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Column: To Bribe or Not to Bribe: Changing threats to motivations

When parents learn Connective Parenting, it hits a deep cord of recognition that says this is right. But the question remains, “If I don’t punish my children, how do they learn?”

Even after countless times of explaining how problem-solving works to hold children accountable for their behavior and to engage them in their own process of learning, parents still think punitive measures are necessary. The reward and punishment mindset that has held us in it’s grip for generations keeps us believing that children must fear us; that we must control them. They can’t simply get away with everything.

The question, however, is not, “What favorite thing can I take away this time to show him who’s boss?” The question should be, “How will he learn best not to do that again?” If I look at the latter question, things fall into place.

What we know is that: Children learn best when they are engaged in a process and can find the logic. Children do not learn when they are focused inward on defending themselves. Children do not learn when they are upset. Children learn best when they feel understood and respected. Children learn best when they feel connected, not isolated.

Our automatic is to look for the object or activity of desire to pull the plug on. We think, “That’ll teach him.” If he wants his iPod, computer time, dance class badly enough, he’ll do what I say. That’s faulty thinking. He may obey to get his iPod back but what he learns is to get sneakier next time, to hold his power over you when he’s old enough.

We confuse children with animals. Even animal trainers have taught us that they need kindness and gentleness to learn. But children have a consciousness, a memory and a sense of identity that animals do not. Children can’t easily wipe clean a slate of consistent threats, blame and criticism to feel secure and confident.

A child’s immature brain hears, “You’re so mean. Why can’t you ever listen and do anything right? If you don’t stop, you’re going to be sorry. How many times do I have to tell you? If you don’t….then you won’t….” The child learns from that, “I’m bad, I’m a disappointment, I should never have been born, I can’t ever be who they expect me to be, I’m never good enough.” Dogs don’t go there. These childish beliefs sink deep if heard enough. Young children do not question their parents, they question themselves. It’s hard to end this legacy since it is inherent, and we don’t believe there is another way — a better way. Conscious parenting requires an unlearning and then practice with a new perspective.

For many, it means small steps. Let’s talk about turning threats and bribes into motivation so that children will 1) hear what we are saying without tuning out an expected negative criticism; and 2) be more likely to cooperate since it is a positive direction for them. It is important to remember that what the parent focuses on is where the child’s energy goes. “Why are you so mean?” unintentionally increases the child’s energy on how mean she must be. “Stop spilling” puts focus on the spilling. Neither are the parent’s intention, only an automatic reaction.

• Instead of: “Why are you so mean?” try, “It looks to me like you’re feeling really frustrated and need to take that out on something. Try smashing a pillow.”

• Instead of: “Stop spilling” try, “See if you can pour that out of the pitcher into your glass without spilling a drop.” Or first put the juice into a little pitcher for your child.

• Instead of: “If you don’t get upstairs this minute, there will be no time for reading” try, “The faster we get pjs on and teeth brushed, the quicker we get to books. What ones do you want to read tonight?”

• Instead of: “How many times do I have to tell you to leave your sister alone?” try, “Let’s find something that you want to do that your sister doesn’t.” Or, “See if you can convince your sister to include you in what she’s doing. What do you think would do that?”

• Instead of: “If you don’t get off that computer and do your homework, I’m taking computer time away for a week” try, “I’m concerned your homework isn’t getting done. When you have that finished, then you’ll have time for a video game before bed.”

• Instead of giving your child the toy she’s begging for in the store to shut her up, try taking her outside, acknowledging what she wants, letting her have her disappointment and going back in when she’s calm again.

It is the path of least resistance to go the negative, threatening route because it’s what we know. Most of our parents did not speak to us in a connective manner. And look at the results. When children are spoken to respectfully, are understood and validated for their feelings even when their behavior is unacceptable, are supported for who they are rather than forced into being who someone else wants, they are amazingly capable of great and wondrous things. Give it a try.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed,. is the director of Connective Parenting. She founded The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she continues to teach.

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