question

Picture this:

Your toddler just chased after your cat and then full-on hit your cat with her toy.

Or:

Your 4 and a half-year old just went up to his baby sister and pulled her hair.

Or:

You walk in on your 3-year-old twins with everything in the kitchen thrown everywhere.

Your first response?

“Why did you just do that?”

There’s really no point to this question even though we ask it all the time.

“Why did you just do that?”

This question looks to find out the reason behind the behavior, but we already know the reason.  Just look online for toddler behavior and you’ll hear about children throwing their food, hitting their sibling, drawing on the couch.  Why did they do it?  Because they are toddler’s that’s why.  What is the answer that we are looking for when we ask that question?

The reason so many parents ask this question is because they want to start the problem solving process by asking this question.  When we ask, “Why did you do that?!?” we want the child to say, “Well, I hit my sister because we both wanted the same toy, and I figured that I could get the toy if I hit her and she started crying.”  Then, in this ideal world, we say, “So you both wanted the same toy and so you hit your sister, however, hitting is not ok.  What are some other solutions if you both want the same toy?”  Funny enough, I don’t think this scenario has ever actually happened in real life.

Instead of asking this silly question that has no answer; start the problem solving process right away.  What are the steps to problem solving?

First, Identify the problem:

“Uh oh!  Your sister is crying… What is the problem?”

“Did you both want the same toy?  Is that the problem?”

Then, brainstorm some solutions:

“What are some solutions?  You could both take a break from the toy.  We could find a different toy to play with.  Or you can give your sister a turn for two minutes and then you can have a turn with the toy. Or do you have another idea?”

Then, choose a solution:

“Which solution works best for you?”  Depending on your child’s age, you may have to choose for her or you can offer to choose it they are not sure.  I usually choose the worst solution which is putting the toy away.

Finally, see if the problem was solved:

“Did that work?  Did you both get a turn?”

Sometimes the last step is the one that falls apart since toddlers tend to forget things and parents will use that to their advantage, but it is actually really important to follow through and at least check in (“your sister is done with the toy, did you still want your turn?”) because you want to build these skills so that your children are problem solving on their own in a couple of years.

This will drastically improve your children’s behavior as well as create more harmony in the house.

So change your one question from “Why did you just do that?”  To “What is the problem?” for better behavior today!

better

I’m going to cut to the chase and give you the three steps to better behavior right now.  Before you do any thing (go to the grocery store, get ready for bed, go to a friend’s house, etc) tell your kids:

  1. What it is going to look like
  2. What are the expectations
  3. What will happen if they don’t do what they are supposed to do

 

Ok, now that you know the 3 magic steps, let me walk you through some situations and why these 3 steps are so important!

Kids thrive on routine because they know what is coming next.  If you always get dressed right after breakfast, then kids often run to the clothes dresser right after breakfast because they know what is coming.  They know what to expect.  So just take this same idea out into the world.

Are you going to the library?  Tell your kids.  Are you going to let them check out 55 books.  Tell them that they get 55 books.  Do they get to play on the computer for 20 minutes.  Let them know.  Do you only have space in your bag for 6 books?  Then tell them they only get 6 books.  Do you have time to play at the park afterwards or will your parking limit run out of time and you’ll have to head home?  Let them know ahead of time.

Where else could you use this technique?  The store, the doctor, grandma’s house, running errands, a playdate, going out to dinner, flying on a plane, road trip up to the mountains, getting ready in the morning.  The possibilities are endless.

A lot of parents don’t tell children what is going to happen ahead of time with things that are unpleasant like going to the doctor or dropping them off somewhere.  But we need to build trust with children and we do that by preparing them for the good and the bad.   Before we go to the doctor, I tell them whether they are getting shots or not and then we talk about what we’ll do after the shot (go get ice cream or go to the park).   This way they know what to expect and they are actually less nervous than they would be if they were guessing the whole time (Is this the place that hurts?  What’s going to happen? Am I going to be safe?!?)

The second part is to let them know what the expectations are.  This is true for adults as well. I mean, we all like surprises now and then, but what if you signed up for a hiking trip and then found out that it was a hard-core rock-climbing trip or maybe the hiking trip was actually walking a 1/4 mile.  Both of those would be difficult to deal with because your expectations were totally different than what was presented.  So if you are going to a friend’s house and they don’t mind if the kids jump on the couch, let your kids know.  But if there are going to be fancy tables and maybe even a glass vase somewhere in the living room, tell your kids ahead of time, “no running around AT All at our friends house. We can run outside afterwards, but no running while we are there.”   

