At my first job, my manager told me that I would need two skills in life: negotiating and selling. Years later, I got to attend a course by Stewart Diamond, one of the world’s biggest authorities in negotiation. He is an expert in negotiating while strengthening the relationship between the two parties. In that course, I was first introduced to the concept of negotiating at home.
Negotiation skills are necessary for the smooth running of a family. They can be used to resolve conflicts peacefully. Even if we are not aware of it, we negotiate all the time, especially with our other half. Domestic life is a series of compromises. You do drop off; I do pick up. You cook; I do the dishes.
Recently, I started the negotiations with my two-year-old. Sometimes, it is a no-brainer, and we can easily reach a win-win. For example, I want to put her in her buggy because I am tired of carrying her. She wants to push the traffic light button. We make a deal, and everyone is happy.
Soon, she started coming up with deals for me: ‘Mum, we read one more story and then go to sleep, deal?’ It is cute. And she is learning a useful skill, the art of negotiation and compromise.
Yet, a lot of times, negotiation with our kids is not that straightforward. Due to the power imbalance, it can quickly turn to manipulation. Us controlling our kids’ behavior using rewards as levers. And that can be a slippery slope according to the research. Below you can see some situations where bribes are counterproductive.
We should avoid using rewards to encourage:
- Ethical behavior: Rewards do not work to instill values, quite the opposite. For example, researchers have discovered that children whose parents make frequent use of rewards tend to be less generous than their peers. Rewards, just like punishment, do not explain the why. Moral behavior is better taught by example and natural consequences. When your child shares her toys, do not give her a cookie. Point to the smile on her friend’s face.
- Academic/Athletic/Creative achievements: At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully), do not perform as well as those who expect nothing. In general, the more complicated or creative the task, the worse people tend to do with rewards. If you want to help your son do well in his exams, do not promise him an iPhone.
- Behaviors that we want to change for the long term: When we teach kids to do something for the reward, they will stop doing it when the reward stops. Also, the rewards can make children like the task less. I learned this the hard way. I was struggling to get my daughter to brush her teeth, and I used rewards a couple of times. A few months later, I am still struggling to get her to brush her teeth. The mere fact that I provided a bribe sent her the message that brushing teeth is unpleasant. Nobody offers bribes for fun stuff!
- Bodily functions: We should not reward for eating, sleeping or even potty training. We want our children to learn to listen to their bodies rather than force them. Learning to enjoy food and sleep for their sake, will foster long-term healthy habits.
- Distraction from their feelings: Sometimes we are uncomfortable with the tantrums and intense emotions our children display. It may be tempting to start throwing ‘goodies’ at them to make them feel better. Our empathy and love will better help them to regulate emotions.
- Food was a typical bribe when we grew up. As a result, our generation’s relationship with food is quite messed up. Still, to this day, my husband and I eat some chocolate when we had a rough day. We pay ourselves with sugar. I do not want my kids to learn to reward or distract themselves with calories. I avoid using food and especially junk food as a bribe.
- Affection to our children should be abundant and unconditional. Our kids should never have to ‘work’ for our love. We should avoid providing words of affirmation, quality time, and cuddles ‘under conditions’.
Should we negotiate?
As shown by the research we need to be careful with rewards. They can work short term but have detrimental effects in the long run. They are not suitable to instill values, change a behavior permanently or encourage achievement. Quite the opposite.
Rewards do not just harm motivation. They can also hurt our relationship with our children. Every carrot becomes a stick when we fail to get it. None of us wants someone else to use the things we like to control our behavior.
Finally, rewards can damage our kids’ autonomy and confidence. This can also be the case for intangible rewards like praise. In classrooms where praise was used, children tended to make more eye-checking with the teacher. They also inflected their speech when answering to sound like they were asking.
But I want to be realistic. Our lives are complicated nowadays. Sometimes the one-off use of bribes is the best way to deal with stressful situations. I am usually against screen time as my daughter is under 3. But I have used my phone to get her to stay in her car seat or to collaborate at her doctor’s appointment. Rewards are better suited for low-interest tasks and as a one- off.
I also welcome day to day negotiations when we want different things. I try it to be a barter among equals and not a power abuse. I encourage my daughter to come up or at least be part of the solution. Negotiation skills will be necessary for her to resolve conflict with her little brother and friends.
To summarize, we should be aware of the risks of rewards. As parents, we can use our judgment on whether to use them in one-off situations. Most times, discussion and joint problem solving are better options than bribes. This way it will be easier to raise autonomous, confident and self-motivated children.
This article was originally posted on HuffPost