Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.

Welcome to another Beyond the Sessions here at Securely Attached. Glad to have you with us again, Dr. Rebecca Hershberg. Hello.

Dr. Rebecca (00:51):

Hello. So great to be here as always.

Dr. Sarah (00:54):

Oh, I love talking with you. This one, I’m excited because I feel like you’re going to have lots of opinions and I really want to hear what they are.

Dr. Rebecca (01:01):

Ooh, opinions. That’s my specialty.

Dr. Sarah (01:03):

Yes. But so this is a question and it’s totally, I can definitely relate to this question and I have lots of my own opinions and feelings about it as a parent and also as someone who works with parents and sometimes they don’t go together. So let’s dive in. This parent writes in, how bad is it to bribe my kid? I have resorted to offering my five-year-old screen time or treats to get him to cooperate. Is there anything else you’d suggest I do instead? So I have so many thoughts on this. I’m going to put a pit in them. I want to hear what your thoughts are first.

Dr. Rebecca (01:42):

So I think those are two separate questions, right? Is it bad to do the offering the screen time or the candy or whatever she said? And then is there anything else I can do? And I think it’s important we address them separately because there’s just always going to be hopefully, and part of the reason we do this podcast is more than one tool in your toolbox for a bunch of situations. So we can certainly talk about if you want your five-year-old to cooperate, what are some things you can do to increase that likelihood? That’s question number two. Question number one is can one of those tools be giving them candy and screen time? My opinion in one word is yes, that’s fine. My opinion in more than one word is a distinction that I frequently make with my clients and certainly with myself as a mom, which is how do we distinguish between bribery and rewards?


Because I think rewards are something that the world kind of functions on. The idea that we do behaviors, we are motivated to do behaviors, particularly as young kids if there’s some gain in it for us, that’s a human natural thing. Bribery, I see more as perhaps an unhealthy pattern starting whereby kids learn that a negative behavior or behavior that you don’t want leads to a path where you get something rewarded. So in other words, I tend to think, if you think of the example of going to the supermarket, I know everybody does Instacart and Fresh Direct and all the rest, but let’s say you happen to go to the supermarket with your four or 5-year-old. A reward situation to me might be before you even walk into the supermarket, can you join with your child? Can you say, we’re going to the supermarket, it’s going to be noisy, it’s going to be crowded.


Sometimes they’re bright lights. Here’s what I need from you. Please hold my hand the whole time and help me, whatever, something, some concrete expectation. And then if you can do that, I’m super excited because we can pick out a treat at the checkout aisle, which is where they keep all the candy. To me, that’s a really different situation from your child melting down when you get in the supermarket, they want this thing, that thing, this thing, that thing. They’re already screaming and crying and being uncooperative and you say, fine, here’s a candy bar. Just be quiet. That to me is more the bribery piece that I don’t think sets a healthy foundation and pattern that we really want as parents. The other thing I think that’s important to mention as a mom is that sometimes we all do the letter.


You’ve just had a really long hard day. You’re ready to throw your kid out the window. There’s a candy bar in sight. It’s just like, here, be quiet. We’ve all done it. It doesn’t ruin your kid. It’s not something that if you do once in a while is creating this horrible pattern. Again, I think parents really beat themselves up about it, but I do think ideally, if we can be thoughtful and intentional about rewarding certain behaviors, that is a really useful tool in our toolbox and it can also help kids get over the hump to create a new behavior. So it might be that we know that if they cooperate with us, we’re going to have a much more pleasant Saturday afternoon, and we just want them to recognize how much easier and more fun it’ll be for everyone and have that be a self-fulfilling reward. But we might have to offer something more concrete so that we can get in the habit of doing the thing that’s hard and in order for them to learn the natural consequence, which is in this case positive. I just feel like I said a lot. I don’t.

Dr. Sarah (05:43):

So funny because I’m literally listening to you being like, oh my God, these are the thoughts that I have in my head. And you verbatim said them, which makes me feel really good. Like, gosh, it’s so fun to do this podcast with, I know Emily’s not here today, but when you and I, when the three of us, but even just the two of us get together, I’m like, are we in each other’s heads? It’s so fun.

Dr. Rebecca (06:08):

It’s so fun. And you also realize that like, oh wait, maybe we’re in each other’s heads. There is actually some science behind this stuff.

Dr. Sarah (06:15):


Dr. Rebecca (06:16):

So it makes me feel really good that I keep sending you guys referrals.

