It's not Bribery — it's Coercion

How do you get a toddler to do the things they are supposed to do? I’m happy to report that we have long been able to influence Trixie by not so subtle use of behavior modification techniques.

On the positive reinforcement side we have our 2005 Potty Incentive Program. This is the program that doles out out stickers for good bathroom behavior. It was extremely successful in the beginning, but then stickers begin to lose their appeal. So we had to move up to temporary tattoos, and wow, we got a great response rate. You combine that with 2.9% APR financing, and the potty training sells itself. But like stickers, the tattoos are slowly losing their power. The next step is piercings — but that’s only going to be for extremely impressive potty behavior. Like maybe holding it for a cross-country trip.

On the negative reinforcement side, we have learned that the hand that controls the TV remote, controls the world. In Trixie’s worldview, threatening to turn off Sesame Street is the worst thing that could ever possibly happen. Ever. The best part is that the TV doesn’t have to be on. Matter of fact, we don’t have to be anywhere near a TV; we can simply threaten to not turn it on at some indeterminate point later in her life. This is the most powerful force in Trixie’s universe.

What causes us to resort to this nuclear option of behavior modification? It’s usually simple things that we know Trixie would agree to — if she could only get over the initial hump. Case in point: her favorite food. We’ll set out something that we know she loves, like vanilla yogurt, and she will scream, tears streaming down her face, like it’s the end of world. Fortunately, the end of Sesame Street trumps the end of the world, after one good “Do you want to see Batty Bat?”, she’ll acquiesce and take one bite. The anguish melts away to confusion, and she rediscovers her favorite kind of yogurt. She’ll then eat the rest of the bowl herself without any more outside influence. I don’t get too excited though; so far we’ve had to reintroduce Trixie to vanilla yogurt about 35 times.

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20 Responses to It's not Bribery — it's Coercion

  1. lori says:

    Threatening to turn OFF Sesame Street…Oh my!…My heart goes out to you, Trixie….but, if it works for you (Ben & Jenn), then more power to you both! It is a very good bargaining tool. This evil tactic worked on me for years.

    The only thing I would be concerned about (as an adult who may have to resort to this kind of coercion in the future) is that you’re taking away a wonderful educational program (and possibly 1/2 hour of time to relax while she’s watching). It’s a tough call, but I remember being exceptionally good and obeying my parents/grandmother’s rules in order to maintain my Sesame Street privileges.

  2. Lennon's Dad says:

    Lennon is a very tough negotiator (he’ll often ask for “one cookie?” and offer to wash his hands or something before it … and then start working on “another cookie?” before he’s even finished the first), but we’ve actually found the one threat that works very well against him:

    We threaten to take off his shoes.

    Don’t ask me why, but at any point if Lennon is misbehaving, we say “If you continue to do that, we’re going to take your shoes” and he immediately stops and goes into a uncontrollable sob, as if we’re threating to actually cut off his feet or something. The crying is never that pleasant, but it’s usually preferrable to the bad thing he was doing for us to lower the shoe boom.

  3. aidens momma says:

    im sure gonna pick up pointers on this one…

    with Aiden having such a temper we hold on out things that upset him too much, cause he normally just shuts down or responds by some other show of temper. for a while he was getting better…but you all know how that goes. Anyways, the one i save for when he is really over the top is: ‘If you dont knock it off right now, we wont go see grandma today!’ my mom lives like a mile away and he cant live without his ‘nama’. i swear to god hed move out of the house and in with her if we gave him the option…but im saving that for antoher 12 years. 😀

  4. Jamie says:

    I’ll have to remember the “turn off the TV” bit. My daughter goes crazy for her Baby Einstein DVDs, but she’s only 14 months old right now so I don’t think that would work. Maybe I’ll threaten to turn on C-SPAN or something. As it is, any time we discipline her with even a gentle “No, don’t do that” she bursts out into tears and I have to distract her with something else. So it’s a two-step process.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    When I was growing up, my mother’s nuclear option was forbidding me to read. That one usually got instant compliance. I suspect that the threat to turn off Sesame Street would have worked pretty well at Trixie’s age, too, given the stories she tells about how I used to watch. (I would get very worked up and yell at the characters on-screen when they were having trouble figuring out what the word was that started with ‘C’, or whatever they were doing.)

  6. kat says:

    We use the bribery on Kiddo#1 but more in the treat form. He gets a “treat” after dinner and any misbehaving results in no treat. So far, it’s worked.

  7. garrettmom says:

    For potty training, we had a terrible time at first with our son, then 2yrs. He knew when he had to go, but would pee in odd places, like off the balcony or in a bucket. So we put a shelf above the toilet, and put a clear tupperware container on it, filled with candy and cheap toys, and stickers. So he could see it every time he went potty, but couldn’t reach it. Every time he went in the potty, he could choose one thing from the jar. I am not kidding, he was potty trained in a week. And not long after, he decided he didn’t want to wear pull ups at night either.
    As far as disclipining, we use the tv threat, as well as others. But mostly he takes time outs (Jordan is now 4) or stands in the corner. Even the idea of a time out or corner will usually get him in line. I like the idea that you encourage her to eat things she doesn’t want to eat. The rule in our house is that Jordan just has to take one bite, and if he still doesn’t like it, then he doesn’t have to eat it. It usually works in our favor!

