turn out the lights at 8:30?” This simultaneously gives the child a privileged and a responsibility.

      Now let’s say the child keeps going over the 15 minutes or refuses to turn out the lights? The positive approach here is not to threaten to take the time away or to bribe for the nights they have done lights out on time—but rather to find a solution, perhaps an alarm, a reminder, or something the child suggests would help them etc…This shows the child we have faith in their ability to grow into their responsibilities and confront challenges. This promotes capability, self-discipline and trust!! I hope this helps!!

  3. I like how many of the alternative statements are just that, statements. “It’s time to cleanup, lets pick up toys together.”. I see many parents replace polite teaching with questions. “Do you want to pick up your toys”. Way too many moms use a question mark at the end of any statement, making it sound optional. Worse yet is how many children feel they need to make most of the decisions in the house of the “?”. Moms are putting unnecessary stress on their little ones while trying to be polite. Moms, step up and lead you children. Don’t ask your kids if you should buy carrots today, tell them you need carrots and show them how to select a good purchase. When this was pointed out to me I completely changed my parenting. Great article, filled with good advice.

    • Hi Tina,
      The ? at the end of every request really can lead to a lot of power struggles! it’s wonderful to offer choices and include children in decisions and there are times where that is just not a good choice. Particularly when siblings are in the mix or schedules are tight it’s often more helpful to set expectations and make kind and clear requests. You are correct that in some homes children are left to make decisions far too often and this can create a lot of stress. Asking questions can be an excellent tool but like all parenting tools, there is a time and a way to make it most effective. Thank you for sharing your reflections and experiences.

  4. I love this. I work with parents of struggling readers and kids who say, “I hate to read” and instead won’t stop playing video games. My parents have these exact issues too, and your points about working with your child are very helpful. I tell them to read with their child, just don’t tell them to go read. When we plan out how they can do that, exactly, it works wonders! I’ll be sharing this post with my families.

  5. Thank you, this is so helpful. I was raised with smacks and threats and now that I am a mother I tuse positive discipline. It is a struggle though because I do slip too, sometimes I say the wrong sentences, some of which you describe above. My boy who is four has the most infuriating anger when we say no, I dont know where it comes from since we dont raise our voices, we dont hit, etc
    Im at loss because the outburst scare me and I dont know what to do anymore, help!

  6. These are great tips! But what about when I say a
    Cooperative phrase and my son (4yo) refuses? For example “let’s clean up the cereal you spilled together” and he says “no mommy, you do it!” Which of course results in me getting upset he won’t clean up the mess he made and then saying something like no more tv until it’s cleaned up (threat) etc???

    • Hi Rachel,

      great question!! It’s very true that kids don’t cooperate just because we use those phrases…sometimes it will take some extra talking and waiting for those initial emotions to pass. An alternative to threatening in this case is simply making a simple and calm decision “when the mess is cleaned up then we can move on to (insert next thing on that day’s routine here).” The when/then only works if we use it in a very calm and non threatening manner to give the child a very clear sense that cleaning up is simply what needs to happen. you can combine it with empathy and limited choices as well. “I hear you want me to help clean up, so you can choose to soak it up or rinse the rag, which do you want me to do? which will you do?” IF the child is really using that moment to have a meltdown and you can’t convince them to participate, you can also offer them an exchange. It might sound like “ok you don’t feel ready to clean this up, I will be helpful to you and do you a favor, you can do me a favor later on today!” and then find a way later in the day to have the child do you a helpful favor. RESERVE these helpful favors as exceptions – not the usual routine though or they loose value and lead to too much negotiations. Hope that helps.

  7. A problem in our house is that we have 2 boys 19 months apart, who when they are together their only goal is to goof off & make each other laugh. It’s a constant struggle during meal times, trying to get them off to school in the morning & of course bed time. I’ve tried to explain to them that there is a time to be silly and goof off, but during the above mentioned times it’s not OK. I feel like whenever they are awake and together it’s always mad chaos at our house. For instance, at meal time one of the boys will say something to make the other one laugh and then it perpetuates from there and they keep going back and forth. We usually end up threatening to send them to their rooms, which I hate to do… but I don’t know what else can work?

  8. I like the idea of offering alternatives when a child is doing something that goes beyond a set limit. It really involves thinking on your toes but it works well for my three year old and allows him to avoid feeling stripped of his own power. If a child does ignore the alternative(s) offered and continues to engage in the activity that is off limits, is it ok to physically remove him from the activity or remove an item from his hand in order to establish the limit? I do this sometimes because it is what another “positive parenting” author recommends. She refers to it as being a momma bear. Is that age appropriate for a 3.5 year old?