Dr. Sarah (06:22):

Right? But it is, it’s like I agree with you wholeheartedly in everything you say in general, but with respect to this specifically because I think that semantics about the difference between a bribe and a reward is something that we don’t get. We conflate a lot and it’s putting parents at a disadvantage to look at those two things as the same thing. Because like you said, we want multiple tools in our toolbox and even in your description where you very clearly said, A bribe isn’t the most effective tool, but hey, it’s a tool and it’s in there. You might pull it out if you really have low bandwidth and you just got to get through a moment, okay, that’s a tool, that’s a valid, effective tool when used sparingly and rewards are a valid and effective tool. You use them differently and you need more time and space and bandwidth to use a reward because they have to be introduced before the problem hits.


That’s the best way to introduce a reward. Another thing that’s important about rewards that you didn’t mention that I think is important or you sort of did, which is at the very end of what you were talking about, about we’re going to introduce something, we’re trying to build a skill and a habit and maybe the habit in and of itself when properly sort of integrated into our family life will be self-rewarding, but to get that ball rolling, we might need an external motivator, an external reward to help a child practice that until it becomes a habit, and this is where I think rewards sometimes get misused or the idea behind their function is misunderstood. A reward is that it’s a starter. It’s like it’s for the first, it’s to build momentum. It’s not to sustain a behavior forever because guess what? One of the reasons why rewards work is because they’re novel and if we expect our child to engage in a behavior for the same reward all the time, it’s going to lose its novelty, which means it’s going to lose its reward factor.


It’s going to lose its oomph, it’s not going to be motivating, and I think people get confused by that. They’ll be like, I did a sticker chart or a rewards plan or a token something or whatever, and after two weeks they stopped working and it’s like, well, that’s because that’s the shelf life of most rewards. Obviously different rewards, different ages, different context. You’re going to get a longer half life for the value of that impact, but most young kids can stick to a rewards system for about a week or two weeks maximum, and then you want to start to off. Then you want to kind of off ramp that structure of it being that’s the thing that gets you to do the thing. Now we want to introduce this awareness of like, oh, when we do the thing, when we did have this really awesome Saturday because you were able to do this chore in the morning and we didn’t have to have a fight about it, or we were able to have this really nice relaxing bedtime and read all these books because you just went right upstairs and brushed your teeth and we didn’t have this big long drawn out fight about getting ready for bed.


Now we’re trying to help, once they are doing the behavior that’s cooperative, maybe because they’re motivated by a reward, we want to help them log the benefit of it and build that awareness of like, oh, when I do this, this feels good. And so now you’ve got two rewards happening simultaneously. You’ve got the thing, the sticker or the treat or the screen time or whatever it is motivating the behavior that’s that starter. But then as the behavior gets done and there’s something else that’s also nice that comes as a result, we want our kid to notice that and log it and connect those dots. When I do this, this happens and that feels good. Or when I do this, this happens and I like that, or I get what I want. It’s easier. Whatever the intrinsic reward is, then we want to help them make that awareness of that and then we phase out the sort of quick fix reward and allow that intrinsic reward to be the thing that carries it. That’s ideal. It doesn’t always work that way, but like…

Dr. Rebecca (10:58):

It’s building a habit too, right? It’s also what you hope that the reward can get you through the part where you just have to build the habit of while we brush our teeth after we take a bath every night, that’s just the thing that we do such that when you take away the reward, they’re not suddenly not brushing their teeth anymore because now you’ve just built the habit that that’s what happens. The other piece of research that I think is interesting, and I’m sure there’s been updates and nuances in this and that, so my disclaimer is that this is a very basic piece of research, but it’s one that stuck with me and I think there’s some merit to it, is the differences that can occur when we reward behaviors that are, when we use an extrinsic reward, so an external reward, a sticker, screen time, whatever, to reward a behavior that we ultimately want to be intrinsically rewarding, that actually there can be some negative sides, and I wouldn’t put cooperating into this category, but I think there’s a really important distinction to be made between let’s say brushing your teeth and reading or practicing an instrument, right?


Brushing your teeth is not particularly enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be particularly enjoyable. I don’t care if my child grows up never really wanting to brush their teeth so long as they just do it right. You just have to do it. You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it. You have to do it every morning and every night. And I think those research has shown that rewards can be really helpful for those because you don’t really care if they develop the intrinsic motivation, although I think you’re at a benefit as you pointed out, which is important that when I brush my teeth quickly, I have more snuggle time with mom because mom’s in a better mood. All that stuff can be true, but in and of itself, the brushing the teeth is not intrinsically rewarding. Something like reading, I believe there’s research and I want to be really clear that maybe we look it up or we put it in the show notes or something because I want to make sure it’s accurate, but it was at one point for sure that when you use extrinsic rewards in order to motivate a behavior, you want to be intrinsically rewarding, that you can lose intrinsic motivation over time.


