Toddler Cooperation – It's All in the Bribe

I’ve often read that we should try to focus on rewarding good behaviour rather than punishing bad behaviour in order to gain more cooperation from a toddler.  Recently, I discovered that the key to success using this disciplinary tactic is not so much in the act of rewarding the behaviour but in the actual bribe itself.

For instance, in my earlier days of potty training Gavin, I would reward him with stickers every time he managed to poop or pee into the toilet bowl.  Although I managed to get Gavin pooping and peeing into the toilet bowl, I always got the feeling it was less to do with the sticker reward.  There were times when I would remind him of his sticker reward but it would have no effect on his behaviour.

So what’s a good bribe?  As a dentist I am loathed to suggest it but it really works – sweet treats.  A friend of mine was trying to potty train her daughter and told me that nothing worked for her except the reward of a sweet.  Her daughter got so good at it that she would tell my friend she needed to pee.  My friend would then take her daughter to the toilet.  Her daughter would pee but hold back some of her pee.  Since she told her mother she needed to pee, she would get a sweet as a reward.  A little later, she would tell her mother again that she needed to pee, release the rest of the contents in her bladder and collect her second sweet.

When researching potty training tactics, I also read an account from a father who had used smarties to bribe his son and boy did it work for him!

Recently, I started playing a Math game with Gavin involving smarties.  At the end of the game, he gets to eat the smarties.  Not surprisingly, Gavin has constantly been reminding me that he wants to play the “smarties game”.  Realising how effective the reward of a smartie was, I started using it as a reward across the board.

When I introduced the “Happy Faces” discipline tactic to Gavin recently, he jumped right into it and I thought it was such an effective discipline tool.  In retrospect, I think the motivator for Gavin was not the happy faces but the fact that each happy face was the equivalent of a smartie.  Now he keeps asking me how many happy faces he has.  When I tell him, he’ll ask if he gets as many smarties.  Ah well, whatever works, huh?

The benefit of using smarties is that it’s small and offering one little smartie is just as effective as offering him a cookie.  The only downside to the “sweet” reward is that it has to be promised within a tangible period of time.  For instance, promising him he will get the smarties tomorrow doesn’t really work as well as telling him he gets the smarties as soon as he cooperates.  In other words, this tactic is useless near bedtime when I usually refuse to give him anything sweet that will gear him up rather than help him wind down for bed.

I guess this is a lesson we can all apply to life in general – we’re all motivated by different things.  What spurs one person into action does not necessary appeal to another person.  When it comes to rewarding your child for good behaviour you have to find what’s closest to his heart.

What rewards motivate your child?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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