I once met up with some college friends and their toddlers at a fancy hotel room that an out-of-town friend had booked.  One of the friends walked it and said, “oh jeez, this place is nice, too bad my kid is totally going to tear it apart.”  So the kid looked up at his mom right after she said that and subsequently began to tear the room apart.  That was her expectation for what he was going to do and so he fulfilled that expectation like any kid would.

This works for bedtime too.  If bedtime isn’t what you were hoping it would be and it is a mess of emotions, push-back, fussing and headache, then make a plan of what bedtime should be.  Find a picture schedule online and use the parts that work for you.  Add in other parts and take out what won’t work.  Then let your kids know.  Talk to them about what they need to do.  Do you help them with their pajamas but they need to brush their own teeth?  Let them know what the expectations are.

Finally, let kids know what will happen if they do or don’t do what is expected of them.

On long days with lots of errands or chores, I list the things that need to be done and then the last thing is something enjoyable, something outside, something relaxing or energy releasing.  This way, kids have something to look forward to and know that they need to hold it together for such and such amount of time before they can release it all.  And if there are issues, problems, etc, then the errands stop and everyone heads home.  Now they can still run around at home, you can still take some space in your room if it was really bad, but the last stop at the park didn’t get added into the mix if the kids just couldn’t handle everything.  And it’s ok.  Your kids won’t always be able to run 3 errands in a row.  They won’t always be able to sit while they eat at a restaurant.  And if they can’t sit, then it means it is time to go home, maybe time to go to bed.

Time to start again new tomorrow.

And the next time, let them know ahead of time and chances are, they’ll be able to do it.

 

2013-10-22 07.58.58

Problem solving skills are useful for a variety of reasons and can be brought out in any situation.  If bedtime isn’t working for you, your spouse, your children or your neighbor upstairs, then bring out your problem solving skills!

First: what are the steps to problem solving?

  1. Name the problem
  2. Come up with some solutions
  3. Try those solutions
  4. If they worked, you’re all good- if they didn’t work, go back to number 2

OK, so, what’s the problem?

The kids whine and keep asking for things and bedtime takes forever?  Or, they go to bed just fine but an hour or two later, they are up and in our bed and won’t fall asleep? Or, I have to lay with them for hours and hours thinking about all the work I need to do? Or just before bed they start jumping and yelling and playing and throwing things?

Let’s pick one:

The problem is that bedtime takes forever.

We start the bedtime routine at 7 and the kids are finally asleep at 9 or 10 at night.

So now let’s go to step 2: find some solutions.

First talk with your partner to see what ideas you each have and what each person is comfortable doing and then take the problem to the whole family.  If you have kids over a year or a year and a half, they can participate.  If they are younger than that, then they can’t give input but they can still hear the verdict.  An infant who is told what their bedtime routine is does better than one who has no idea.  True story.

So, the whole family is sitting around the dinner table, and you say, “We have a problem.  Bedtime isn’t working.  We need to come up with some ideas to make bedtime more enjoyable for everyone.”  Then start asking for some ideas.  No idea is a bad idea.  One idea is to move bedtime to 9 or 10 pm since I met with one sleep expert who gave out that idea and it works for some people.  Another idea is to move bedtime to 6:30 since many children get over-tired and become hyperactive just to stay awake and then they have difficultly falling asleep.  This also works well for many families.  Ask your children what they think.  Would a picture schedule help?  Would cutting out chocolate help?  Let’s try it.  What do you think about having a timer during bath time so it doesn’t go on forever?  Maybe we could all lay together in one bed and then one child switches to their own bed so that I don’t spend two hours laying in each bed every night.  Idea after idea after idea.

Then try the ideas. Not too many changes all at once.  Depending on the age of your children, you can choose one or two changes and try those for a couple weeks up to a month before revisiting and seeing if the new idea works.  

If it works, then great!  If it doesn’t work, that’s OK- back to the problem solving table!

You don’t have to be stuck in the spot that you are in.  Changes can happen and although there might be some tears with the changes, you can be there to support your children through the different routine.

Finally, set up a plan for when things don’t go the way they should.

Let’s say that you talk with your family and you make a picture schedule with dinner, bath, pajamas, brush teeth, story and bed.  Then make a plan for what happens when we get off-track.  Listen to ideas from your children.  Then add in your own idea of losing one of the stories.  “We don’t have enough time to read a book since we had a big problem when it was time to put on pajamas”.  Or maybe you have another idea when things aren’t going well.  At any rate, have a consequence for that boundary so that you can all stay on track for a reasonable bedtime.

