To Bribe Or Not To Bribe: Encouraging My Kids Best Behavior

Katherine Heigl with daughters Naleigh and Adalaide

Before I had children I would have sworn I would never bribe them to behave, to pitch in or to be respectful. Almost ten years into momming that inexperienced opinion has gone up in flames. To all the mothers and fathers out there I was secretly judging when witnessing the “I’ll buy you a lollipop if you get off the ground and stop screaming” technique…I deeply apologize. For years I tried the stern mom voice and the “look” you all know the one. Eyes squinted, lips pressed, chin titled to the side. It occasionally worked but it never really brought the best out of my kids and wasn’t really the incentive they needed to encourage positive behavior. Sure no one wants to piss off mom, or few sane people do, but is that really what I wanted my kids to be thinking when good versus bad choices arise? “Don’t piss off mom, don’t piss off mom, don’t piss off mom.”

I’ve been doing a lot of personal and spiritual work the last few years trying to evolve my heart and mind and live in a more positive, blissful, grateful and peaceful state of being. What I’ve been learning is that positive thinking begets positive experiences and vice versa. If encouraging my children to mind their manners, do their chores, help one another, show kindness to others, and respect themselves and those around them is done with a stern voice and angry look I’m guessing that attaches a negative feeling to doing the right thing instead of a positive one. So for the last few years I have been working on perfecting a positive reward system for doing right. In other words…bribing. I know, it sounds so dirty but it really really works. Instead of always feeling like the harping bad guy I am now the bearer of special rewards and thoughtful gifts for good behavior. Instead of getting nagged or cross looks to do their part they earn gold stars that buy them gifts from the family store. They get what they want, I get what I want everyone is happy and feeling positive vibes only!

Naleigh hanging out at the barn
Madison riding her horse

Look at these sweet faces! Can you even imagine them not always behaving or doing what they’re asked? Well I can!

Naleigh relaxing poolside
Adalaide enjoying time in the pool

Pool days and ice cream dates are great family store ticket items.

Adalaide, Naleigh and Katherine Heigl enjoying ice cream on the beach

A few years ago a girlfriend of mine and fellow mom told me about Family DoDots. A brilliantly devised system for encouraging your kids to do their part and their best with positive reinforcement versus negative. I quickly bought the kit and started implementing the strategy. I found it worked really well…mostly. The only problem I had with it was how time consuming it could be to organize and maybe I’m just a dummy, but it often seemed overly complicated to me so we ended up quitting on it. As I just revisited the site to include the link I’m realizing they have tutorials to help explain the system. Maybe I should have tried that…anywho, I ended up taking their philosophy and creating a version that works for my me and my family that doesn’t include so many moving parts.

First things first, I made my list of chore priorities for the girls. It’s the same for all three which keeps it simple. It looks a little like this:

Morning Chores

  1. Clean Rooms
  2. Make Beds
  3. Tidy Bathrooms
  4. Pick Up and Put Away All Personal Items Left Around the House

Evening Chores

  1. Do Homework
  2. Set Table
  3. Clear Table
  4. Clean Dinner Dishes
  5. Tidy Kitchen
  6. Put Away Leftovers

As far as evening chores go, each girl takes on the task that’s age appropriate. For example, my 17 year old can tidy up the kitchen and put away leftovers after dinner. My nine year old can set the table and do the dishes. My six year old can clear and scrape the plates and wipe down the table.

The goal here is to not have to nag them or really even ask them to do their chores every morning and evening. I occasionally have to remind Adalaide as she is only six but if I have to remind her more than once then she doesn’t earn her star…which brings me to explaining the reward system.

Niece Madison
Naleigh With French Toast

A family dinner made by my niece Madison and Sunday morning french toast made by Naleigh earns them both those coveted “above and beyond” gold stars.

Family Meal - Katherine Heigl, Josh Jr., Naleigh, Madison and Adalaide

The Star System

In the girls room I keep a little poem I wrote on their bedroom door to remind them of their responsibilities and a calendar on the wall where I put a star for each job done without asking. They can see their progress as the week goes by and each gold star has the added benefit of inspiring them to earn even more. You see those gold stars represent a dollar to spend in the family store. The family store is a basket of kid friendly stuff they can choose from at the end of each week. Everything in the basket has different values, so say you had an exceptionally good gold star week you could buy that baby doll you’ve had your eye on for months. The kids can even save up gold stars from weeks past to earn bigger ticket items, though they still don’t really have the patience for the concept of saving and waiting.

The beauty of the gold star system is that it not only positively encourages them to do what’s expected it also encourages them to go above and beyond. Helping each other without prompting, helping me without prompting, doing a kindness for another without prompting, all of these will earn them extra stars, hence more dollars, therefore bigger gifts. The only downside to the family store is if you’re a compulsive shopper like me you can end up getting a little carried away, spending more each week, on stuff your kids don’t really need, than you want to. Because of this Josh and I have started including coupons in the store for experiences instead of just things. Like, for example, a lunch date at your favorite pizza spot with dad. A mani/pedi with mom. An after school ice cream stop. You get the idea.

