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Threats and Bribes

December 3, 2011

Ah, December is my favourite time of year, for many reasons.  Close to the top of the list is the best threat ever for motivating kids: “You-know-who is watching…”   I try to save it up and only use it when the kids are acting really wacky, which seems frequent in December given the extra buzz at school and in the community.  Exasperated with my kids recently, I polled my friends about how they get their little people to clean their rooms, get dressed, wash their hands before dinner, get in the car, etc, etc.  The best answer I got was, “Threats and bribes, of course.  Isn’t that what everyone does?”  It’s tempting to leverage Christmas as the best of both.

I’m interested in motivating my kids to do things because it’s what needs to be done to move this family forward. I want them to help a friend who’s hurt, share what they have with others, contribute to household chores, and be honest and respectful because they know those are good ways to be in society, not because I told them so. The challenge is how to get that motivation to come from inside, not from an external force.

I don’t want them to be motivated by guilt or fear.  Well, actually, let’s look at that last one a little closer.  What happened to good old fear as a motivator?  Fear of being spanked when daddy comes home.  Fear of getting your hand strapped at school if you shoot spit balls.  I’m glad dads don’t have to be welcomed home with, “The kids are in their rooms waiting for their spankings,” anymore.  However, a good healthy respect for authority doesn’t hurt.  I don’t speed because I’m afraid of having to explain to the policeman why I was flying down the highway with kids in the car.  I’m afraid of this because I actually had to do it (“We’re trying to get to the ski hill to get fresh tracks, officer”), and I don’t want it to happen again.  There are times I respect the rules because it contributes to a civil society, and times I respect the rules because of a good, healthy fear of the consequences.

As a new mother thrust into the world of networking at playgroups instead of conferences, I had to sift through the mammas I met to find those with similar parenting styles and values.  The community of mothers I admired were of the Dr. Sears persuasion.  Dr. Sears recommends wearing babies constantly to promote attachment, breastfeeding until kids are at least two, and sleeping with them until they’re at least three.  The amazing women I’ve befriended have travelled, have established interesting, successful careers and have lovely homes.  These mammas pour as much effort into parenting as they have the rest of their lives.  With baby number three now I have a little more perspective on parenting.  I still believe in babywearing, breastfeeding, and cosleeping, but within reason.  Kids are little parasites that will suck you emotionally dry and spit you out.  There have to be some limits.  Not only that, I think kids crave limits.  They don’t want to be in charge, but they put on a pretty good show of asserting their little demands. 

A playgroup I attended recommended that instead of giving kids time-outs, parents should give them time-ins.  When kids misbehave, the facilitators reasoned, it’s because they’re looking for attention and need positive attention (a cuddle with mom or dad) instead of negative attention (being sent away).  While I agree that might work in some instances, I think there are also situations that call for the modern-day equivalent of a spanking: time out.  This is hard for me because I’m conflict-averse.  Also, bribes are easier to mete out than threats, which must be followed through to work.  It isn’t just the threat of the speeding ticket that slows me down, it’s the memory of the pain of paying it that lightens my lead foot.  It’s also hard to wrap my head around the fact that setting limits and being firm is actually more loving and setting my kids up better for success than letting them have their way all the time.  Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman discuss in their book Nurtureshock how teenagers who have strict parents feel more loved than those with no rules.

While I may threaten that Santa will leave a lump of coal if the kids don’t pull their weight in the family, I would never actually take away the joy of us enjoying this wonderful season together.  During the rest of the year I’ll have to keep striving for that balance of seeking peace and joy within our home, and policing the healthy boundaries I set.

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