It may take a couple of weeks for the changes to show up so don’t get discouraged if you don’t see anything right away but know that a more peaceful bedtime routine is just around the corner!

 

defiant

As very young children get older, they start to become more independent.  But there are two things working against that independence.

1) They don’t fully understand all the implications of independence, (i.e. responsibility, safety and sometimes independence is scary)


2) We aren’t always ready to give them independence because they are still our babies.


Because of these two obstacles, independence often takes the form of defiance. 


My two-year old (almost three-year old) boys are dabbling in defiance.  I am slowly giving them more independence-

  • They can get in and out of bed by themselves
  • They can wash their hands by themselves
  • They can get dressed by themselves
  • They can prepare some of their food by themselves

But really, they don’t have that much independence yet and as they grow older, they will request more.

How do they do this?

By asserting themselves.


This comes across as being defiant.  But a child who has opportunities throughout the day to be independent will be less defiant.


How does this work?  Well, this goes hand in hand with the “giving-children-more-opportunities-for-risk” post.  


It is hard to allow children to fail, fall, hurt, cry, or fumble but we need to give our children those opportunities and it will help with the defiance we see in young children as well as the defiance we see in teenagers. 


We have scares, and like many parents, we have them often.  But instead of shielding and sheltering my children more, I love feeling the confidence of a child who just learned that it is not OK to play behind a truck.  So that if he ever finds himself in a place behind a truck that is starting, he will get out of there and not wait for someone to come get him.

A child who is acting defiant is a child who needs more independence.

What does this look like and what can parents do?

Let’s say you are getting ready for bed and your child starts acting up.

“NOooo!”

or

“I don’t like those pajamas!”

or however it manifests in your household.

These are all signs of defiance that could be turned into independence.

Your child can take control over what pajamas they want to wear.  They can have control over who brushes their teeth.  And of course they have the independence to choose what book to read.

These are all easy ways to give our children more independence that they are craving.

They are asserting themselves as individuals and we need to give them that opportunity.

Here’s another thought:

If we give children more opportunities to assert their Independence throughout the day, will they ultimately be less defiant?

Try it tomorrow and see what happens.

 

calm

Does it seem like all your toddler does is fly off the handle? Do you feel overwhelmed by your toddler’s behavior?  Or is your child pretty awesome, but still has these moments where you just don’t know what to do?

Here’s my top 5 tips to help calm your toddler.

Control

Toddlers are learning about their world and asserting their independence and the easiest way for them to assert their independence is to throw a fit.  So to help them navigate their world, you can help them to be in more control by giving your children some control.   When you give control, they don’t need to take it by way of a tantrum.  So give your child little bits of control throughout the day, and they will be more calm.  Let them choose which shoes to wear to the park.  Give them control over how many necklaces they want to wear.  Allow them to choose their snack.  Ask them which pajamas they want to wear.  This will lessen the amount of time that they are battling you and will create calmness in the house.

Get outside

Nature is Therapeutic.  If you are feeling at the end of your rope, or if you child is losing it; head outside!  Nature will raise your spirits, it will help you breathe, it will calm your nerves.  Once you are outside, you will probably get some exercise and if you get some exercise you will sleep better and if you sleep better, you will be more calm.  This works for your kiddos too.

Check sleep routines

On of my mantras to my children is “when I’m tired, I get pretty fussy.”  They see this in action as I can be short with them when I am more tired.  The same is true for my kids.  If they are getting fussy, it probably means that I need to move bedtime sooner or get a nap in.  If tiredness is a constant, then looking at how much sleep kids are getting and how the routines are working is a must.

Teaching calming down techniques

It’s hard to calm down if you don’t know how to do it.  So, what are some techniques? The first technique is taking a deep breath.  Teach this technique all the time and do it when everyone is happy and calm.  When is the best time to do that?  Right before dinner or right before bed or during a bath.  Say, “Smell the roses” as you breath in deeply.  Then say, “Blow out the candles” and release your breath.

Another technique is taking space or taking a break.  When children are very little, just a change of scenery will be enough to calm a child down.  Read a book, look outside or go to a different room.  Sometimes they will need more space and will need to be alone for a little while.  Also known as a “time-out”, if children are taught this technique in a calm way, it can be very effective.

