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Threats, Bribes, and Punishments

Threats, Bribes, and Punishments

In trying to instill discipline, positive encouragement will get you a lot farther.


Our primary role as parents is as educators. When our children misbehave, it is an opportunity for us to teach them something. So many times we miss the educational opportunity and instead focus on what we can do in the short-term to get them to behave. We threaten, bribe and punish our kids into behaving -- yet in the long run, we create a major roadblock to being effective parents.

We parents should not instill fear in our children, nor should we threaten to use power over children.

Listen to yourself as you speak to your children. If many of your requests or disciplinary statements end with "or else," then you may be disciplining by threat.

"Claire, stop that immediately or you're not getting any dessert."

"Say you're sorry, Ben, or you are not going to Jake's birthday party."

"Be home on time, Sarah, or you'll be grounded next weekend."

Threats may produce a desired short-term response, but they are not a healthy way to relate to children, especially on a continual basis. Threats are intimidating and manipulative, and impair growth.

Why do parents threaten? They feel helpless to get their children to behave, and don't know any other way. Bet there is a better alternative...


Children need to be given reasons why they should behave the way we want them to behave, so focus them on the positive benefits of good behavior. They should be spoken to gently about proper behavior and educated through discussion. It is educative and provides much more of an incentive to behave properly.

Good behavior should feel empowering to them. Children need to know that their good behavior makes a difference. They need to take pleasure in doing the right thing.

Encourage good behavior by talking to your child.

The first step to encouraging good behavior is talking to your child. Yes, talk and talk till your face turns blue. Explain why you want her to act in certain way. Tell her why it is right. Talk about how good she will feel for having done the right thing. If there is a benefit to others, then explain that, too.

Let's look at some examples:

1) Threat: Lena, if you don't stop talking so loud in the library, we're going to leave before story hour, and that also means no ice cream on the way home."

Education: Lena, when we're quiet in the library, then other people can concentrate on their studies, and we're helpful to them by whispering quietly.

2) Threat: Michael, if I ever hear you call your teacher that name again I'll wash your mouth out with soap."

Education: Michael, I know you have negative feelings about your teacher, but it is still important to speak respectfully. All people deserve respect, and you'll feel better about yourself if you can control your desire to bad mouth her.

3) Threat: Bobby, you still haven't called to thank your coach this season for all that extra time he spent with you. We're not going to the mall for shoes until you call him already.

Education: Bobby, do you know how good the coach will feel when you call him? It's very encouraging for the coach to hear what an impact he has on his players. He'll feel so appreciated and then he'll be more likely to give other kids the extra attention they need to play their best. You'll also feel good about yourself for doing the right thing.

Imagine if your husband said: If you don't get these shirts to the cleaners, then I'm not going to the movies with you.

No one likes to be threatened into doing anything. Imagine if your husband said, "Honey, if you don't get these shirts to the cleaners today, then I'm not going to the movies with you." How would you feel?

Of course, serious threats, such as leaving a child alone at home, are extremely damaging and should always be avoided. And never threaten to send a child to bed without dinner; your child's health is not a weapon to be wielded.

Kurt, age 3, tore a picture he liked out of a library book. His father restrained his instinct to lash out at him, realizing that Kurt doesn't really understand what's so bad about tearing a book. He explained how the book belongs to someone else, how we have to treat other people's things very carefully, and how disappointed the next child will be when he goes to read a damaged book.

The goal has to be education first and foremost. This will affect better behavior. And after all, isn't that our ultimate goal?


Don't try to bribe your child into good behavior. Parents often resort to bribery when in the middle of a difficult situation, such as when two children have been bickering constantly. Mom cries out in desperation: "If you' stop fighting then you both can have ice cream.”

Don't fall into this trap. Parents who bribe their kids are not in control. They don't know what else to do to get cooperation, so they offer treats as payment for compliance.

Don't confuse rewards with bribes. A reward system is planned in advance, and the child knows that he is getting something for doing what he is supposed to (or refraining from a negative behavior).

A bribe is when the parent says: Clean your room and I'll give you a dollar.

A reward can be an allowance if he cleans his room weekly. A bribe is when the parent says, "Clean your room and I'll give you a dollar."

Since children cannot be expected to do the right thing for its inherent value, they need rewards to sweeten the process. Rewarding children for good behavior will encourage more of it. Praise, give stars on a chart, or take children on special outings to show how much we appreciate their cooperation.

Sometimes, however, we reward too much and rewards can become a problem. Rabbi Yoel Schwartz says that we need to be careful about promising rewards for everything. Children also need to learn to behave well because “it's the right thing to do,” not only because of the promised reward. They need to know that when parents ask them to do something, they have an obligation to listen.

Children also need to appreciate that they contribute to the family enterprise.

But be judicious with rewards. The hope is that eventually, children won't need these rewards -- and the pleasure of acting properly will become sufficient motivation.

December 15, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 9

(9) Anonymous, December 7, 2003 12:00 AM

Threats definitely don't work!

I am 16 years only and I have to say that when I was growing up my mother would always use threats. Now that I look back on it I relize that I only listened to her beacause I was so scared she would become overly angry with me for not doing the simplest things (puting your shoes away, eat all of my meal, ect.) I would much rather obey her because I respected her, not because I was scared of her.

(8) Ravinder Singh, June 5, 2003 12:00 AM

Excellent resource

This is the first time that i have found something useful and meaningful yet practical i can apply to my family. I admire chana for the wisdom she has, i wish if i had half of it when i started my family it would be whole lot different story.But i think i can still apply lot of it to my kids who are still at home and in high school. And even chana is jweish, i dont think it matters what religion or land we are from. We all in the end instill the values in our kids.
God bless

(7) oksana, January 13, 2002 12:00 AM

I really like your advice on how parents should talk to their children. Its really helpful. If only my parents used this when i was little. They would always scream if me or my brother would do something wrong. But i guess i cant really blame them because they were probably raised the same way.

(6) Anonymous, January 2, 2002 12:00 AM

Response to Repeat Offences

In response to the comment about Repeat Offences, realize that children are people too. Have you ever had someone ask you not to do something that you do regularly, because it bothers them, and then you repeat the behavior out of habit? They may think that you are doing it because you don't care, but really, you are trying, and actually doing this action LESS.

Find out from your child why he did it--their answers can often be very enlightening! I am not saying that if you have a reason, that makes it okay. I am a firm believer in the concept of right and wrong, and doing right whether you want to or not.

But finding out WHY he did it, or WHY he disagrees with the "choice of behavior" as you say, will help you understand him. Maybe he is misunderstanding you, and you can clarify why you are requesting this. If it doesn't become a power struggle, he may even feel sorry for doing/not doing it, and try harder next time. If you cause anger and resentment, though, you don't have a chance for improvement.

(I'm talking mostly about normal situations. Once resentment and anger have built up, particularly in a rebellious teenager, it is much harder, but I think respect and trying to understand them can only be a good thing in any situation. Think about how YOU would want to be treated!)

Hope this helps! Good Luck!

(5) Ian Ellen, December 24, 2001 12:00 AM

Repeat offences

The article is very nice but what about when a child hears, understands and demonstrates agreement with the adult but then transgresses and does the negative bahviour again.
Also, what happens if the child disagrees with the choice of behavior been prescribed?

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