And that’s why there’s been stuff coming out on Read-a-thon where kids are in prizes for that’s not actually an ideal way to get kids to enjoy reading and that it has the unintended effect. It doesn’t actually happen the way that we would want it to, which is suddenly they love reading and so they don’t need the candy anymore. It’s like actually the reading only becomes associated with the candy and there’s less likelihood that they grow to enjoy it. Again, I can look into this.

Dr. Sarah (13:49):

Yeah, I mean just to back up what you’re talking about, I remember reading about a study where they were having kindergartners draw and they would have them sit at the tables and they would have them draw, and then they took a group of those kindergartners, so they all took, I think it was the population of the experiment where all kids that showed some intrinsic interest in drawing and half of them didn’t receive any sort of rewards. It was just left to do their own thing and then half were rewarded for that drawing. And over the course of the kindergarten year, they looked at how often those kids would draw, and the group that was not rewarded sustained their interest in drawing and drew more during the course of the year, and the ones that were rewarded drew less. They were less interested in drawing, which I think the point of the study was also to see, and I got to look this one up too because interested in getting the details, it’s fuzzy, but I think one of the points that they were able to identify with the findings was when you reward something that a kid enjoys doing already.


So it’s just a little different than trying to create a better relationship with something, but if you enjoy doing something and it becomes something attached to reward, it becomes work, it stops being play and it loses, you can decrease preexisting intrinsic motivation.

Dr. Rebecca (15:19):

That sounds really familiar. I think the more we can be thoughtful and intentional in our parenting, the more likely we are to make choices that work for us and our family based in science or whatever, but that doesn’t mean that being thoughtful and intentional can’t be okay. My thought is that I’m exhausted and I’m going to scream at my kid for 10 more minutes if they don’t stop doing what they’re doing. And so actually I’m going to be intentional about buying a candy bar, so they’re just quiet for right now. And again, we just say over and over again in these beyond the sessions, and I know on your securely attached interviews, there’s no one size fits all. There’s no one size fits every moment. No, it’s just ideally having, as you said, a lot of tools in your toolbox and having some familiarity with the research including that the research is really complicated and can’t dictate every solution for you when it comes to parents.

Dr. Sarah (16:21):

And don’t have to get, even if the research is say very clear that this isn’t optimal, if you do it a couple times here and there, it’s not going to matter. It’s the aggregate. I think parenting has to be looked at in the aggregate. Parenting is not very, very, very rarely is any one thing we do going to make or break anything, and obviously there are exceptions to that, but generally speaking, if you have a goal of being intentional with your parenting, then you can break the rules a good amount of the time actually, and it’s going to be okay, but you want to know what rules you’re breaking and why you’re choosing to break them because you want it to be, like you said, a choice rather than, I’m just guessing. I’m just throwing stuff at this kid. I don’t really know what does and doesn’t work or why, but if I’m choosing to bribe in this moment because I know it will work quick and I need a quick move here because I just don’t have the bandwidth and we just got to get through this moment, that’s a choice. It’s a choice to use that tool. If that’s the only tool in my toolbox, then it stops being a choice. It becomes like a desperate move every single time, and that’s not what we want. That doesn’t lead us to feel confident as parents either, and it doesn’t help our child feel settled in our confidence.

Dr. Rebecca (17:53):

I was going to say that caveat too, then it’s coming from an anxious place, then it’s coming from I can’t handle my child’s feelings and they’re dangerous and I have to take them away and I’m dysregulated, my child’s dysregulated, and so let’s just do the thing that takes away the feelings. And again, there is a time and place for that for all of us, but if that becomes the pattern, I think that’s one real theme of our work is that’s actually a pretty unhealthy pattern if it’s a pattern and when it’s a pattern, and I’ve seen that a lot and so have you. Again, it’s really difficult. Even we are wired to rescue our kids from distressing feelings and so all of it again, and my hope with beyond the sessions and why I love these conversations so much is, and we always joke that we don’t actually answer family’s questions, but I think that we do by just pointing out how many different roads you can go down to answer a simple question because it’s all complicated and it’s important to be aware of how complicated it is yet in each individual moment. That’s not when it’s complicated. It’s complicated. As patterns develop, as we look at the aggregate, as we watch our kids develop over time and become tuned into our own triggers and dysregulation.