  9. The thing we struggle with most in our home is transitions. Going from playtime to errands, playtime to mealtime, outside to inside, anything to bedtime… And bedtime is actually pretty cool, each kid gets a bit of focused one on one time with each parent in their bed. But it’s very consistent that they either refuse to cooperate or plain old ignore us at many of these transition times. We’ve tried giving them the old heads up that it’s almost time to do xxxx, starting clearly it’s time to do xxxx, and often if they respond at all, it’s to argue about why they shouldn’t have to do whatever because they are already engrossed in something else (which, as a task oriented person, I get). It’s enough to raise anyone’s ire. They are both headstrong, independent kids, quite witty, and did I mention they are 5 and 8 yrs old?
    What can we do?

    • Hi Rachel,

      You may want to try a few positive discipline tools to solve this 1. Family meetings 2. Routine charts 3. Agreements 4. Kind and Firm follow through
      All of these tools can help you take the struggle out of this problem and start focusing on solving the ongoing arguments. Getting the kids to speak up about what they like & don-t like about the end of the day routine and inviting them to be part of the solution is likely to lead to some great ideas. This just came up with another family in our Mission Cooperation course / learning to use the power struggle stopping tools made a big difference for them, particularly making a routine chart WITH the kids *not for them* and getting everyone talking about how to make the evening smoother. Since you said you “get” why it’s happening – a good dose of empathy and follow through may be helpful as well. It stands out to me that involving them in the solution (especially the 8 year old) would be your first step! You can download a family meeting workbook at the end of this post!

  10. We are experiencing defiance and escalating power struggles which lead to outbursts and sometimes violence in a 7 (almost 8) year old boy. He doesn’t seem phased by consequences at all. It’s been suggested to use an incentive chart. What alternatives are there to an incentive chart? The school uses one also. How do you instill internal motivation as opposed to external? Thank you!

    • Hi Amy,

      Power struggles and defiance are a very often a sign that a child is feeling pushed around, controlled and discouraged. Incentives and consequences are control measures that focus on external validation and adults calling the shots. Basically kids learn that they need to behave a certain way out of fear or because someone is watching…not because it’s the “Right” thing to do. Reducing conflicts will start with taking the focus off of control and placing it on cooperative problem solving, building connection with the child and helping the child notice their own capabilities. Internal motivation is heavily driven by a sense of capability and belonging. I can highly recommend the Positive Discipline books,a local class in your home town or the Mission Cooperation Positive Discipline Online class. As you noticed consequences only work occasionally but not with any consistency – may children throw in the towel and beging to believe “i’m bad, i can’t do what they ask, i might as well just not care or show them how mad I am…” This can be turned around with agreements, routines, spending quality focused time, taking away consequences and replacing them with cooperative solutions, teaching children how to calm down (using calm down plans, a calming corner, ) and learning to set limits in ways that are kind and firm at the same time. It takes practice for both of you to work on this new way to help and understand each other. It’s well worth the effort!

  11. My biggest struggles with my 2.5 year old son is getting dressed and getting into the car in the morning. I have literally had to chase him around the house to get him dressed. He wants to climb into the car seat himself too and won’t sit down into the seat every time. He will crawl to the other back seat or want to go into the driver’s seat. I get tongue tied when I am in the situation and resort to threats/bribes and even yelling which I feel guilty about and don’t know what to replace it with. I need have some phrases that I stick in my mommy toolbox to deal with it. Any suggestions?

  12. I love your articles and your approach. My daughter is 4 years old and we r having a lot of power struggle lately that the school started. I know attention is very important but i do sit down hours with her playing silly things and doing whatever she wants to play but still when i have to leave her room to do something else like dinner its either she s hitting and screaming and getting wild or i have to put some TV or let her play on the ipad. Is it possible that I actually gave her too much attention that she haven’t learned to play by helself

    • Do you think it’s possible your daughter has learned a not so positive way of getting screen time? Maybe setting clear times for watching TV or playing with a tablet and encouraging her to play alone at other times. It my take some getting used to, but being kind and firm you can help her learn this new skill. It’s about too much attention but rather learning to set healthy boundaries and accepting feelings. You don’t have to give in or give up.. Instead give clear boundaries a chance. Say what you mean and then help your daughter understand her own feelings. Hope that helps you.

