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Bribes and punishments. Do they work?

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

Did I mention Lyall and Rich like to squabble? Relentlessly? Like every moment they have together? If you're new to this conversation, welcome aboard HMS Fighty Idiots. Yep, our sons fight, poke, squabble, kick, deliberately cough and sneeze (gross), punch, pull hair, pinch, push and open doors into each other, endlessly.

Lyall and Rich from Daddy & Dad - Father's Day tees #gifted from River Island
Lyall and Rich - Father's Day tees #gifted from River Island

In the early days when we were first placed with the boys, the general guidance from friends and family was the classic, "Let boys be boys" and allow Lyall and Richard to wear themselves out; effectively stand back and don't allow them to wind you up.

But, there's a problem with the "Let boys be boys" approach - in addition to the fact it's nonsense.

It's sexist. There's an antiquated stereotype suggesting boys should be encouraged to behave physically when they're growing up, in a kind of primeval struggle to the top of the pack. Meanwhile, I guess the antonym of this (god-awful) concept; "Let girls be girls" would allude to allowing sibling girls to 'bitch-it-out' in a kind of race to become some hideous high-school Queen Bee character. It can't be healthy. We're not daft - we know sibling girls and boys in any arrangement of brother/brother, sister/brother etc will fight but whatever the arrangement, it creates unrest at home.

You may remember a year-or-so ago I talked about a new strategy which I call 'blissful ignorance'. The boys will continue to fight endlessly anyway, so why not sit back and completely ignore them? The idea being we can relax and take a break from anger.

Well - I tried that for a couple of weeks and it appeared to work from one perspective - I took a fortnight's break from being an angry, red-faced gnome; constantly intervening and getting upset. But, the root of the problem remained. The boys continued to squabble. And that brings me nicely onto the subject of bribes and punishments.


bribe /brʌɪb/
dishonestly persuade (someone) to act in one's favour by a gift of money or other inducement

In the context of the boys' fights, a bribe is a preventative measure and appears to work, with limitations. What do I mean by a bribe, in this context? Well essentially, we would make an irresistible offer to the boys - an extra 15 minutes on their bedtimes, for instance, or 30 minutes on the PlayStation on a weeknight, in return for calm (no squabbles - not even a nudge).

But each time a particular bribe is used, its effectiveness is worn, so we have to be careful not to use the same bribe too often or it'll become ineffective.

The problem with bribes, and this might sound a little selfish, is they generally come at a cost to our grown-up time and space. Yes, it's lovely for the boys to get along harmoniously for a whole afternoon, but the bribe itself usually intrudes in some way on the adults.

Tom and I glory in our couple of hours to ourselves after the boys' bedtime. We generally start to wind-down in preparation for our quiet time about half an hour before their bedtime, usually in front of The One Show or Michael Portillo (I know, we are extraordinarily old and boring). We don't want to sacrifice Michael Portillo's pink trousers and Bradshaw's Guide in exchange for noisy Sonic Mania on the PS4 and why should we?

On the other hand, we know Lyall and Rich are insatiable about squabbling - they're drawn to a bicker like Daddy to a chocolate digestive. So, at least Tom and I can rest assured the bribe will only come to fruition some of the time.

Another problem with bribes, as mentioned is their effectiveness wears out. So, as a parent you need a steady stream of new, free ideas to keep the boys' behaviour in check. Naturally, after six years we're running out of ideas.


When the boys first joined us, we were warned about their 'dynamic' (in that we were told they will squabble constantly). So, before they arrived we discussed strategies with the boys' foster carers. Their valuable advice to us was the boys thrive in an environment of boundaries and discipline. I don't mean discipline like in a 1970s boys' school way, rather a safe environment with expectations and consequences.

With that in mind, in the first week of our placement with Lyall and Rich we sat down at the dining table (our first family meeting) and created a colourful poster for the fridge containing our routine and some inspirational little ideas to prevent the boys from bashing each other up. The poster's long been relegated to the filing cabinet (and I can't be arsed to find it and get it out again) so I can't tell you exactly what was on it, but it included positive little things like the boys' bedtime routine, 'share your toys', stuff like that. It sounds daft, but when Lyall and Rich moved in we stuck to our new routine and the boys settled in and felt at home very quickly as a result.

