"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Should You Bribe Your Kids?

In principle bribery is a bad thing.  It is corrupting for the person giving the bribe as well as for the one receiving it.  I never felt good about bribing my way in and out of the Luanda airport, but not paying meant getting a vaccination with a dirty needle to bring my Yellow Card into compliance; leaving my computer with the authorities; or worst of all, having to stay in that wretched, benighted city.

So I entered and left the airport with $50 bills stuck in my pockets for easy access, ready to grease the palm of the immigration officer shaking his head at my invalid WHO certificate of vaccination, the customs official insisting that my visa had expired, and the security agent who saw explosive residue in the X-Ray of my computer.

I got very good at deflecting bribery attempts or at least reducing the damage.  When asked by a corrupt customs official to show him my foreign currency, I would frown, shake my head, shrug my shoulders; and when I finally ‘understood’, I pulled out a few worthless and foul-smelling notes of local currency and handed them over.  I would always carry a few of these nasty francs, kwanzas, or gourds to hand over to the security guard after my pat-down.

When I drove in Kinshasa, I always carried a copy of my passport and visa.  The drunken police were too dumb and illiterate to know what they were, so when they stuck their rifles through the window and demanded to see my papers, I had them ready.  They twisted and turned them, held them up to the light pretending to read them, kept them, and waved us on.

Now, bribing children is an entirely different matter.  We all do it one way or another. Bribes are either positive (“If you eat your peas, you can have an extra dessert”) or negative (“Unless you finish your peas, you won’t get any dessert”), but they are still bribes. We give ‘rewards’ for good grades, hugs and kisses for good behavior (who said that parental affection is not the currency of parenting?), and allowances for cleaning the toilets. I was unashamedly bribed by my parents who gave me a trip out West to keep me away from Marilyn DiLoreto, a dark girl from across the tracks.  My niece got a My Little Pony set ostensibly for her great arabesques but really to keep her in ballet school and out of trouble. 

Parents make little distinction between bribery and reward.  You give kids things to shut them up, to motivate them, to accelerate them, and to keep them on the straight and narrow.  You take things away – reverse bribery – when they stray.

My children used to fight like cats and dogs on long trips and concentrating on driving was impossible, so we left early in the morning when they were still groggy and quiet.  When the stupor wore off and the fighting began, we fed them candy and cookies until they fell asleep. Now, processed sweets were verboten in our household, so at first the children couldn’t make heads nor tails of this unexpected and surprising bounty; but they asked no questions and gobbled the Snickers, Kit-Kats, and Oreos until they were addled.

To us this innocent bribery was no more than a simple ploy – an expedient and easy way out.  A lot of parents put their kids in front of the television when they started squalling.  Even though TV time was rationed in most families in my neighborhood, parents broke the rules when their patience was at an end.  What mother, home from work after a hard day at the office, needing a martini and some quiet time, could resist the TV solution?  It was far more benign than candy or cookies.  There would be time for the right way to teach children to be quiet – encouraging respect and responsibility – but Jesus Christ, not now!

There were parents I knew who made no bones about bribing their children to do well in school.  It was a jungle out there, and nobody got into Harvard with a B+ average; so they put complex pay-off systems into place. All parents paid by grade level, and most paid extra for increased performance; but some subtracted earnings relative to decreasing performance.  Each subject was tracked and monitored in an attempt to be strict but fair. Any deviation, favoritism, or weakness was exploited by their children.  Kids learn from an early age how to game the system, and if the bribery schemes had any positive by-product, it was the lesson that people can be had.

One of the debaters asked to participate in the New York Times (10.29.13) Room for Debate column agreed, and felt that bribery was not a good idea because children were too smart:

Soon enough everything becomes a negotiation over money. If I get a dollar to make my bed, how much to set the table? What if I make my sister’s bed, do I get her dollar? Fine, take away a dollar for not brushing my teeth, I’ll just make it up with extra math practice.

I ran into this situation exactly when my son complained that his bribe (payment) for cleaning the toilets was far too low since his sister got the same amount of money for a far less disgusting task, vacuuming the rugs. I argued that the time spent on toilets was far less than on rugs; but he argued that I had not considered the ‘disgust factor’. 

My son learned an important economic lesson – how to value labor – and I learned that bribery was the wrong way to go. Sharing family responsibility voluntarily – everyone pitching in to help with no reward – was the whole point; not simply getting the house cleaned.  I then had to fight a battle on two fronts – the resistance to having the bribes removed; and the inability to understand why ‘pitching in’ shouldn’t be compensated.

Other parents were by no means convinced. “Why not bribe?”, they asked rhetorically.  After all, they did all kinds of semi-dishonest things to help their children get into Andover, St. Albans, and Harvard, so direct bribes to children were no big problem.  What father would not lean on his K Street colleagues to put in a good word for little Johnny even though the kid was a slacker? Parents wrote college essays for their children all the time and helped them pad their applications with high-sounding but worthless extra-curricular activities.  I remember that a Yale recruiter was very impressed with the fact that Bobby Parker was Chairman of the Chapel Committee at my prep school; but also that his parents had deliberately chosen that meaningless post for him because it looked good and required no work at all.

Except for the trip to California to get away from Marilyn DiLoreto, I was never bribed by my parents.  They were first generation Italians who had struggled to get where they were in a rough neighborhood where nobody did you any favors and bribery was a kick in the slats.  To his credit my father never threatened me with the razor strop like a lot of guinea parents.  He ground his teeth and threw my report card in the trash if I didn’t get all A’s, but held his temper.  I knew from his clenched fists and popped-out neck veins, however, that he meant business.  I got few bad report cards.

The guests on the Times panel were all creative in their responses to bribery.  My favorite was this:

As a known "mean mom" with a reputation that extends outward into my children's communities, I always have an easy response to the "if I feed the dog, what do I get?" line: You get to not spend the rest of the evening in your room.

Most of the pro-bribery contributors were not exactly happy about their choice and felt that it was simply a common and innocuous part of early childhood parenting. There are no lasting lessons to be learned from bribery, nor any ethical damage done to children, so why not do it?  Most of the anti-bribery advocates were not harshly critical of the practice and seemed to understand why parents sometimes resorted to it, but they preferred to hold the line.

There is clearly a fine line between bribery and just reward; but under ideal circumstances reward is an unexpected gift – an acknowledgement of success or performance after the fact.  It is the best possible transaction.  The student has worked because of the inherent value of the effort; and has had her performance recognized by others whom she respects. Next is the expected reward – a gift that is promised for excellence, a kind of mutual recognition of the importance of the achievement.  Worst is the pay-for-performance ethic.  Only the wrong lessons are taught.  No bond of mutual respect is fostered, no family integrity, no lesson on the importance of right action and individual responsibility.

The problem is that we are all descendants of B.F. Skinner, behaviorists at heart.  We know that rewards work for people as well as rats; and we know that if we keep a child’s mouth full of Oreos he can’t yap. We are simply too busy and preoccupied to be worried about ethics and lessons of respect.  It is not our fault that our kids are whining complainers.  Something got crossed in mating, and little Jonathan got his grandfather’s spite and bile.

Since we live in an era of plenty when the cost of raising children far outweighs the benefits of having them – i.e. there is no need for their labor for survival or social benefits – we stress secondary attributes.  If little Jonathan gets into Harvard, it will reflect well on us, let alone him.  So why not beg, borrow, steal and bribe to get him in?

We all bribe our kids, so don’t look so glum.  Just keep it to a minimum and hope for the best.

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