Model behavior

I hear over and over again how parents feel bad when they get upset with their children.  But getting upset isn’t a bad thing.  It is totally normal.  It is also a perfect time to model calming down techniques.  You get upset at something.  You yell.  Then you say out loud “I am really upset right now and I need to find a way to calm down!!” (If you can identify your behavior, your children will learn how to do the same.) Then you say (or yell!) “I’m going to take some deep breaths right now and I hope that helps!!!” or “I’m going to take 5 minutes in the bathroom or my bedroom right now and try to calm myself down!!”.  Your child will be staring at you in disbelief but will be watching and learning about how to calm down.

Once you are calmer, you can talk about what worked and what didn’t.  You can also apologize if you did something that you wish you hadn’t.  That is also a great learning experience for children and better in the long run for children than to have parents that never make any mistakes at all.

 

consent

In all this talk about consent with teenagers and young adults, it is important to look at how we teach our young boys.  We should also be teaching our girls about consent, but the two lessons are different.  Here’s what you can do with your little boys:

Boys like to play physically and that is a good thing. Boys like to push boundaries physically and that is also a good thing.  Boys need to know that “stop” means “stop” even when (and especially when) they are toddlers and preschoolers.

I just read this comic strip about consent and I think it is brilliant, but I truly believe that the teaching starts when children are very young.  It starts when they are playing around with their father, brothers, neighbors, friends.

In my household, tickling is a very common thing.  The boys love to tickle and their papa loves to tickle.  When they were answering questions for their Father’s Day presents, the most common response was, “I love it when my papa tickles me.” “My favorite thing about my papa is tickling”.

However, in the midst of a tickling fest, there will often be a “no!”  or a “stop!”.  No matter who is saying the no or the stop, the action has to stop.  This is important for my boys to know and it is also important for my husband to know.  Because this is where it gets tough.  They are having fun, there is momentum to continue, but they also want to stop.  But as soon as anyone says “no” or “stop”, they have to stop.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Everyone is having fun, everyone is laughing and no one really wants it to end, it just got to be too much.   But this is where little boys learn about physical limits, respecting the other person, and being able to stop something that has a lot of momentum.

It isn’t easy for my husband either.  He knows that another tickle will get another laugh and he doesn’t want to fun to end.  But “no” means “no” and “stop” means “stop”.  

It may sound like I might be stretching; relating fun wrestling and tickling with little boys to consensual sex with teenagers and adults, but it isn’t a stretch.   If you wait until your son is a teenager to teach about consent, respect and “no” means “no” then you are waiting too long.

 

Lying

It happens all too soon; your super sweet child tells you something that you know is the exact opposite of what actually happened.  If you can’t trust them, what can you do?

It is pretty normal and not at all devious for children to lie at a young age.  Up until the age of 5, imagination and reality are very nebulous in a child’s mind.  Around 5 years old is the age where Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and other stories start to get separated into fiction and non-fiction and with it, children start to experiment with truth and fiction.  They don’t see it as manipulation at this age.  One thing that you could do to help with those situations is to ask about the future, rather than the past.  This is an important part of problem solving.

In each situation, you will never know exactly what happened so whenever you come up on a situation where something undesirable has happened, you try to figure out what the problem is and what some solutions are.  Instinctively, we want to find out what happened and who did what and this is an open invitation for children to either fib, lie or just state the situation from their point of view.  This often looks like:

Mom: “What happened?”

Child A: “I didn’t do it!”

Child B (if more than one child is involved”): “He broke it!”

Child A: “It wasn’t my fault! He did it!”

Either Child: “No I didn’t!”

Mom: “You are both grounded!”

And this could could go on for a while and I didn’t make specifics because the conversation is often the same and we never really find out what did happen and it’s possible they are both lying.  When you are problem solving, it looks more like this:

Mom: “What happened? What’s the problem here?”

Child A: “I didn’t do it!”

Mom: “Is the problem that the toy broke?”

Child B: “He broke it!”

Mom: “Is the problem that the toy broke?  If it is, then how can we solve the problem?”

Child A: “We could put it back together?”

Child B:”But it will never be the same!”

Mom: “So one idea is that we can try to put it back together.  Another idea is that we can try to find a way to get another of the same toy.  What do you guys think?”

And then it goes on this way with more discussion and finally either a solution that everyone is happy with or a solution that mom puts the toy away. Your whole goal with problem solving is working into the future and not delving on the past.

 As children get older (5 years old and on..) then may lie to get something and this will feel like a dagger to the heart, but it is still normal and not something to fret over.

It is important to look at what is the reason behind the lie?  What is he trying to do?  Is he trying to fit in with his friends?  Is he questioning the purpose of a rule?  This is a great conversation starter to see into his mind and start problem solving.