  13. Thank you for this! Brilliant article! I have 4 girls, 7, 5.5, 2 and 10 months.
    My eldest is discovering and asserting her independence and is being quite defiant. She and her 5 year old sister get into many arguments and fights and I find it very challenging to resolve them.
    I start off as positive peacemaker offering alternatives and directing them to different spaces in the house etc but when it doesn’t work or if it’s a repetitive situation in the day, I lose my patience and go into empty threats and brides mode.
    They share a room and are at the same school. My eldest also prefers to stay up at night (even though she’s in bed and can’t get to sleep) and then struggles to get up in the morning and execute the morning ritual so we can be at school on time.
    The power struggle is most obvious in the mornings and evenings when she’s tired and when it’s todo with her sister. Any tips on dealing with that and how to remain calm as the parent even if things aren’t working?

    • Hi Nish,

      It sounds like a few things are going on related to setting boundaries – both with siblings and with bed time / wake up time. I would highly recommend getting your 7 year old involved in solving the morning / evening struggles. If you invite her to be part of a solution, together you can find a better way to get through the morning and evening. When we reach for empty threats and bribes, it’s because we are feeling like our own boundaries and needs are not being respected – the only way out of that is to get really clear on what those boundaries are supposed to look like and get the child involved in solving that problem. Ask yourself what are we struggling over – where is the power getting shifted from you to the child – instead of being shared by both of you? Do you rush in the morning over things that could be prepared more proactively? Does your child need more movement in the daytime to get ready for sleep? Does your 7 year old have ideas on how to speed up her own pace? As for the siblings – I wonder what happens if you coach them to resolve their own conflicts? Can the 7 and 5 year old voice their needs/wants to each other with some practice? (At first this is for sure a tricky and emotional process- it pays off with practice for sure!!) Don’t take sides or try to be the peacemaker – instead, teach them to find their own peace. State what you see “I see two girls fighting over who gets the couch. There is one couch – what can you two agree on?” This helps them develop critical thinking skills, social and emotional skills as well. Remember if you are threatening it’s because you want the outcome to be a specific way, try to focus on how to help your kids get there. Hope that helps you!

  14. I agree with this approach and generally follow it. There are however moments in which I feel that I need to resort to other ways because a boundary has to be set.

    For instance the nights in which my almost 3yo comes out of bed over and over. The boundary here is: when we say it is bedtime then you have to stay in bed and be quiet. After patiently explaining and lovingly putting her to bed a couple of times, we do use a chair in the hallway. We don’t call it a naughty chair. We just say: ‘you need to stay in your bed and be quiet now and if you can’t do that we will put you on your chair until you tell us that you are able to be quiet in bed.’ We follow up on warning with action and she will then be put on a small chair in the hallway across from her bedroom door. We can hear her there and she can hear us, but we do leave her alone. If she asks to go to bed she can. This however can happen quite some times over and over until she really goes to sleep. We try to stay calm, but also get mad when it takes a long time. Mad for us will be a loud and stern voice and putting her in bed more harshly, not excessive yelling or voilenxe. The expected behavior stays the same and the consequence (either quiet in bed or on your chair) also. She clearly knows what is expected of her.

    Adding to this: we sort of ‘trained’ her to stay in bed using the ‘super nanny’ method of, after doing the loving explaining way for 3-4 times, telling her she will be put in bed with no conversation if she comes out. This was half a year ago or so and now she generally stays in bed.

    Just wondering if there might be a more positive approach where we wouldn’t have to resort to the chair.

    Thanks for the insightful article,
    Esther

    • Hi Esther,

      What do you think of the possibility that going to the chair is almost becoming part of the routine on the days your daughter just isn’t quite tired and ready to separate from you? Young children often seek connection and closeness at bedtime and they will settle for even the smallest interaction or attention from you if they can’t get the connection they need. The super nanny method you described, if you re-read what you wrote about the chair, do you really feel like it worked? Could you find an alternative that respects your daughter’s sleep needs? What about offering her a a simple choice. ” you can play with your bear in your bed or look at a book until you feel sleepy” or “Let’s put on this music CD and you can listen to the music until sleep shows up” give her something nice to look forward to – sleeping is a necessary, life long skill – bed time made nice and peaceful leads to kids looking forward to getting to sleep instead of dreading the separation from you. Sitting in a chair doesn’t teach her to welcome sleep, notice if she is drowsy etc…It is also possible your daughter isn’t ready to be alone when you want her to be – so help her be alone in a better way, with books, toys, music or an extra ten minutes of connection with you. It’s hard at the end of the day to invest the extra effort, but think about it this way – you can do 10 minutes of extra connection right away and set her up with something she wants to do to wait for sleep OR you have to go back and forth, get upset, use a chair, get stern, back to bed..I bet that takes more than 10 minutes 😉 I agree with you that she knows what is expected of her, but based on her age, it’s very likely she just isn’t ready to meet your expectation. In time, she will be for sure, especially if bedtime becomes something to look forward to. I hope that helps.

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