How to Bribe a Toddler with 8 g of Sugar or Less

By Jillian Lankford

Prior to becoming a mother I strongly felt when the time came for my children to listen to me we would have no problems. I am the parent, I am in charge. There is room for compromise. I will provide plenty of chances. The bottom line is, you will listen.

Boy was I wrong.

I have never been more tempted to lock myself in a closet rather than hover over two toddler minions in a debate over what shirts to wear.

Some say bribes are bad. Some suggest we propose incentives. These are the same thing from a toddlers perspective. Give them something special in return for completing a task they would normally refuse to do, or provide a pleasureable stimulus in exchange for a display of “good behavior”. These positively reinforce a parents mental stability while compromising a child’s behavioral health. What’s wrong with that?

I can feel the gray hairs sprouting from my scalp when I’ve asked for the up-teenth time to “put the toys away” or “keep your fingers out of your butt”. I reach a limit of insanity almost every day that only a thoughtout, intentionally placed bribe is capable of returning me to a normal state of mind. Here are some tried and true favorites.

“If you eat all your lunch we can have sparkling water.”

Fizzy Drinks.

We are not pop or juice drinkers, but I do pour a Lacroix every night like it’s a tall glass of cold Coca-Cola or glass of wine. The colorful cans and fascinating flavors come only second to the fizzy sensation my toddlers love about sugarless, fizzy water. It’s an easy reusable bribe that also works at any meal time.

“If you take one bite of broccoli, we can play with the water.”

Water Play. A classic.

Prop the stool or chair next to the sink. Plug the drain and turn on the faucet, it is just that simple. Throw in a cup, a few trucks or baby dolls, your toddler will think of the rest. Be sure to have towels handy prior to. Water play outside is perfect for hot or humid days. Fill a bucket, turn on the hose, fill up a water bottle and let them do the rest. We love freezing nature treasures to use in our water play on hot summer days.

“It is time for me to cook (or just think about what to make for dinner). If you use these pots and pans we can avoid getting hangry together.”

Kitchen Play/Cooking.

Bust out the pots and pans or invite the kiddos to help make. Shaking, stirring, mixing and egg cracking are easy promises to keep. A little bit of water, cinnamon, dry noodles, cornmeal or flour in a muffin tin presented with a bowl and spoon to a toddler sitting at your feet on the kitchen mat is an easy 30 minutes to yourself or to actually make dinner.

“If you clean up your toys we can go outside.”

Outside time is an all-the-time bribe in our house.

No timestamp required, no structured play promised. Sit on the stoop, walk around the block, look for worms or lay in the grass and shape out the clouds. Outside is outside. Nature’s air is refreshing. Whether you have a yard, an empty lot or hallway, promising the outdoors will do wonders. You can even use the setting sun as a timer, “clean quickly the sun is moving, we are losing light to play”.

“If you sit in the stroller during my walk we can go to a new park or playground.”

New park or play place.

If you have the luxury of living in an area with enough recreation to walk to, use any greenspace as a bribe to get your toddler to complete a task, nap, or just stop whining. The farther the walk or run, the better you will feel mentally – get those endorphins going before the pleasure of your bribe runs out. Even if it means sitting them next to your Peloton with a book, the promise of a new playscape is bound to give you a few still moments of peace.

“Play nicely with your brother or no chocolate after dinner.”

Dark chocolate.

Something my boys simply can’t live without. Between 2 to 4 grams of sugar in a few squares depending on how dark you go. These tiny pieces are the perfect bribe for good behavior. My kiddos enjoy two squares of 80% cacao every night before bed. (Before bed, are you nuts?) There is no sugar high and the health benefits of dark chocolate and its weight as a bribe out way whatever crazy thoughts you have in your head right now.

Can’t do dark chocolate? Try counting out as many M&M’s as years they have lived.

“If you take a nap, a spoonful of honey will be waiting for you when you wake up.”

Agave or honey.

1 tsp of agave has just 5 grams of natural sugar. 1 tsp of honey has 6 grams of natural sugar. These little scoops can go a long way. Don’t underestimate the power of a spoonful of natural sugar because it doesn’t come in a colorful package. It is natural, delightful and bribe-able. Over Greek yogurt or spread on a few crackers or toast, it’s the perfect bribe for nap time.

“If you take a nap we can go to the Bodega for dinner.”

Eat out of a box or bag.

We do not regularly order out in our house. Maybe once every other month I run out of energy to provide a home-cooked meal. So it is a huge treat for my boys to go to the “bodega” (The Dearborn Italian Bakery or corner market) and pick out something to eat for lunch or dinner. The sheer joy in getting to choose what they can have to eat before it is placed in front of them is stupendous. If eating out is a regular thing for your family give those well behaving kids the option of where to go. It saves having to make the decision yourself and provides a bit of spontaneity in return.

“The quicker you clean up your toys, the more bubbles you can have during bath time.”

Bubbles, the kind you blow or the kind you make.

Dish soap in the sink, extra bubbles at bath time, or a bubble machine that provides fun in just a few pours. Priceless time creating and chasing bubbles. Endless enjoyment, easy bribe well done.

Special treats under 8 grams of sugar per serving with some semi nutritional value: Popcorn, honey roasted almonds, natural peanut butter, dried fruit, dark chocolate covered pretzels.

Notice the absence of fresh fruits and veggies from the list. While these items aren’t easily accessible to all or easily manipulated we are just going to assume the kiddos are getting them regardless.

“You can choose what we do next, if…”

Pure Nonsense

Have an appointment and no babysitter? This bribe might just keep your toddler quiet for the car ride, the appointment, and drive home. Let your guard down and give in to their spirit. What they choose is truly what they want to do. Run naked through the house, jump on the couch/bed, stand on the counter, hide in the cupboard, read a book in the closet with a flashlight – embrace it.

When incentivising my toddlers I like to explain what is a privilege and what is a God given right too. Having a safe area to play in outside is a privilege. Having the ability to play with a water hose in a backyard is a privilege. Having juice to drink, snacks to eat, playgrounds to play at is a privilege. Even though at this point in their lives they have many more years to learn and understand this lesson, my hopes for being blunt is instilling awareness.

Wean into these bribes and don’t be afraid to embrace the mess. These are proven tactics that have saved us from turning into silver foxes and racoons over night. We don’t want our kids to expect something extra for handling their responsibilities but showing them an opportunity for joy once those are complete, doesn’t that show the value of hardwork?

While some of these may seem like givens for some families we have to remember toddlers only know what we teach them. If everything is given to them they will only know how to want and not how to appreciate the simple things in life.

Bribery can teach your child to act out to get what they want. So while these are sugarless ways to get them to listen, be sure to explain your intentions to them when they finally do. The better they understand how you feel for what you are asking of them, the more likely they are to reason with empathy and rationality.

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How to Be Down With Messy Play and Keep Your Sanity

Bribing Kids vs. Rewarding Kids for Good Behavior: What’s The Difference?

The Dos and Don’ts of Bribing Kids

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