Don't bribe her (chantage / faire chanter)

said my sister while I was talking to my almost 3-year-old daughter.

It's bad, but what are the alternatives?

I read that threatening and bribing reinforce a kind of Pavlovian reaction between some situations and their consequences (e.g. quiet => candy, bad action => punishment, etc.), and worse, can give rise to culpability (e.g. a child could make himself believe his parents wouldn't have separated if he had been well-behaved).

On the other hand, a suggested alternative I read, when discussion doesn't work, is to make a rule (the child must obey), which doesn't seem to me like an improvement.

Where does one draw the line when threatening, bribing or rewarding? Are they to be avoided at all costs? What are efficient alternatives to threatening/bribing when the child cannot be convinced and/or there is a hurry?

NB: I can see at least three levels of threatening (level 1) and bribing (levels 2 and 3), but there are probably more:

  1. "if … then I call Big Bad Wolf", phone in hand (found it mentioned in comments of an article…) ;
  2. "if you do x, then [reward]" (the child being asked to do something but not asking for a reward.)
  3. "[I let you do something or we'll go somewhere] if you do x (the child already asking to do something or go somewhere.)

Forget about the first category, which seems terrible, and let's focus on 2 and 3. Can threatening and bribing be considered blackmailing?

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    Are you (or your sister) saying that any "If ... then ..." is blackmailing? If so then I think someone's badly misunderstanding the term. Bribing is the right word for 2 and 3, if you're going to give it a pejorative term. 1 is simply threatening (Again, if you want to give it a pejorative term). Blackmailing specifically refers to the case where you threaten to Expose information about another that will harm them, ie, you know a secret about someone and you threaten to expose the secret. Given a small child has few important secrets, blackmail makes no sense.
    – Joe
    Oct 13, 2014 at 14:10
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    It explains why I couldn't find many results with this keyword here, it's more talkative with "bribing"… In French both are referred to as "chantage" or "faire chanter", and my usual translator only mentioned "blackmail". I'll edit the question accordingly. Oct 13, 2014 at 14:20
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    Wait, now I'm confused. Is "bribing" also the right term for "if … then I won't let you …" ? Oct 13, 2014 at 14:26
  • Bribing specifically implies a positive outcome. Much of the time you could think of "If... then I won't let you" as its inverse ("If not... then I will let you"), but only the latter would be bribing. "If... then I won't let you" is a form of threat, or less pejoratively is a consequence.
    – Joe
    Oct 13, 2014 at 14:49
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    Extortion is another translation of chantage, and might be more apt here. "The process of obtaining something through force or threats." That probably is the right word for what your sister is talking about, and is appropriate for something like "If you don't eat your dinner then there will be no dessert" or "If you don't behave I'll take away your toy." I don't agree with the use of the word, mind you, but it's probably correct for what she's getting at.
    – Joe
    Oct 13, 2014 at 15:02

6 Answers 6


The thing is, it sounds like blackmailing, but you are teaching that actions have consequences. "If you don't go to bed now you will be tired tomorrow" is a fact; however one that children won't get. Tomorrow is ages away and child cares mostly about now. But you actually know more about the child than it does when it is small, so you need to be able to reinforce what you say if they still don't listen, so sometimes you need a more immediate consequence.

There are many other cases when they do have to listen to you, eg. for the sake of safety etc, which is something you can explain to you older child. If your child runs towards the road and doesn't stop when you shout then a punishment of some sort is very appropriate since that disobedience could result in the child's death.

Blackmail is when you make someone to do something for YOUR gain, not theirs. You are trying to teach about consequences which are mostly for THEIR gain, not yours. I understand older children can be mouthy sometimes, but explaining that difference is important. If none of us were taught consequences in an appropriate and safe way, then most likely lots of us would be dead. So it is totally appropriate to say "You need choose to do (something) by the count of three or you will be choosing to have (consequence)", thus putting it in their hands.

Incidentally we have actually asked the child what we should do if it doesn't listen. And often what the child chooses is appropriate, and then it becomes a choice.

Regardless, you're not blackmailing your kid. You're trying to parent and teach consequences. And you're probably good at it -- you clearly care.

