Our early attempts at bribery were simple. Wash the dishes, and you can have a popsicle. Don’t fight with your brother, or there will be no dessert. Simple; and for some children, effective.
There are problems with such a system. The number of chores and mandates — do the dishes, do your homework, practice piano, brush your teeth, don’t fight with your siblings, and so on — vastly exceeds the number of possible bribes. This undercuts the effective power of simple bribery: Tiny bribes are unconvincing, and big bribes can’t always be matched to tasks.
Also, bribery has to fit with punishment. Punishments cannot be so draconian as to remove all further incentives; punishments should deter bad behavior, in a way that also allows for rearding for good behavior; they also have to allow for added punishment for increased misbehavior. Defenestration is not an option.
Time to build a better bribe.
A few months ago, we started an experiment, born out of frustration from yet another day of repeatedly asking the kids to do the same things. On the spur of the moment, I dubbed the system Warbucks. (Yes, like in Annie.) Kids earn Warbucks for doing chores, as set out on a predetermined pay chart. Once they’ve got enough bucks, they can go shopping in the War Chest, which is a big plastic tub with toys, goodies, and so on.
It’s taken a few weeks to calibrate the system, but at present it seems to be working rather well. So we have a pay chart with items like:
Practice Piano (20 minutes): 2 bucks
Take out trash (1 large bag) 2 bucks
Brush teeth (morning) 1 buck
Brush teeth (evening) 1 buck
Complete homework Varies, usually 3-5 bucks
Clean bathroom floor 2 bucks
Wash and dry a load of laundry 2 bucks
Fold and put away load of laundry 2 bucks
Take a bath / shower 2 bucks
Load dishwasher 3 bucks
Unload dishwasher 2 bucks
Make bed 1 buck
And so on.
There are also family bucks — things that give bucks to everyone, like family prayer (1 buck). And in one of my more devious moments, I added Bonus Bucks — bucks that all three kids get when all three have completed some chore. This encourages the kids to remind their siblings to brush teeth, for instance.
And of course there are penalties.
Whining -2 bucks
Grumpiness -2 bucks
Loud yelling or screaming -2 bucks
Chewing clothing -2 bucks
Messy bedroom -5 bucks
Creating messes and not cleaning them up -5 bucks
Arguing or squabbling -5 bucks
Talking back -5 bucks
Meanness -5 bucks
Hitting or Fighting -10 bucks
Lying -10 bucks
After that, we printed up some currency — simple cardstock bills in different denominations, using different colors for different kinds of bills, to make for easier use. The kids earn their bucks daily.
The prizes are the really fun part. A partial list:
Lollipop 5 bucks
Tootsie Roll 5 bucks
Smarties 10 bucks
Balloon 10 bucks
Princess earring stickers (per pair) 10 bucks
Blow-Pop 20 bucks
Page of stickers 20 bucks
Peanut butter cup 20 bucks
Hair band 20 bucks
Bag of gummy bears 25 bucks
Bag of goldfish 25 bucks
Mini-size candy bar 25 bucks
Colored pencil 30 bucks
Pudding cup 30 bucks
Matchbox car 30 bucks
Bag of Oreos 30 bucks
Bag of chips 30 bucks
Bag of Teddy Grahams 30 bucks
Sidewalk chalk 35 bucks
Scoop of ice cream 40 bucks
Fun-size candy bar 40 bucks
Small Play Dough 50 bucks
Popsicle 50 bucks
Can of soda 50 bucks
Small toy airplane 60 bucks
Twisty pencil 60 bucks
Tennis ball 60 bucks
Regular-size candy bar 60 bucks
PEZ dispenser 80 bucks
Finger paint (one container) 80 bucks
Coloring book 80 bucks
Trip to AM/PM to get a candy bar and soda 100 bucks
We try to keep the war chest stocked with things the kids really want. We occasionally have one-day sales on some item, or limited-time increases in pay. Want the living room cleaned, really fast? Announce triple warbucks for cleaning, for the next hour only.
The administration gets a little burdensome, sometimes. (I eventually announced a “one-trip-to-the-bank-per-day” rule after the boys repeatedly asked to trade up the next denomination every time they hit it.) But the kids seem to be enjoying it, and it seems to be working. It’s helped even out some of the rewards and punishments we give, and allowed for more finely calibrated responses. And it’s worked very well for our wild and rambunctious middle child, who seems a lot like yours. Threatening to (future) take away toys or privileges is often too vague and intangible for this child, who lives entirely in the present and never worries about the future. Fining him warbucks _right now_ has proved to be a great way to curb bad behavior.
I don’t know how it will end up, long-term. I suspect we’ll continue to tinker with the regime. But for now, it’s working pretty well.