Guest Sarah MacLaughlin, Parenting Expert shares The Pitfalls of Threats and Bribes — Excerpted and adapted from her Amazon bestselling book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children
It’s a common belief that threats and bribes are must-have tools for adults—the staples of child rearing. These methods are popular because they can certainly work. Threats manipulate a child through fear of a certain punishment or withdrawal of something cherished. Threats cause him or her to fear you.
Bribes are typically snacks, treats, and toys. They send the message that you don’t have faith that a child can succeed without extra incentive.
Influencing behavior in these ways is not only unnecessary it is ultimately harmful. The bottom line: When we use these methods, we don’t trust that kids will get and stay on the right track on their own. We think we have to coerce and control them.
Threats intentionally make a child feel that her or his belongings are in danger. Instead of scaring a child, explain the natural consequences of his behavior: “If you dump the paint out, you won’t have any left.” When the consequence involves action from you, it needs more explanation: “If you keep throwing sand, it could hurt the other children. If you can’t stop on your own, I will come help you.” If they don’t cease their behavior, you can (calmly!) hold the limit and (not in anger) remove them from the situation.
Always make sure your expectations are age-appropriate. Consider changing a child’s surroundings to eliminate the need for input from you. Child-proofing and physical barriers like gates might be necessary to help keep a child safe and corralled. Toddlers will feel the pull to explore regardless of verbal directives, so create an environment where they can succeed without constant adult feedback.
If kids are offered bribes to elicit good behavior or a new achievement, this establishes an unwise precedent. Bribes detract from the natural satisfaction that children gain from their accomplishments. A child’s ultimate payoff should be mastery of something, whether it’s a behavior like sharing toys, or a new skill such as learning to swim. When you want a child to do (or not do) a certain thing, it’s more productive in the long run to simply say what you want, then give positive recognition (or not) when the result occurs.
Parents often ask me how rewards, both material and symbolic, fit into the picture? Rewards, like bribes, are pervasive in our culture. Think of the elementary school talent show where the adults in charge devise special categories so every child can take home a ribbon. Many people use prizes and achievement charts to instill good habits in children. While these can sometimes have a positive effect, using such methods is ultimately counterproductive. Rewards often create the same problems as bribes, though sometimes a spontaneous and unexpected reward can help create the atmosphere of cooperation you want: “Everyone did their work without complaint on chore day. Let’s go play mini-golf tomorrow to celebrate!”
Pam Leo of Connection Parenting suggests that children continue to be uncooperative and resistant only if they have unmet needs or unexpressed hurts. She believes that children will behave well when they feel connected to and understood by the adult taking care of them, eliminating the need to use special influences. Narrating and questioning can help the child feel connected to and understood. the adult taking care of them.
Sometimes the “misbehavior” is a child signaling their need for help with some big feelings. You might get a big emotional offload from a child (aka a tantrum—this is actually a good thing) if you move in close and say, “You are hitting your sister and that’s hurting her—I’m going to stop you and stay right here with you.”
Tone is so important in this scenario. Aim for both warm and firm. In this situation it helps to know that all aggression stems from fear. If you hold the limit, and don’t allow a child to hurt another while staying connected, close, and loving, (You can’t fake this! Gritting your teeth while you pretend to be accepting just won’t work) he or she will get to the bottom of whatever the big feeling was. Releasing our emotions (seen as a tantrum when we’re little children) is how we humans reset our equilibrium. The wise folks at Hand in Hand Parenting call this approach StayListening.
After his feelings have been expressed, he will likely stop hitting because he is no longer carrying those big feelings around. Don’t get caught in the trap of trying to figure out what they’re so upset about—ultimately, it just doesn’t matter. Remembering this framework can guide adults to respond with thoughtful words and action rather than threats or bribes.
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About The Author
Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Sarah is currently a licensed social worker at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine, and works as the resource coordinator in therapeutic foster care. She serves on the board of Birth Roots, and writes the “Parenting Toolbox” column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent & Family. Sarah teaches classes and workshops locally, and consults with families everywhere. She considers it her life’s work to promote happy, well-adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at her site: SarahMacLaughlin.com