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The problem with bribes is they expect them

Submitted by on Wednesday, 16 June 2010 No Comment

I’ll confess: I bribed Boots this morning, and it worked.

During Day One of swimming class, he did great until the instructor wanted them to bob  in the water.

“No,” he insisted quietly but firmly, with the look in his eyes that told me he wasn’t going to change his mind. “I can’t bweev under water. I’ll get drownded. I need one of those tube thingies.”

I blame it in part on “Froggy Learns to Swim,” which we’d read the night before. In the book, Froggy has to gear up with flippers, a mask and a snorkel before he’ll try to learn. And if an amphibian needs all that equipment, what’s a boy who’s not quite 5 supposed to do?

Tell you what: If you put your head in the water during your next class, you’ll earn a pair of goggles, I offered.

And the tube thingie, he asked.

No, because you need to learn how to breathe the right way to swim first. He accepted that and, as a show of good faith, I went ahead and bought the goggles. “You’ll get them when you earn them.”

This morning, he did. Even he seemed surprised. “See, Mommy! I did it! I did it! I put my head under water, and I didn’t get drownded!”

The problem with the bribe, though, is that Big Guy is starting to expect them. He’ll behave for long enough to get what he wants, then default to brattiness. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does it’s fierce enough that a fit at the pool yesterday has led several people to start calling tantruming siblings by his name.

He continued his fit in the car, then when we got home he calmly asked if he could play outside because he was behaving now.

“No, that’s not the way it works. You don’t get to scream at people then go along your merry way.”

“Do I get to go out if I behave for 10 minutes?”

“No. This is not about getting you to behave. This is straight-up punishment.”

He shrieked again and lost TV for the night. He launched another barrage and lost the Wii.

“What am I going to do now?” he whimpered.

“You’ll figure something out, but remember this the next time you think you’re going to treat people this way.”

Obviously he’s learned this behavior somewhere, and it’s likely from the same place he picked up his annoying habit of waiting to see who’s calling before he answers the phone. I’ve simply let him off the hook too easily, too many times. Behave and we can go to the pool. Be nice and we’ll get to go to the movies. In my defense, it wasn’t so much an attempt to bribe as it was an effort to say “good things happen when we act the way we’re supposed to.”

It probably stems from my opposition to the “fear of God” as a disciplinary technique. Telling a kid he’ll go to hell for lying might scare the pants off  him, but it doesn’t necessarily cultivate a strong moral core. If you’re doing the right thing only to avoid being caught doing the wrong thing, what will you do when no one’s watching?

Or when no one’s bribing.

Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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