Adalaide with her father Josh Kelley
Katherine Heigl having fun with daughters Naleigh and Adalaide

One on one time with Dad and a ladies lunch with Mom are coveted ticket items for Naleigh and Adalaide.

Our positive behavior system is pretty much exactly what the DoDots system promotes just without all the moving parts we had a tendency to misplace. It is 100% effective when we commit to it and can even be used to encourage the parents to get that “honey do list” done, or…well I can’t think of a single thing Josh has to nag me to do. I’m that on top of it! Of course you can modify the rewards for adults…you can even get a little spicy if you want 😉 I’ve found a little spice to be incredibly effective in getting those light bulbs replaced and the bike gear cleaned up.

I guess the moral of this story is, it doesn’t matter how young or old you are, chores are a chore but if there’s a reward at the end of the rainbow…well there isn’t a human among us who isn’t motivated by a pot of gold…or honey as it may be!

My Silly Poem

Every morning when you wake,

Your lovely bed you must make.

Put each pillow in its place.

Fold your blankies and tuck them away.

Put your pj’s under your pillow,

Where they will be til the night that follows.

Tidy your toys into their special spots.

Where they’ll come to life and hope not to get caught.

Lovingly choose your outfit each morning, being careful not to mess all the other clothing.

Close your drawers and shut your cupboards.

Pick up your socks and don’t forget your unders!

Reading a book each and every day,

Is so very good for your quick brains.

But don’t dare forget,

To put that darn book away!

Put all crumpled up paper and dirty tissues, in the trash bin where they belong and I’ll kiss you!

Keep your night stand cleaned up and ready, for your cups of water and maybe a stuffed teddy,

This is your list of things to do each morning.

Follow it to a tee, do it even if it’s boring.

Perhaps if you do a wish you may make,

And grant it I will if you’ve made no mistakes.

But if however,

You ignore this order.

Whatever I find on the floor

Or in the corners,

I’ll throw into a great big bag,

And deliver to children who will be so glad.

Who will sure love, cherish and adore,

The toys, clothes and things you treated with scorn.

So make me proud and take great care.

Treat your things with love and always try to share.

Xoxo, Mommy

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  • Chantelle

    Hi Katherine

    I love reading your posts and this one hit home. I have a 5 year old for whom listening is not a top priority. Please could I use your poem??? and your star idea lol

    September 3, 2018 at 11:20 am Reply
  • Rachael

    I wish I had known about this when my daughter was younger!

    September 3, 2018 at 11:48 am Reply
  • Monica

    Aw, I love the poem!!

    September 3, 2018 at 11:55 am Reply
  • Natasha R

    Thanks so much for that post! It literally could not have come at a better time for me. I’ve just done away with my son’s current reward chart as the format just wasn’t working in the long run. I’m definitely going to try your way as I too want to raise my child to be a nice person on their own without have to be prodded all the time.

    September 3, 2018 at 12:13 pm Reply
  • Lynette

    I never looked at it as bribing. I looked at it as payment for a job well done. Much like you get paid for acting work, the kids are getting paid to do their work. It’s also teaching them a work ethic, of sorts. Do the job well and you get paid. Go above and beyond the minimum to get a job done, and you get something extra. Eventually, it does work into teaching budgeting skills as well. My youngest, 11, is now only interested in cash though since his older brothers have grown enough to be hired by others and get paid cash. But he’s budgeting and saving so he can get a cotton candy machine and start his own concessions business with that. So you see, you’re not really bribing them. You’re teaching them many valuable lessons that will prepare them for adulthood. Great job, Mom!

    September 3, 2018 at 1:29 pm Reply
  • Marcia

    He Katie! Lovely story about your kids and the “art” of cleaning up! I think if I had had a lot of children, I would do exactly as you have done. It’s such a good thing to teach family members to work together and equally! I only had one child and I found myself doing everything for him and consequently. It did not turn him into the tidiest of people! It’s really hard when you yourself is such a perfectionist about things! Unfortunately, no one does it as good as you! But through the years with working with a lot of people I have “kinda” learned to designate! That works best and now that I’m older, I’ve come to realize “I can’t do it all!”! You know anyone for hire? Oh such is life! You have a great and wonderful Labor Day! Always, Marcia

    September 3, 2018 at 2:36 pm Reply
  • Jillian

    I had no qualms at all regarding bribing my kids when they were young. Especially as they reached the balking teen years. I have always been a big fan of books and reading which we did everyday when they were little. As they grew older and wanted to do other things, I paid big money for reading good books and discussing them with us. As a result they grew up to love reading as adults. HaHa, I also never hesitated to bribe the hubby, wink wink.

    September 3, 2018 at 8:38 pm Reply
  • Helen M.

    Great ideas and a Wonderful Poem!