  • I don't think I agree with the details of this answer; while I agree with the overall goal (it's not wrong to do it because you're doing it for your child's gain, and consequences are important), realistically you're also doing it for something you consider a net positive at the end: raising a better child, or having an easier meal, or whatever. I think the sister is trying to get at an important distinction here (which i'll get to in my answer), but simply is the difference between presenting those choices, and making them more linearly cause and effect.
    – Joe
    Oct 13, 2014 at 15:09
  • Could you elucidate? I think the question was about positives and consequences, and to clarify my point I don't think at all that she is blackmailing her child; however the distinction should be clearly explained to the older child. Oct 13, 2014 at 15:59
  • I go into it some in my answer, but basically I think the question is fundamentally about the distinction between "if A then B" approach (reward or "threat") versus methods that aim to improve innate decision making (see the Pavlovian elements, for example; that's getting at exactly that approach). It's not about having consequences or not. Your first paragraph partially addresses that, but the rest doesn't really fit.
    – Joe
    Oct 13, 2014 at 16:03
  • I see. The answer was addressing directly the accusation of blackmail; what blackmail actually is and what is being referred to as such. You have a good point though. Oct 13, 2014 at 21:45

My principle is to try to stick to "natural consequences". That is, I do not punish my children in a way that makes me seem to be peeved, and therefore I punish them. Rather than that, I focus on why I want to correct my children's behavior, and try to let them feel what the consequences are if they behave incorrect. Mostly that's just not shielding the child from the physical world with its limitations (like time not being infinite, others not inviting a child that is known to behave bad etc.).

Here's a few examples:

  • I expect my children to contribute to whatever needs to be done in the household by just asking them to do some chore. Of course, when you have 3 or 4 year old children, they sometimes rather play with their toys than preparing the table for a meal. My solution was to not to force them, but to explain to them that, when I prepare the table myself after having cooked the meal, then I need to spend time on this they'd rather have me spending on other things, like making desert, playing with them, reading them books...
    It takes a few bad experiences like this, and a child of this age can make the connection when asked to prepare the table.

  • Between the age of 4 to 6, most of my children had a phase where they took forever getting dressed in the morning. You could ask, plead, threaten... nothing helped. After the initial shock I had when the first child got into this phase, I found a simple solution: There is only so much time we have in the morning, and if a child takes too long to do one thing, then either I need to wake that particular child earlier, or the child would not have time to do certain other tasks – like having breakfast.
    It usually took about a week of this to end that phase.
    (The same goes for the evening, BTW: If they need too long for washing, teeth brushing etc., there might not be enough time left to read a story.)

  • If a child does not behave well in a group (like at a friend's birthday party), I warn the child we might have to leave, because the other people would be annoyed about it. Note that, to the child, we would not leave because it doesn't do what I say, but because I cannot prevent the consequences of what it has done. My usual rule is to warn no more than twice. If this doesn't help, I actually leave. This is the most important part: Never threaten consequences you are not prepared to actually let happen. (Few things are worse than a mother yelling at a child that they will have to leave the birthday party if the child won't do as it's told – and the child knowing exactly that they would never actually do that.) If you cannot leave an event, do not threaten to do so. (In that case, you could, for example, tell the child that you would have to avoid such situations in the future and then, if it wants to visit people again, deny the wish pointing out the bad behavior.)

Of course I set up these situations, and of course I decide which consequences I let the children feel and which I won't. (I am not allowing a child to feel the consequences of putting a piece of wire into an electrical socket.) But that's not what the child experiences. The child's experience is that I told it to do A, but it did B, and then something bad happened. So it's not you who is a bad person who would not allow the child to have a good time. Rather than that, you are the one in the know who helps the child avoid bad things to happen. (I did let a child old turn an electrical switch I had told it to not to touch. This burned a fuse and the child was very afraid in the dark apartment this resulted in. We actually took the time to spend some of the child's own money to buy a new fuse.) In fact, you can actually comfort your child when it is upset about these consequences. (And that's not just theory. When, for example, a child weeps because we do not have enough time for a bedtime story, then I will comfort it. And we will talk about how we do this tomorrow so that this won't happen again. And the next evening I will take the role of a conspirator who tries to help the child to get done early enough, rather than as a easy-to-peeve avenging angel who bugs the child to not to take too long, because then I would not read a story.)