Dr. Sarah (19:18):

And a lot of times I think when people do have unhealthy patterns, like I am totally flooded by my kids’ anger or anxiety, and so I do bribe every time just to turn it off because I’m overwhelmed by it and I can notice that is happening. I think sometimes what happens is they want to change that. They go to the extreme, which is I’m never going to bribe. I can’t do that. That’s not allowed. And then usually just it’s like whack-a-mole, something else pops up. That’s another form of rescuing or turning off the feelings or distracting then. But I do think if you can recognize something is a pattern that’s not working, that actually doesn’t, that’s a good thing because it’s the first opening to do something a little bit more effective and start to say, okay, I have a skills deficit. I want to build two skills to add to my toolbox to help me tolerate my child’s distress, and then I want to build two skills to add to my toolbox to help my child tolerate their distress, but I can’t do the second two until I get the first skill set done.


So it just gives you a roadmap. You can identify a pattern. That’s why when I start working with parents on, if people come to me for behavioral issue or something or difficulty with cooperation or whatever, that’s a common one or struggles, I’m always want them to map out a week of behaviors and try to look for patterns because the patterns are where so much useful information is, and then you pick one thing and you start to say, what’s missing from the toolbox that this keeps being the only, why do we keep returning to this pattern? What’s missing? And so you figure out what skill isn’t built up in the parent or in the child and you start to add tools to increase those skills and things change.

Dr. Rebecca (21:26):

Yes, yes, and yes and yes.

Dr. Sarah (21:31):

So I feel like how bad is it to bribe my kid? Question. We’ve addressed forwards and backwards, but is there anything you’d suggest I do instead to increase cooperation? I feel like I think we answered two, but I think it’s more amorphous. It’s more like, okay, look for the patterns. Try to figure out what skills aren’t maybe being, what skills are missing and would lead to more cooperation either for you or for your kid, and then come up with a plan to work on one or two skills at a time until everyone’s feeling good about them, and I think you’ll find more cooperation, but a lot of it is like outside of the moment stuff you said, I want to preview the grocery store with you. I want to preview the expectations, get you on board with the plan, and then you’re going to see more cooperation. There’s lots of other examples of that, but…

Dr. Rebecca (22:37):

To the extent it’s helpful, we can list. It’s kind of the usual is can you join with your kid? If you feel like you are butting heads with your kid, they will not get dressed. Can you shift your mindset to it’s you and your kid against how hard it is to get dressed sometimes and again at a different time. Can you talk about how we’re going to make that easier? We’re going to put on their favorite song while we do it. We’re going to have a race. Can we bring, again, we’ve talked about all these things, but it might be helpful just to list them here. Can we bring playfulness or a contest into it? Can we make it a game? Can we give a reset? Can we say, okay, you really don’t feel like doing this right now? I completely hear you. I’m going to do a couple things on my own and then I’ll come back and we’ll try again. The idea is that you’ve got a bunch of tools in your toolbox, not that you run through in kind of a desperate, anxious way. Well, that didn’t work. Now I’m onto the next, onto the, but just that you ideally can slow down and gauge what the situation calls for, and that’s again back to our number one recommendation on the podcast and with parents, I know that we work with, which is slow down jets.


Can you pause? Can you just notice your own dysregulation enough that you can get yourself back into regulation and choose a tool. There’s no one way tool. It doesn’t matter what you choose all that, but just can you pause long enough to just decide what you’re going to do. Once you’re deciding what you’re going to do, you’re using your kind cognitive skills in a way that if you’re just feeling like you’re putting out a fire and you’re just reacting, you’re dysregulated, and that’s not going to be effective. Even if you choose the best tool in the world, if you do it from a place of dysregulation, it’s just going to dysregulate the situation more.

Dr. Sarah (24:39):

Yeah, it’s always a little bit of gasoline on the fire when you have this urgent agenda and you’re getting increasingly more frustrated that it’s not happening. The other thing is doing some of that sort of internal thought work of what am I trying to get my kid to do? Is my agenda matching their agenda in this moment? And if it’s really not, maybe resetting and realigning before we push our agenda, and that’s hard because as parents, we have a lot of agendas. We have to move them through the schedule of the day. That’s one of our primary jobs. I always say our jobs as a parent are to keep them safe, to keep them healthy, to keep them clean, to move them through the schedule of the day and to make tough decisions. And if it falls in those categories, you got to do it, and it usually means friction with your child in that moment because you have to stop them from something they want to do or move them out of something they’re enjoying, and that’s the tricky part of being a parent. But the other thing I always recommend is do one thing at a time.