    September 4, 2018 at 2:17 am Reply
  • Syuzanna

    Dearest Katherine,

    Thank you again for yet another exceptional post!!!
    First of all, may I steal your poem and post it on my son’s bedroom? I love it!!! I think you have captured all there is and I wouldn’t want to come up with my own at this point ( when there is a genius version available):)
    Second, I am in such an awe of how you raise your children and keep sharing your ways with us! I just had to come up with a system myself for my 4-year old… When he opened the door for old ladies heading to the store the other day, it made me realize that I must start teaching him the Gentmen’s way ( he is at the perfect age to comprehend and develop good ground for manners). So, trying the same here – teaching values, importance to do his part of the chores, respect others and be compassionate ( showing him what compassion is with a hope that he will feel the same).
    Don’t know about you but I feel like I’m overusing Santa’s powers haha, told him about Santa’s lists…
    Thank you again for sharing these priceless photos of your beautiful and radiant children and Josh and yourself!
    Each time I read another post I feel closer to you and keep wishing for the day to share a talk with you!

    September 4, 2018 at 4:53 am Reply
  • Jennifer Houser

    Totally agree! WE tried everything with our now 16 year old and incentives are the only thing that worked and it was activity incentives not always money or things. But we have found most often just giving them “adult” duties and being treated as such is what they want. Another big thing in our house is saying we are disappointed that they didn’t do “xyz” or that we were hurt. That seems to be the ultimate punishment. Most important all kids and families are different, take what works and ignore the negative feedback. Love how real you are and had no idea you also had your niece regularly. I have a 16 year old and a 2 year old so I know how difficult it can be to wear different hats for different ages. KUDOS!

    September 4, 2018 at 3:17 pm Reply
  • ToniD

    My Mom and Dad gave my brother and me an allowance from age six on up. We had daily chores to do and if we didn’t do some money was taken out. I also earned extra money for extra chores like ironing, etc. Money talked to us. We could buy extra things we wanted with it. My Mom also encouraged us to save a little each week which I did and still do.

    September 4, 2018 at 5:03 pm Reply
  • Kristy

    I totally agree! I have a six year old son and the positive reinforcement approach (or bribing, whatever you want to call it, it works!) truly works best with him and I love that I’m not always having to be the sheriff. It’s exhausting being the bad guy and the enforcer all the time! I have tried a sticker reward chart in the past with pretty good results. But I really like your idea with the family store- feels more like an arcade experience where you can turn in tickets for prizes. This is right up my son’s alley! How many stars/tickets do you make items in the family store worth?

    September 10, 2018 at 6:30 pm Reply
  • Lili

    Hello Katherine, you look so adorable and you are cute! I love your site ! Kiss for your family and you a Big fan from France

    September 26, 2018 at 8:42 pm Reply
  • Carolin

    Horrifying. Before trying a “method” on your kids, imagine you would be treated this way. You do not want it (“Sorry Katherine, no new handbag for you because the kitchen was a mess yesterday”)? Then it might be a bad idea for your kids too.

    October 2, 2018 at 6:08 pm Reply
  • Chelle

    This is fabulous and the poem is just lovely! My 4 are all grown now, and I am a GiGi to 3 amazing grands, but I always utilized a positive reward system with mine. I help raise my granddaughter, and am now doing the same with her. I do believe I will add in your Family Store basket though, I like that she can have some instant gratification when she turns in her stars. She’s big on special outings and GiGi time, so will continue those, but now I will include them in the basket alongside the other things. Thanks so much for sharing your mamahood!

    October 2, 2018 at 6:17 pm Reply
  • Helen

    Brilliant idea! Just what my 6 year old daughter and 46 year old husband need. My daughter will be excited just to receive a gold star sticker let alone any other rewards. A bike ride or play in the park while daddy is home will be even more enticing. Toys are so cheap now days – they get thrown in the toy basket to declutter and never played with again.

    October 2, 2018 at 8:23 pm Reply
  • Vicki

    Lovely post, and I can tell you there will never be any regrets for instilling good values into your children. My daughter is now 17, and I am so thankful for wisdom shared with me from much my older friends who had been down this path before me. My daughter has always had chores, I’ve never nagged but like you, rewarded her for positive behaviour. She has grown into a lovely, respectful, responsible young lady. I wish I had that poem when she was younger though, such a lovely way to remind them.

    October 3, 2018 at 10:16 am Reply
  • Kate

    I always sing the praises of my friend Ralphie from @simplyonpurpose (on Instagram). She is an amazing sorce for positive parenting tips. Tips that work and will pay dividends in the long run. Really, truly, REALLY check her out.

    October 27, 2018 at 6:28 pm Reply
  • Joanne Abbott

    Really enjoyed reading this, took me back to when my children where young. Nice to hear about your family

    November 12, 2018 at 6:25 pm Reply
  • Debra Austin

    I love your poem as it is written in love. Even the consequences are there choice and again done in love. I am on my second time around, as my first group of kids are 34, 29, 26, and 24. Now I have Fostercare 9 year old whom I’ve had since he was 11 mos old (parents won’t let us adopt), and then we had a Fostercare from birth whom we adopted last year. I’m so glad for all your tips as times has changed. I have cancer this time around and it’s harder. But you so help make it so much easier taking the hard stuff off. For how am I supposed to be grandma and mom too? Just love love love them!

    December 10, 2018 at 7:50 am Reply
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