Older children will of course understand your steering role in this. But if you start doing this at an early age, an older child will be sure that, when you say, "we will have to leave if this doesn't improve", you would actually do the unspeakable thing and leave. Also, an older child raised like this will see you as a friend who helps it to deal with a complex world, rather than a punishing god who strikes when annoyed. IME that helps a lot with the guiding.

Note that, as others have already said, positive feedback has been found to be more effective than negative feedback. That is, rewards for good behavior are better incentives than punishments for bad behavior. Often, however, this is a matter of how you "sell" this: Is it a reward that we can read a bedtime story when the child doesn't waste too much time, or is it a punishment that there's no time left when it does? That depends on how often either case happens and which way you explain it.

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    I do not approve that a child taking too long to get dressed means that they need to go to school on an empty stomach. First of all, skipping breakfast means that the school performance will suffer. Secondly, the child might tell the teacher that it was denied breakfast, leading to concerns with CPS and child abuse. Finally, denying a child food is a violation of the UN convention on children's rights, the right to provision to be precise.
    – Nzall
    Oct 14, 2014 at 11:35
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    @Nate: Where I live the problem is kids getting to fat. A kid skipping a meal is no problem here (as is regularly demonstrated by the kids themselves when they do not like what's served, e.g., in school and just do not eat that day). Yes, school performance might drop that day, but that is expected when the day starts with a drama anyway. My focus is to stop the dramas before they become regular. As to teachers being concerned: I simply talk to them about problems. Communication works surprisingly well.
    – sbi
    Oct 14, 2014 at 11:41
  • If your kid is getting too fat, feed it healthy food instead of not feeding it at all. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and should not be skipped at all, even as a punitive measure.
    – Nzall
    Oct 14, 2014 at 11:52
  • @Nate: You're going off on a tangent. My kids are slim enough that it's hard to find jeans that fit. :) Since breakfast is so important, I focus on raising them in a way so that they are used to have and take enough time for it. If that means they need to skip a breakfast or two during their early childhood, so be it. My oldest will officially be an adult next week, and other than her (female) classmates, she still eats breakfast most days. I am sure that this is well worth a sacrificed breakfast or two when she was 4.
    – sbi
    Oct 14, 2014 at 11:59
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    @Nate: I'm not forcing them to miss a breakfast. To the contrary: I strongly encourage my kids to not to waste time with their other tasks in order to have lots of time for breakfast. We need ~70mins in the morning, with the single biggest event (almost 30mins) being breakfast. But the same child can get dressed in 4mins on one day, and need more than 20mins on the next. The issue at hand here is time management: There's only so much time available, and if you waste some of it, then something else suffers. I'm no magician and can't change that. And I won't shield them from this reality.
    – sbi
    Oct 14, 2014 at 12:28

I think that what your sister is getting at is the distinction between several kinds of discipline. Let's say that I want my child (let's call him Tommy) to eat a healthy dinner. How can I do that?

  1. "Tommy, if you eat (all of) your spinach, I'll let you have a cookie."
  2. "Tommy, if you don't eat your spinach, you can't have a cookie."

These are inverses of each other, but they both work the same way: if A then B, or if not A then not B. They're also what's at the root of this question, I think.

These solutions have a fundamental simplicity which appeals greatly to both parents and children. Mommy simply conveys the information to Tommy (what he needs to eat to get a reward), and Tommy knows how to get his reward. This will tend to work fairly often - Tommy might whine some about the need to eat spinach, but Mommy can reinforce this by simply restating the if/then exchange, and ultimately Tommy does or does not eat his spinach, and does or does not get his cookie.

The fundamental weakness here, however, is that Tommy's not learning to eat healthy foods: he's rather learning the above-mentioned Pavlovian response. This isn't entirely bad; it is one of the tools in the toolkit for parents, and hopefully ultimately Tommy will learn to like Spinach by eating it frequently enough that he gets used to the taste (and the often bitter tastes that make it objectionable to some).