One thing we discussed during our family chat at the dining table was 'consequences'. Channelling Super-Nanny, we decided on 'time-outs' as our punishment of choice for bad behaviour and squabbling. Specifically, we decided on a naughty step on the stairs in the hall and a naughty corner in the dining room.

Time-outs seemed to work fairly well but the boys responded very differently. On the naughty step, Richard would usually bash his hands and feet on the floor and scream innocent profanities, "YOU'RE A NASTY BUM FACE BULLY!", for example and "I DON'T LIKE YOU ANY MORE!", but would calm down after five minutes or so and return to the living room a few minutes later with a solemn apology and a cuddle, before returning quickly to his bouncy self.

Lyall, when put into the naughty corner (the corner of the dining room) is told to stand still with his arms down by his sides. Huffing and puffing and going bright red like a toffee apple, he'll deliberately raise his hands and scratch at the top of his head, in a bid to defy the naughty corner rules. Instructed to stop scratching (or he'll have an itchy head all afternoon) he'll then slowly bow the top half of his body towards the wall, very gradually, until he's bent over awkwardly with his head resting on the wall, as though he's listening to the next room. Very annoying. Eventually it becomes quite uncomfortable and he'll stand upright again, arms swinging sulkily. Lyall doesn't recover from a spell in time-out as quickly as Richard and tends to wallow like a huffy hippo for at least ten minutes after he's been released, before finding something to do and forgetting all about it. He's much less inclined to apologise and move on, as comes so naturally to Richard.

The most effective punishment for Lyall is to remove his phone or Kindle. Even the threat of no phone for 24 hours has a positive impact on Lyall's behaviour around Rich.

Technology timeouts work well for Lyall

Also, the boys absolutely hate going to the supermarket with me, presumably because I like to wander around slowly and look at all the candles and electronics and everything. So, the threat of a trip to the giant M&S (my favourite shop at the retail park down the road) usually does the job nicely.


Again, a very harsh word in its legal context, but what I mean by threats specifically is a warning about a consequence, should the boys decide to wind each other up.

Like bribes, threats also wear out eventually. But we've stumbled across a highly effective, ethical one that nips one particular problem in the proverbial bud, every morning.

What is this threat? Well, believe it or not, the most effective thing we've found is the threat of no penguin biscuit in a lunch box. Like their Daddy, the boys are driven by their stomachs and the utter nightmare of opening their lunch box to find an absence of a penguin sends shivers down their little spines! (Oh god, you probably all think I'm a total monster now!)

Where do we use the penguin threat? Well, our biggest danger zone for squabbling is the hall at the front door. I don't know if this problem is global, or isolated to just our family. You'll need to let me know in the comments below.

Every morning, when the boys are putting on their shoes and coats, they can't resist a push and a shove. Our hall way is quite small, like about two square metres, so there's not much elbow room. Anyway, I'd say four days out of five, a small kaffufle in the hall escalates into a full-on festival of spitting, poking and stamped feet. It drives us mad.

One fateful (fateful in a good way) morning, Tom said to the boys, sternly, "If you wind each other up while putting on your coats and shoes, I'll remove your penguins from your lunchboxes and eat them myself". Sure enough, moments later Richard decided to open the front door (it opens inwards) onto Lyall's foot, to an enormous fake "Owwwwww" from Lyall and a reciprocal shove. To the boys' despair, Tom followed through with the penguin removal and the boys were sent to school with, what we now call, boring lunch.

The penguin threat is now so effective, we don't even have to say it. It's been subconsciously instilled into the boys' minds and they now, four times out of five, pop their coats and shoes on and wait nicely.


We do encourage comments on here so please do let us know your strategies. Do you just step back and let your kids wear themselves out? Or perhaps you have some new ideas to keep the fighting at bay? Let us know!

By the way, over on the Vodafone Digital Parenting Website, Lyall and I were interviewed about 'technology time-outs' - pop over and have a quick look. I must tell you it was a paid contribution to their website, as part of their campaign to improve the online balance for families. Enjoy!


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