  8. Judy says:

    We’re of the bribery camp as well. Our 5.5 year old has always had a horrible time sleeping through the night, so we started an incentive chart with him – 50 squares, 10 rows, 5 squares in each row (for the mathematically challenged). Once he completed a row, he was given a trip to the Dollar Tree where he could have ANY ONE THING IN THE ENTIRE STORE. After he finished the entire chart, he got to go to Target or Toys R Us and again, have ANY ONE THING IN THE STORE (which ended up being a talking Darth Vader mask – I was worried I would be forking out money for an XBox or something!).

    It worked great until we finished the chart. Now, we’re back to our “old” habits – getting up between 2 and 3 and bugging Daddy to put us back to bed. Plus, it took him almost 3 months to complete the chart. Next time, we’re using a calendar, and he’ll have to get a sticker for 6 out of the 7 days in a week to get a Dollar Tree treat, and when he can fill a month, then we’ll talk about a big prize.

    So, take note – bribery works on ALL levels – just the prizes are bigger!

  9. hannah says:

    I’m so relieved to see I’m not the only parent who doesn’t subscribe to the Punished by Rewards (benmac, please insert link for old-lady who doesn’t know how to do these web things – it’s a book by Alfie Kohn).

    For some reason, I have this inane book and was looking at it the other day and it made me hysterical. Bribers of the world – unite! Without behavior mod, what else do we have? So what if our children will grow up to be soul-less whores, only driven by external “motivators.” I figure until I have Sophie strapped into a seat w/her eyes held open in front of movies showing naughty children meeting nefarious demises, I’m doing just fine. So there, Kubrick and Kohn.

  10. fred says:

    I used to get so angry at my parents for taking away my Sesame Street privileges, I’d try to one-up them. You’re taking away Sesame Street today? Fine, mom! I won’t watch it for a week!

    Amazingly enough, this failed to have the pity-me effect I had originally hoped, but at least mom didn’t make fun of me when I didn’t carry out my threats.

  11. DavidNYC says:

    He knew when he had to go, but would pee in odd places, like off the balcony or in a bucket.

    Odd, yes, but definitely sensible – I mean, at least he didn’t pee behind the TV or in the fridge. Off the balcony and into a bucket actually make quite a lot of sense. Unless it’s a bucket of Cool Whip.

  12. haeshu says:

    thanks ben for creating a confessional for our bribery tactics. its nice to know that im not the only one ruling by way of the remote, only for us star wars (the original of course) has supplanted seasame street in the hierarchy. it has been pretty hard to get eliot to hold off until “the sun goes down” to watch it since he stars begging for it the moment he springs from bed at seven in the morning, but it is definitely worth it for all the good eating and cleanup help we can squeeze out of one beat up vhs tape.

  13. Maddie's Mom says:

    Hannah…I love Kohn and his book; however, only for my high school aged students. I bribe left and right with Maddie. “Be good for this diaper change and I’ll read *Robert the Rose Horse, Maddie!” “Let Mama finish this article in the newspaper and you can have Elmo snacks for dessert tonight.” I’m going to hell, I’m sure.

  14. Peggy says:

    I could not have gotten through child rearing without the occasional bribe. During my daughter’s pre-school years there were a couple of winters where she was on a preventative dose of antibiotics to prevent ear infections (do they still do that?). She soon wearied of the pink bubble-gum stuff and refused to swallow when I offered the medication. I didn’t exactly use a “spoonful of sugar” but the reward of a M&M after every dose seemed to do the trick.

  15. Nancy says:

    Alex (4 days older than Trixie) is easily bribed by the thread of withholding books. He loves to read, so when he refuses to clean up his toys before bed or continues to kick Mommy while changing his diaper, he is threatened with no reading before bed. We try to keep the TV at a minimum (try being the operative word) but threatening him with no Bear (of the Big Blue House) would work too.

    He’s also responding to the threat of a timeout, on Easter he was kicking my sister’s fridge and when I told him to stop or he’d get a timeout, he did stop.

  16. Jaynee says:

    I’ve bribed Olivia a couple of times but I try not to make it a habit. It’s tough though, when she’s writhing on the floor because it should have been obvious to me that she wanted ELMO gummies, not DORA gummies.

  17. jenni says:

    okay, i guess this isn’t really filed under “bribes”, but if i am trying to encourage the concept of sleep to my 18 month old, it almost always quiets her down if i tell her the teletubbies are napping, too. i wonder just how far i could push this, in addition to denying her dvd privledges. “the teletubbies are eating their toast” “the teletubbies share their bag/scooter/ball/tutu…” “the teletubbies use a potty”…er, wait a minute…do they? ew. i think we’ll start with the sticker method.

  18. Sarah says:

    Ben,
    This is your most entertaining entry to date! Have emailed it to all friends with kids. Now I know why I finally deleted my 4 day long blog of my life. It takes talent to make it something others, and myself, WANT to read!

  19. Moxie says:

    hey Ben,
    who is Batty Bat? We watch Sesame Street several times a week and have never seen “Batty Bat”. I am intrigued as I fancy myself a Sesame Street expert!

  20. benmac says:

    Hi Moxie: It’s the Batty-Bat song that the Count sings. Trixie is pretty crazy about it: Batty Bat song