However, Tommy isn't learning why he needs to eat his spinach, and he isn't equipped with intelligent tools for future decisions. He's not learning the real consequences of eating cookies without eating spinach; he's learning to follow your rules. Again, this isn't entirely a bad thing: learning to follow your rules is good, to some extent; and if Tommy is two or three years old, realistically he can't learn how to make good food choices yet, so the reward paradigm is reasonable.

It also turns it into a game: learn what the minimum necessary is to achieve the reward, and 'game' that further. Your child stops thinking about what he'd want to do, or even what's intelligent to do; he instead looks for what is specifically going to earn him the reward. Maybe he learns he likes spinach - but he still eats just the amount you tell him he must, and whines about it some, because he knows that you'll offer him the cookie. He's not going to get good habits from this - instead, he's going to alter his eating habits in a negative way to ensure the reward continues.

How you solve this, is to adjust this paradigm over time, and reduce the action/reward when possible as the child develops. The more reasonable way to put what your sister is saying is, "Avoid bribing/extortion when a superior alternative exists". This is important to learn as a parent, in large part because we get so used to the reward/extortion paradigm as early parents that we tend to stick with them later in life. Explaining the whys is important here; and as they get older, more and more often earning their buy-in on decisions is important.

One of those alternatives is to define rules, rather than rewards. Rules don't have an exchange or if/then; it's simply "then". "You must eat your dinner." Rules can be very helpful in establishing the boundaries of healthy decisionmaking: "Any decision you make is fine, so long as it has these limitations". For example, "You may feel free to eat anything you want for dinner, as long as it's healthy and doesn't require additional work on my part." That's a rule that enables the child to then make decisions - deciding what to eat, and how much - within the boundaries of what's necessary (eating something healthy).

Ultimately, teaching children to make good decisions on their own is more important than having them make the right decision every time, and this is why it's important to avoid the reward/extortion paradigm when you can - at least, think about it actively: is this something I can begin to teach as an intelligent decision? Children learn much faster than we think, most of the time, and just like you're amazed at how quickly they learn to read, or climb a ladder, you'll be amazed at how much they're able to understand about decisionmaking.

Here's an example of this kind of thinking; it's not intended to elicit a discussion of how to get a child to eat, but rather to show the different approaches.

In the specific example above, we often told our son when he was 2 that he had to eat a certain amount of his dinner before he could have dessert; basically method one. However, this quickly turned into the game above: every day he'd ask how much of his dinner he had to eat in order to get dessert. We realized this was a bad thing (as he wasn't learning to eat the right amount), so we changed a few elements of what we were doing.

First, we usually stopped telling him a specific amount. I still often had a specific amount, but didn't tell him up front; instead, we told him he needed to eat until he was full, and didn't directly link dessert. This might sound like a bad thing (and initially this is why we would tell him specific amounts - trying to be more open and clear), but in this particular case it backfired, so being less clear was a good thing.

Second, more importantly, we began teaching him with choices. Rather than "you must eat your dinner", it became that he must eat something healthy, and a reasonable amount; but if he doesn't like the food served, we would let him choose any leftover that was reasonable (ie, a complete meal itself). If he doesn't like meatloaf and peas, he's able to choose some lasagna and broccoli from the fridge. Also, we ask him to choose his portion size: defining the rules as he must eat what he takes to his plate, but he doesn't necessarily have to take a lot to his plate, for example - he's free to have seconds if he wants/needs more. Here we use the 'boundaries' approach; he's allowed to make choices within a framework we provide. He does still understand that he can't have dessert without passing this stage, so there's still some sense of a reward paradigm here, but it's as much as possible separated from this process.

Finally, we don't force him to eat a full meal if he's not hungry. Sometimes he might want to avoid dinner because he wants to play, and while he has to sit down for the duration, he will resist eating; sometimes he might actually not be hungry. That's fine - another teachable choice. Rather than reward/extortion ("you don't get dessert" or "you'll go to bed hungry"), he's free to not eat: but if he is hungry later on, his only food option is the option he had for dinner, no snack or dessert. This again encourages healthy decisions, as he knows he's not able to get more snack-type foods: it's not a reward or an extortion, it's simply a rule. It enables him to make healthy decisions by eating the correct amount - if he's not hungry, that amount might be very little, and then when he's hungry later he sees the consequence of not eating at dinner. Again, the boundaries approach here: basically, "You must eat some healthy food for dinner. You may choose what (from whatever is available to choose) and you may choose when (so long as you sit at the dinner table)." The reward (Eating dessert) still exists at the back end, on days where dessert exists, but most days it doesn't, and on most days that it does it's not explicitly stated.


