Is It Bribery?

What do we do when kids don’t want to learn what we’ve set before them? Threaten them? Punish them? That seems to be the traditional approach. If we negotiate a trade-do this for me and then you can [fill in with something they want to do] or I’ll help you do [ditto] is it a bribe? If we adjust the lesson, covering the same goals with a different and more appealing assignment, is that a bribe, as well? If we plan lessons around a child’s interests, is it a form of bribery? And if it is, is that wrong?

A professional advised those working with a stressed fourteen-year-old with learning difficulties to do the things the girl wanted to do-teach according to her interests-in order to decrease her stress. The girl had been compliant. Then she started hurrying, focusing on completing each task whether answers were right or wrong. She would finish one assignment and without a breath begin the next. She enjoyed nothing. Driven, she refused breaks, apparently hoping to find an end and freedom at last. Finally, she started avoiding the teachers and all work, becoming less and less cooperative. That’s when professional advice was sought. A member of the staff brought this to my attention, quite upset. She believed she was being asked to bribe the student.

Is it bribery? Well, as teachers, what are we trying to achieve? If we want to break someone’s will and force them to become submissive and mindlessly obedient to any and every demand, relishing our position of power, then the advice wouldn’t be consistent with our goals. But what if we hope to nurture a desire to learn and the acquisition of skills that can be useful in a person’s life? If that’s the case, then instead of a “Do as I say or else” philosophy we should consider the adage “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

In fact, we are all drawn toward situations and people that make us feel good about ourselves. If we don’t enjoy a task, we may be willing to do it because we will have a sense of accomplishment or because we hope to earn a word of praise. This girl’s initial compliance was an attempt to please the teachers. When she realized that there was no end to the demands-to the tedium, she became depressed. Is it so difficult to empathize? Would we relish life as a coal miner-hard work in the dark, breathing polluted air, rarely ever seeing the sun? Maybe we could handle it for our family’s sake if we knew it was the only way to put food on the table, but what if we thought that’s all our life would ever be? Would the depression we are likely to experience be lifted by more demands or by a positive change? What if the boss gave us respirators to make breathing easier and rotated shifts to give everyone a chance to spend time in the sunshine? Would he be guilty of bribery or smart business practices?

Are your children stressed out from an endless list of tedious tasks? Do they find ways to delay or avoid assignments, leaving you in the exhausting role of drill sergeant? If so, what would you want done if the roles were reversed? How do you like to learn? Empathy and the desire to help children succeed should replace notions of the teacher as dictator. Just like us, when children are comfortable and relaxed they are able to think more critically and creatively. Stress can wreck their immune systems and leave them prone to illness and depression. So, I leave it to you: is it bribery to help children learn in a nurturing environment or just good sense?