Using threats to motivate children – part 2

Okay, so I’ve addressed the lowest level of using threats in my last post. But I recently went to hear a parenting lecture (something I do very, very rarely) that challenged my thinking about this issue. 

The speaker described something so common that virtually all of us speak this way at some time as using threats.  And while I agreed with his points 100%, I still don’t fully embrace his conclusion.

Here’s a couple of examples:  “If you don’t finish your dinner, you can’t have ice cream.”  “If you don’t do your homework, you can’t play with your friends.”  Sound familiar?  It doesn’t sound so bad, does it?  And it’s not so bad.  I’ve done something similar (I’ll have to give my way later on in this post) to this plenty of times in the past and felt it was clearly defining what behavior was acceptable and what would happen if it wasn’t. 

He suggested a better way to accomplish one’s goals as a parent.  What’s wrong with speaking as the examples above show?  Firstly, you are still using negativity to get your child to do what you want – you’re stressing the negative consequence of not doing as you instruct.  And you’re still using the control model of parenting to a degree.  The opposite of the control model is when we release control and instead empower the child to do the right thing.  We want him to do the right thing eventually whether we are there or not.

I think it’s good to distinguish what is healthy guidance and what is unhealthy control.  We have a responsibility to our kids to guide them, to teach them the right way to behave, and to enforce our expectations.  I very strongly believe this is our absolute responsibility as parents, and to shirk it is not only irresponsible but cruel.  But we must approach our children (or anyone else we interact with!) from a position of respect and caring.  

The best alternative is to use our power to motivate them to want to do the right thing (this is what I referred to as empowering them) .  It means changing two things – one big and one small.  The small one – the area where I’m feeling challenged by this lecture, and unsure if his way is any any improvement over my way – is the way we phrase our expectations to our kids. 

Here’s an example of he suggested.  Instead of the ice cream example above, he suggests: “I’m so glad I’ll be able to give you ice cream when you finish your dinner.”  “You’ll enjoy playing with your friends when your homework is done.”   You’re showing your love and desire for them to enjoy good things.  They can infer that they won’t have those benefits if they don’t do those things, but it wasn’t the message that came from you.  It was something they figured out on their own. 

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you may remember that I’m not a fan of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, because of my concern that parents get too caught up in the technique of speaking to kids.  Does this seem like more technique?  It could be if parents think that the words matter more than the tone.

The most important thing about how we speak to our kids (in my opinion) is the emotion behind the words more than the actual words themselves.  Parenting isn’t about using the right kind of phrases.  When we feel loving towards our children, they feel that.  They also sense when we are ambivalent, tired, or irritable.

We can feel loving and still use the higher level of ‘threats’ (using the speaker’s terminology – I’m not fully comfortable with this) to get our kids to do what we want them to do. 

This is where I have trouble with his ideas.  I don’t threaten my kids.  That’s not my attitude, and it’s not my tone.  So how much does it matter that I don’t phrase my comments in exactly the way he suggests?  I don’t know. 

The reason I’m having trouble with this is that I don’t phrase my requests of my kids as the example above shows.  To me it sounds like bribery.  I don’t pull benefits away from them if they don’t do what I want, and I don’t offer benefits for doing what I say.  So while I’ll say, “No ice cream until dinner is finished”, I don’t use it as a threat.  I don’t have much emotional investment in it, I’m not waving the ice cream in front of them to convince them to listen to me.  I’m matter of fact about it – we eat dessert after we eat the meal.  I generally expect that they’ll do what I ask, because I’m reasonable in my expectations of them, and try my best to be respectful of them. 

This brings us to the second of the two points I said was crucial in motivating our kids in a positive way.  The first was the words we use, and the second is the spirit in which we speak them.  This is super important!!  I can’t stress this as the most important underpinning of all enough.  We need to really believe our positive message inside ourselves when we speak.  You can’t say the words and expect it to ‘work’ when your body language is telling your child something else entirely.  So the number one area to work on is our thoughts about our children, to see them for the precious people they are. 

As adults, we want to be treated with respect, and for others to acknowledge that we want to do the right thing, just we sometimes appreciate a pointer in the right direction.  Our kids aren’t any different.  When we talk to them, let’s try to give them the message that we know they are good, they want to do the right thing, and we believe in them.


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