Parenting in a Pandemic: Bribing and Threatening

Given that families are spending more time together during the COVID-10 pandemic, conversations about the idea of “bribing” or “threatening” children and teens seem to have increased. Many adults struggle with the language needed to manage behavior in a way that feels positive and productive. Here are some tips and tricks to make things a little easier at home (and homeschool):



To bribe, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “to influence the judgment or conduct of (someone) with or as if with offers of money or favor.” Often, the connotation of the word “bribe” is incredibly negative. In the law, bribery is an illegal action aimed at buying power from a person in public office. This gives the entire interaction a general feeling of “sliminess” for most parents.



When parents and providers instead focus on the behavioral principle of reinforcement, everything feels much more positive. Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will happen again, including rewards (e.g., stickers, toys) and praise (e.g. “Great work making your bed today!). While bribery feels like a time-limited, externally motivated way to get someone to do something, reinforcement is focused on sustaining expected behaviors over the long haul. Eventually, the reinforced behaviors become good habits that we are all striving for! 



A threat, per Merriam-Webster, is  “something that may cause injury or harm.” The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic increase in screen time for most kids and teens, and the most common “threat” that adults are feeling bad about is removing screen time (or another similar preferred activity). However, the removal of a privilege (like screen time) is actually not causing injury or harm! It may cause emotional discomfort for everyone involved, but warning a child about the possibility of losing a privilege is not actually a threat. Suggesting that a privilege will be removed without following through may even increase unwanted behaviors because a child isn’t sure that the adults in charge will actually remove the privilege. 



When parents and providers set clear expectations and consequences, the use of negative language (think: no/don’t/stop/lose/take away) is actually unnecessary! Use positive language to describe expectations. For example, say, “Your job is to read 1 chapter per day,” instead of “You never read!” When discussing consequences, the use of positive language is incredibly powerful. For instance, say “When you read one chapter each day, you will earn an extra dollar for your allowance.” Many parents balk at paying children (whether in money, screen time, or prizes) for behavior that “they should do anyways.”  However, many of those same parents go to work (or do household/emotional labor) for the benefit of their family’s income or well being. Human behavior is, whether we like it or not, controlled by both internal and external forces. Children and teens sometimes need an extra push to do the things we want or need them to do, because they don’t see the value in the tasks and they lack the internal motivation to complete them. When adults set clear expectations and consequences for behavior, we help children and teens to do things that align with shared values (e.g., health, kindness, honesty, education, and cleanliness). 


The moral of the story here is that language matters! Communicating positively about expected behaviors and reinforcers has a huge impact on parent-child relationships and the behavior that comes out of them. For more help with parenting in a pandemic, consider working with a licensed mental health provider who specializes in behavior.  

© 2020 Erika J. Vivyan, PhD. All rights reserved.

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