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Sport parents: Should you bribe your kid to play?

September 6, 2011 – 5:30 AM

By Katie Culver

Most parents have been there: Wanting your child to try or do something so badly, knowing that she or he would just love the activity, sport, or food that you just might do anything to get them to do it…even bribery.

Is bribery OK?

Recently, for example, a mom bribed her son to participate in the first day of swim team practice, promising he could play Wii afterwards, even though it wasn’t his “Wii day.”  Shall I share that this was “Mini-team?” That the boy was five?

He did swim – and clearly looked like he was enjoying himself. So, any harm done?

I spoke with Michael Kaplan, M.D., assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center, about the tricky matter of using bribery to get kids to play sports. In the case of the swim practice, Dr. Kaplan doesn’t see a big problem because sometimes children do need encouragement or a promised reward.

“Everyone celebrates an accomplishment with a reward,” notes Dr. Kaplan. Adults go out to dinner after a promotion, for example. “It’s a tangible marker of an internal feeling.”

But all bribery is not created equal. When is it “pushing” and discourages instead of enticing? According to Dr. Kaplan, if a child needs a bribe in order to participate in a sport, it’s fair to wonder if they are old enough for the activity. Yet, he says, some children need a nudge to try something new. There is a difference, he observes, between bribery as a motivator to help a child get past separation anxiety to try a new thing – and bribery as a vehicle for routine participation.

Ultimately, says Kaplan, parents should want “human interaction to be the best motivator.” In other words, the “reward” should be about the relationship between parent and child, that is, parents letting the child know they are pleased with a smile, a hug, and praise.

Bribing may seem like an effective tool at the moment, but it doesn’t establish a relationship of trust between parent and child. As a result, says Dr. Kaplan, for a child already uncomfortable in a situation, the bribe becomes part of the process with which they are not comfortable. Bribery in that setting, in other words, not only has “no lasting impact,” but says Dr. Kaplan, it robs the child of feeling good about their accomplishment and the resulting boost in self-confidence.

And yet, the moments are not always clear-cut. As children get older, issues around sports get trickier. We parents naturally scrutinize our children (noticing when they make mistakes, wanting them to be the star). Parents must tread a careful path and recognize when encouragement becomes pushing and when discussing becomes bribing. Both create a pressure situation in which a child is compelled because they want an extrinsic reward (say, a parent who offers a child money for scoring goals). This won’t feed a long term dedication.

Certainly, there are times children need some outside motivation to attend practice or play in a game – especially if the sport or coach is tough. This would look like: “Play hard, do your best and we will celebrate after the game.” Or, “after this hard practice, we can go home and relax and watch TV.”

So how to avoid (as best as you can) bribing your kids to play:

·         Know that kids raised with empathy rather than ridicule will be confident enough to try new things (See Dorothy Law Nolte’s Children Learn What They Live). Children’s innate comfort levels vary. They don’t want to participate in swimming lesson or track team the first day? Let them watch. Or think about who is doing the wanting—does your child want to play or do you want them to?

·         Children exposed to playing games in an UNSTRESSFUL, fun environment will learn the skills to be confident players at the competitive level. If “competitive” means stressful or emphasis on winning, your child may not to want to play.

·         Playing sports is not always easy. Don’t forget to VALIDATE your child’s feelings. Yes, it is hard to try new things or to play soccer in the rain The coach is mean? Recognize that the coach might not be the most effective but encourage your child to play anyhow. But also, LISTEN. If they really don’t like the tennis team or the coach, and they’ve always loved tennis or never had a problem with a coach before, maybe this is not the team/coach for your child. There is a difference between quitting and finding a better fit. Or a different sport.

·         Your child does not have to be on the “best” team or be “the best” on the team to have a successful sports experience. If sports aren’t fun, your child won’t want to stick with it. So let go of your goals for producing a professional athlete. Be honest enough to realize that if you are the one with the athletic goals, maybe it’s time to join at adult league — for you.

(More on Dr. Michael Kaplan here, here, and here.)


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