That’s why I like the zooming out, looking at the whole week, kind of doing an inventory of where am I having clashes with cooperation? Where are we coming to a head every time about this one thing, and there will be things that emerge as the things that happen over and over and over again throughout the week. Pick one of those things, come up with a plan, talk to your kid about what that plan’s going to be and follow through because you don’t have the bandwidth to follow through on all five plans at the same time.

Dr. Rebecca (26:22):

And also because it’s kind of what we were talking about with motivation. If that plan is successful and you end up feeling good and your kid ends up being good, that increases the motivation that you’re going to then try to do something else and something else. If you try everything at the same time and everything fails, you’re just going to decide you’re a terrible parent. Your kid’s a terrible kid, or some combination of the tool that I often recommend parents using the moment, which again requires this moment of pausing, but three questions, and I think I’ve talked about them on this podcast before, but does this thing have to happen? Does this thing have to happen now and does this thing have to happen in this way? Right.

Dr. Sarah (27:02):

I love those.

Dr. Rebecca (27:03):

Does this kid have to take a bath? That’s the first question. How dirty are they? Is it like 99 degrees and they just were playing in the mud? In which case that’s a yes. It might be no, it’s 45 degrees. They’re not dirty. Then do they have to take a bath now? Is there something urgent? Either we have somewhere to go or they’re so muddy they’re getting mud on everything in the house, or does it really matter if I give them the choice to take it at some point before they go to bed, and does it have to happen in this way? Which means do I have to yell about it? Do I have to pick them up and drag them to the bed? Whatever it is.

Dr. Sarah (27:38):

Do I have to bribe? Do I have to reward? Right. Maybe those are questions that might, just to bring it back to the question of this episode, which is is it bad to bribe my kid? If you feel like the only way to get their kid in the bath is to bribe them, these would be really valuable questions.

Dr. Rebecca (27:55):

They may have to take a bath and they have to take a bath now, then yes.

Dr. Sarah (27:59):

Chances are, I mean, yeah, you’ve given a really good scenario with this very muddy child that definitely needs a bath right now, and sure, but I feel like maybe I’m just unhygienic, but I’m like, baths are so overrated we did not have to do, I’m just sick of it.

Dr. Rebecca (28:17):

Right? More often than not, that’s going to be your answers to the first two questions for tasks like cleaning their room, taking a bath, whatever. Either they’re not going to have to happen at all, or there’s really no urgency. It doesn’t have to happen right Now. I hold that in contrast to two. Let’s say you’re at the doctor’s office and your kid needs the vaccine, or your kid has to take their antibiotics before they go to school, and then it’s like, does this have to happen? Yes. Does it have to happen now? Yes. Does it have to happen in this way? Well, yeah, I need to hold my kid down because it’s about their safety, or I am going to give them 10 candy bars because I just find that those questions provide a really nice roadmap for where you’re going to go as a parent with some of these issues that come up.

Dr. Sarah (29:06):

Yep. No, I think that’s really helpful. I think our urgency and our agenda can sometimes be very gasoline, like pour gasoline on their fire, and a lot of times, yes, the thing has to happen, but the now and in this way part I think are so valuable. I think we as parents, we conflate all three of those questions together and we just say, does it have to happen? And the answer is yes, and so I’ve got to do whatever it takes to get it done, but actually if you break it down into those three questions, yes, it has to happen, but does it have to happen now and in this way that addresses, I think the urgency and the agenda bit that can really be derailing for families, so I love that. I think that that is something I’m so going to steal from you. I’ll cite you. I’ll cite my sources.

Dr. Rebecca (29:56):

Clearly, I made it up. I mean, I think I did with that one. There’s a million things I used that I didn’t.

Dr. Sarah (30:02):

It’s brilliant. Trademark it. Write another book about it.

Dr. Rebecca (30:07):

Clearly. I’m going to call it the Rebecca Hershberg Method of Parenting and make it a million dollars.

Dr. Sarah (30:13):

Oh my God, I love it. Okay, great. Sign me up for that one. All right. I hope we answered this parent’s question and keep sending ’em in. Guys. They’re awesome. They just give me and Rebecca and Emily when she’s here, an opportunity to just get into each other’s heads, so thank you for that.

Dr. Rebecca (30:32):

Thank you. I love it. Best part of the week.

Dr. Sarah (30:35):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

✨We want to hear from you! Go to https://drsarahbren.com/question to send us a question or a topic you want to hear us answer on Securely Attached – Beyond the Sessions! ✨

169. BTS: Is it okay to bribe my kids to get them to cooperate?