The only really bad thing would be to threaten a punishment that you don't intend to carry through on or that is disproportionate to the offense. Punishment is not blackmail. The law does not blackmail us in to not stealing from other people. It tells us that if we do bad thing x, bad thing y will happen to us.

This is a natural and important part of understanding cause and effect. Our actions have consequences. The problem comes up when the penalty is grossly exaggerated in comparison to the issue at hand. This leads to either a feeling of being unjustly treated (as the penalty is too severe for the action), or worse, a feeling that they aren't responsible for their actions if the penalty isn't carried out.

Similarly, offering a reward is not blackmail at all, as it isn't a negative. It is just a good way to teach that efforts to do good things or work hard are rewarded. This is also a valuable life lesson.

It becomes blackmail if you start using threat of punishment to get them to do something you want that isn't bad. For example, play soccer, even though you don't like it, or you won't get any desert. This is bad because it tells them that it isn't that they are responsible for their actions, but rather than they must do what other people want them to do regardless of their own interests. It teaches them that their own desires don't matter or are wrong.

The same can be said about bribes to get them to do something you want them to do that they may not be interested in. (Such as, I'll give you ice cream if you play soccer instead of video games, rather than say, I'll give you ice cream if you do something more active to keep healthy, but leave the choice of what up to them.) This, I'd argue is probably not quite as bad as the blackmail, but still something I'd personally avoid.

So in summary, as long as the punishment fits the crime and the reward is for something useful to them, rather than your personal goal for where you want to see them, then it is fine. If you start trying to manipulate your kid in to following your expectation of their life, rather than letting them be themselves, you are treading on dangerous and harmful grounds that not only teach them bad practices for interacting with society, but also tell them that you don't accept them the way they are.

  • This is a natural and important part of understanding cause and effect. Our actions have consequences. Exactly my opinion and conviction. Feb 26, 2019 at 18:29

In the case below, "it," is an action or behavior that is undesired/wrong.

Blackmailing is:

  • The person who did "it" knows they did something wrong.

  • You know the person did "it," and that "it" is wrong.

  • The person who did "it" knows that you know.

  • Blackmailing--> You coerce behavior from the person who did "it" by
    threatening to expose the the person for having done "it" if they
    don't comply. Supposedly, exposure will result in a worse punishment than performing the coerced behavior.

Now, is it right to do this? Children are sponges. They take every input they receive and use it to shape their future behavior. So, while you may think you're teaching discipline, you're really teaching how to blackmail. Obviously, the child doesn't know the behavior it is performing is incorrect, otherwise it wouldn't perform that behavior. Since the child doesn't know it is doing something wrong (or that hasn't been reinforced enough), making threats isn't blackmail, it's just making threats -- to a three year old. Now, the hollow threats... well, those just end up weakening your hand. The child will eventually figure out that you're full of it. Then you'll really be in a world of hurt.

The promises (we'll go somewhere, we'll get something) - those are bribes, and you're teaching that, too. Going someplace/receiving a gift should be the result of work performed correctly, not behaving correctly. Behavior is expected in order to be part of society. If you don't come through on those promises, you'll be teaching something else: lies.

At three years old, a child only knows emotion. It knows it doesn't want to hurt you. It knows it enjoys receiving positive feedback from you. So, if the behavior you're trying to correct hurts you, say that. When the child performs the correct behavior, say that too.

  • Obviously, the child doesn't know the behavior it is performing is incorrect, otherwise it wouldn't perform that behavior. Are you sure? Feb 26, 2019 at 18:34

I always propose the natural consequences.

I tried to convince with arguments and reasoning handling out rules but the pupils often said: this is chantage / bribery when I was talking about positive or negative consequences. You'll get used of this when you work with children.

In my opinion people who argue like this are spoilt and it is just an expression of their sado/masochism in everyday life. No one would say this is bribery/chantage if he drives correctly and gets no traffic ticket. The same in sport and fair play.

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