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Threats & Bribes: Two Sides of The Same Coin

I work with lots of parents of school age children and I often hear about how parents are feeling like their children are trying to "manipulate" them. Even as early as the ripe old age of 2!   And yes, these children can and do become very skilled manipulators or negotiators. But this only happens when someone has been modeling and teaching these skills.  Children are not born with these skills, they acquire them over time.  

And how does this happen you might ask?  

Well, many parents use what are commonly known as threats and bribes as a means of parenting or discipline. Yes, we have all tried it at one point and are all guilty. And quite honestly many times they work in the short term. We can get the results we want immediately most often!  But what most parents do not realize is that there is a huge cost to utilizing these tactics in the long term. They can literally backfire.

Most children do not learn, understand or value the behavior that they are being bribed or threatened to do. They simply "perform" in order to earn the reward or avoid what was threatened (AKA a punishment).  Ideally, we want children to be able to behave without us always needing to intervene. By bribing and threatening we decrease the likelihood they will replicate the behaviors we value again all on their own. We actually discourage the valued behavior.  Research has shown that children lose interest in tasks that they receive extrinsic (external) rewards for.   So what can we do instead you might be wondering since these rewards and threats might be part of your current arsenal?  There are a handful of respectful parenting responses that we can use in lieu for rewards and threats.  

Here are three to start with:

The first thing you want to do in all parenting "moments" is to stay CALM and CONNECT first.   Many parents ask, "How am I supposed to stay calm when she is  pushing all my buttons?! I get so angry and trying to stay calm makes me even angrier." Yes, pretending to be calm when you are angry is impossible. ADMITTING YOU ARE ANGRY WITHOUT FLIPPING YOUR LID IS  THE GOAL.   And reflecting is the key to unlocking your inner calm. Reflecting what your child is feeling or experiencing allows your child to have his or her own emotions without you having to change them. You can even share your own emotions with your child. "I am frustrated, too." By acknowledging the feelings, they don't keep getting in the way. It is okay to feel angry,  you reflect, and then you can move on to making decisions based on what is happening, not what you are feeling.   With your children, reflect what you hear them saying or the feelings they are exhibiting even if what they are feeling seems ridiculous to you. Connection must come FIRST in any encounter with your children.

You might also incorporate offering CHOICES to get your child to do what you need for them to do.  We all want choices in life. Your kids are no different. Once they become toddlers, control becomes important. This is because at around age 18 months children begin to separate from their parents. This is the first time they realize they are a separate entity. With the separation they gain ideas and preferences. When once you could hand them any plate, at age two they may throw themselves on the floor demanding the blue plate.

If you think of it as control, it all makes sense. You don't care which plate they use. You just want them to eat lunch! To stave off conflicts, it is helpful to offer CHOICES throughout the day so your kids have some control over their lives. Offer choices over things you don't care about. Offer choices before making a request or telling them what to do.  Instead of "go brush your teeth," try "do you want to brush your teeth first or get your jammies on first?" Choices can also help you get out of a frustrating situation. When your kids are already in a fit, sometimes offering choices, after reflecting their emotion, will help move them on to the next step. 

And lastly, you can use ENCOURAGEMENT or ACKNOWLEDGEMENT .  You want to be careful that you do not praise the behavior, because that is a discrete form of bribing.  To a young child, praise can often be interpreted as means of earning  your love or favor.  So simply notice what they are doing and make a value free statement about what you are noticing.  " Wow, you cleaned up those blocks all by yourself!"    Or ask questions that reinforce the intrinsic motivators (ie own sense of pride, ownership or mastery)   "Did you see Grandma's face when you shared your cookie with her?  How do you think you made her feel?" These statements or questions provide your child the space to feel how they feel about what they have done.  The focus in not on how you feel about it, but more importantly how they feel about it.  These intrinsic (internal) motivators are what will drive your child to continue and replicate the behaviors you value.


Would you like some help using these tools?  Download the list of examples for each response.