Using threats to motivate children – part 1

I hear a lot of parents using threats when they deal with their children, and because it’s so common, I’ve decided to address this today.  First of all, I’ll clarify the two levels of what I’m referring to as threats.

The first is when the parent tells the child something extreme and scary will happen to them.  I don’t even like to give examples of this kind of threat, since I find it so disturbing to even think of speaking to our children like this.  But here’s something like what I mean, just so you know what I’m talking about.  I once read of a mother who knew her child was afraid of dogs, so she told her very young daughter she would bring a dog into the house if the girl didn’t comply with whatever the mother was requesting.  Of course the daughter was so terrified that she complied.  Or something much more common but equally troubling, “If you don’t come right now, I’m going to leave you here in the store.”  Why would we frighten them with threats of abandonment just to get them to do what we want?

I’ve heard parents justify this by saying that some kids are motivated by rewards and some kids are motivated by fear.  I don’t like the idea of using rewards or fear to get kids to do what we want, both are very problematic.  But I’m just addressing the fear based approach here; the problem with rewards is another topic altogether. 

Our children look to us to protect them and take care of them.  They are helpless and trust us to keep their world safe.  It’s damaging and harmful to the short and long term emotional well-being of a child to undermine this belief. Kids need to trust their parents and that kind of communication breaks that trust. 

Trust is at the heart of the parent-child relationship.  When you break the trust of a young child, you’re creating large problems in the future with that child as an adolescent or teen.  Parents make the mistake of thinking, ‘Well, it gets them to do what I say and nothing else works.’  Parenting isn’t about forcing compliance from those in a dependent position.  When we speak in this way, we’re speaking out of our own desire to control and that is usually fear based.

So how can we verbally motivate our kids?  More to come…. :)


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