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Do Bribes Work?

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

hile bribes often work in the short-term, they cause many long-term problems. Find out why bribing your kids causes more harm than good.

This is an excerpt from the book Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.

· “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” (Ephesians 6:1 NIV)

When I first began teaching in the 1980s, bribing was very popular. Teachers would bribe their students with stickers, Friday movies, pizza parties, etc. in the hope of getting their students to obey. (While the teachers like to call them rewards, essentially, they were bribes.) And yes, it often did work. That's why so many teachers did it.

One year when I taught second grade, I had several students who all had been in the same first grade class. Their first-grade teacher was a briber! She gave them rewards (or bribes) for everything. What I noticed, though, was these students didn't want to do anything unless I gave them something for it. If I told them to pick up their trash on the floor, they would respond with, "What will you give me if I do it?" It took me a long time to get them to do something on its own merit.

Bribing Teaches Children to Obey Only if There's Something in it for Them

While a bribe usually does work in the short-term, it causes many long-term problems. First, bribing teaches children to obey only if there's something in it for them. What a selfish lesson to teach children! The children are not learning to do something because it's the right thing to do. Or, because it would help someone else. Or, because it would show respect to their elders. It only enforces the idea they shouldn't have to do anything unless they get something out of it.

As Christians, we need to teach our children to obey God’s commandments. And throughout the Bible, God instructs children to obey, honor, and respect their parents.

  • “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” (Colossians 3:20 NIV)

  • “My son, obey your father's commands, and don't neglect your mother's instruction.” (Proverbs 6:20 NLT)

  • “Honor your father and your mother,…” (Exodus 20:12 NIV)

  • “Each of you must respect his mother and his father… (Leviticus 19:3 NIV)

The Value of the Bribes Has to be Constantly Increased

Second, the value of the bribes has to be constantly increased. Little bribes soon lose their value, and the bribes have to get bigger and better each time to work. While you may be able to handle this when your children are young, it's going to get very expensive by the time they reach the teen years.

The Difference Between a Reward and Bribe

While it is probably okay to occasionally reward your children, know the difference between a reward and bribe. A bribe is promised to the children before they behave correctly. That's how parents get their children to obey in the first place. Rewards, on the other hand, are given unexpectedly, after the children have been good. In other words, the children had no idea they would be rewarded for their good behavior.

Bribes are okay if you want your children to work toward a certain skill such as learning a sonata by Mozart or learning to do a back hand-spring. In this way, it's more of a goal incentive. But don't use bribes to control behavior. Children need to learn to obey because it’s the right thing to do.

Use Words Instead of Materialistic Items

If you do want to reward good behavior, use words instead of materialistic items. Acknowledge their good works with praise, encouragement, and affection. While an occasional reward is probably harmless, make sure it doesn't become a habitual method of discipline.


For more about raising your children with Christian discipline and instruction, get Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.

Want to connect with other Christian parents in your church? Host a small group parenting class. It’s easy with The Parenting with Focus Video Course. Just watch the video and discuss the group discussion questions. Easy—and fun!


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