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Click here for Part 1 of the series.


In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Screwtape tries to help his demon-nephew destroy a human soul by advising that “an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula”(pg. 44). When we bribe our children, we promote worldly cravings instead of lasting joy in that which “moth and rust cannot destroy.”

Discipline is a grace to us in our Christian walk. After all, “The Lord disciplines whom he loves.” When we have varying difficult circumstances, it can be eternally helpful to view them as part of God’s tender shaping of our souls into the likeness of Christ. “No discipline is pleasant at the time,” but we are promised that it will bear fruit in our lives. Running from God’s discipline to find placebos for our souls is a recipe for rotten fruit. When we forgo godly discipline for bribes, we rob our children of the opportunity to learn to love God’s involvement in our lives.

Something else gets taken from our children when discipline is absent in our homes: the joy and peace that come from forgiveness and reconciliation. If we are bribing our children, we are often not correcting them for wrong behavior. No discipline, no confession, no restoration. We are not teaching our children how to rightly relate to God.

Now all of that said, anyone who’s been to my house in the last few years can attest to the fact that I use M&Ms for potty-training purposes. How do I justify that in light of all I’ve recently said about bribing? The answer is that, in this case, the M&Ms are an incentive, not a bribe. How do we know the difference between an (appropriate) incentive and a (inappropriate) bribe? An incentive is a tool to help a child learn a new skill, to find the edges of a newly placed boundary (“Now we’re going to pee IN the potty!”). The parent is still the authority, making the rules and implementing new procedures. Bribes, on the other hand, reverse the parent/child dynamic and put the child in the position of authority (“If you stop throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store aisle, I will buy you Lucky Charms.”). The child is now the ultimate judge, getting to determine the price she will charge each day for her compliance. She doles out the punishments and the discipline in the home, using her bad behavior as a tool to get whatever her little heart desires. The parents have abdicated their role of authority because they no longer set the price or the consequences. They have become the servants and their children are now the masters, all for a little temporary peace.

On the other hand, incentives are training wheels used to help your child learn a new skill. As soon as he is capable of balancing on two wheels, the extra wheels come off. The training wheels are used to help your child learn to love riding a two-wheeler. A bribe is attaching a motor to a bike that your child is perfectly capable of pedaling on her own. The motor is used to help a reluctant biker to look like she loves riding a two-wheeler while not actually turning the pedals with her own effort.

Here are some more differences between incentives and bribes (if you read the whole chart, I’ll give you a cookie! 😉 ):

Incentive  –> Discipline


Is short-term, used to promote new action or activity; removed and replaced with discipline as soon as parent is certain of child’s capabilities

“Look at this fun, little potty! Drink an endless amount of juice! Have an M&M for peeing in the potty!”

Is long-term, used to promote action that the parent knows child can do on his own

If you don’t hit your brother for 15 minutes, I’ll give you a sticker on your chart!”

Helps determine readiness for a new skill so parent can have confidence to discipline for the behavior. Helps to break a bad pattern and show your child that she can do something.

“You are only two-years-old, but you can learn to sit still during dinner. After you stay in your seat for the whole meal, you will get a lollipop just this once. You will love eating with the family!” If the child can’t sit still, even with the promise of a reward, strap him back into a high chair and try again in a few months.

Given for a behavior that is already learned so the parent can avoid the process of godly discipline.

“I know it’s so hard for kindergartners with your disposition to sit still during dinner. If you stay in your seat and don’t run around the house while we’re eating, you can have extra TV time.”

Hard in the short term

“Because you didn’t take out the trash, you’re going to have an extra chore to help you learn to obey, with a good attitude, the first time you’re asked. Let’s pray together that God will give you joy in helping the family.”

Easy in the short term

“Here’s $5 if you take out the trash I asked you to take out yesterday.”

Believes the standards are valuable. They don’t need glitter.

“Share your toys with your friends today. If you feel like that will be hard, let’s pray that God will give you a generous heart!”

Indicates that God’s law is not valuable enough on its own; needs glitter to be attractive.

“If you share your toys with your friends today, you can have some candy when they leave.”

Leads children to the Cross and to their need for a Savior

Child: “I am sad that I didn’t share my toys. God, please give me more love for my friends!”

Leads children to look to their own selfishness to motivate them

Child: “Why should I share my toys tomorrow? What’s in it for me?”

Has High expectations – believes child can and will obey

“Please bring me that book, honey.”

Has Low expectations – believes child will not obey unless coerced

“If you bring me that book, you will make Mommy feel so happy.”

Ultimate Goal: Joyful Meeting of the Standard

 “This homework is the task God has given you to do today. Let’s ask God to give you a grateful heart for the mind he’s given you and the opportunities you have. You are expected to do your homework with a good attitude. If you get all your work done soon, maybe we’ll have time to get ice cream!

Ultimate Goal: Meeting of the Standard with any Heart Attitude

“It doesn’t matter if you hate doing homework. If you just get it done, I’ll buy you ice cream.”

If we realize that we’re in the habit of bribing our children, we’re looking at a great opportunity. We can model right repentance and restoration by telling our children we’re sorry for not disciplining them according to God’s laws and that things will be different from now on (there’s a new sheriff in town!). This models for our children how to respond appropriately to their new and improved discipline!

Instead of bribing our children to sin, using temporary incentives helps to show our children the rewards of obedience. We have the wonderful opportunity to teach them to look to Christ as the source of all joy.

If you would like more on this topic, and many others, I highly recommend Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp and Don’t Make Me Count to Three by Ginger Plowman.