 Most older children will lie to protect their interests.  When I was about 8 years old, my mother told me that I HAD to wear my hat to school or I would freeze to death.  So everyday, I would put my hat on and as soon as I was around the corner, I would remove my hat so that I wouldn’t have hat head when I got to school.  I needed to protect my reputation, make sure that the other kids liked me.  And when my mom asked me later if I wore my hat, I would say, “yes.”  Our interests were radically different.  She wanted me to stay warm, I wanted to have friends. You have to look at the motivation behind the action and start the conversation there.   

Natural consequences are the best teachers.  You can tell children over and over not to lose their toys or that if they are wet, they’ll be cold, but until they experience it themselves, they aren’t really going to learn.

Another instance where a child might lie is if you tell them not to bring a toy with them to school, and then later you find it in their backpack.  They were lying to you, but they were only trying to protect their interests.

 So you can set up a situation by saying, “I wouldn’t bring that toy if it were me, because it is special and irreplaceable.  It would be a huge bummer if it broke or was lost.”  Then it is up to them whether or not to bring it.  You have set it up that it isn’t a good idea, but they won’t learn until they lose or break a toy.  Then you can be very empathetic (don’t say “I told you so!” No one likes to hear that and it doesn’t teach empathy) and say, “I’m so sorry that happened.  I can help you look for 5 minutes but then we have to leave.”

 All kids lie to a degree especially when no one is getting hurt by the lie.  It is normal and even adults will have small lies here and there. The best way to teach honesty is to model it and know that no one is perfect.

consent

I’ve been reading a lot lately about teaching consent and how to get the point across to students in college and high school and as young as middle school.  But you can very easily start with toddlers and preschoolers about consent. 

You have to be the model.

It is super duper important that dads and other adult male figures wrestle and rough-play with their boys.  There have been lots of studies on why this is important.  But probably the most important part of the play is communication.  

As soon as your child says “stop” or “no” or shows sign of no longer wanting to continue (whining, frowning, etc) then you stop and say, “You’re done, I’ll stop.”  

Then the hard part is actually stopping.  Your child will turn around and want to wrestle some more and here’s where the teaching and the learning begins.  “No, I could tell a minute ago that you had enough.  We’ll stop for now and if you want to play again later. Let me know.”  And your child is going to say, “I wanna wrestle more!” and again, you are the model.  “That’s good, but you just said, “No” and I’m going to respect that.  Let’s toss a ball or read a book for a bit and then we can see how you are feeling later.”  

This is hard.  It is SO hard because you were both having fun and even though your little one showed a sign of not wanting to continue, they are saying that they do.  And you have to teach them that no means no, that we communicate in many ways and that we are respectful of each other.  

If you are the dad, then you need to do this.  Do this for all our sons and daughters.  If you are the mom, talk about it with the dad and be the voice that says, “He said no, you need to stop.”

It’s funny because I’m always reminding my husband to stop when either child fusses, says no, or shows that they don’t want to continue playing.  But a couple of weeks ago, I was playing with my boys and we were both laughing and though the laughter, one of them yelled, “No!” and I didn’t stop.   Then from across the room, I heard my husband say, “He just said ‘stop!’ You need to stop!”  and I stopped and thanked my husband because sometimes we all need reminders.

There’s a lot of great articles about teaching children about their private parts and being comfortable with saying no or about children and adults asking for permission to hug or touch.  All of these things together are how we build a new culture of respect and consent. 

consequence

Right now, I’m reading No Drama Discipline by Daniel J Seigel and Tina Payne Bryson and I can recommend it for all the parents who have a little bit of free time.  For all the parents who don’t have a ton of free time, I will write about some of the most important concepts that I got from the book.

First of all, the authors don’t actually recommend using consequences because positive parenting and attachment parenting have been moving rapidly away from that word. However, they explicitly state that limits need to be set and boundaries need to be made.  So instead of using the word consequence, they talk about problem solving, and natural consequences (which don’t include the parent having power over the child).

Both problem solving and natural consequences are great ways to set limits, but as I talk with many parents, the reality is that they use those when they can and when they can’t, they need another tool that is quick and already at their fingertips.  

This tool would be first connect, then consequence.

This technique allows you to parent in a positive way because you are connecting with your child when they need you.  But you are also setting limits and letting them know that their behavior isn’t OK.  And that is where the balance is.

First connect, then consequence:

There are three main ways to connect:

1. Give an explanation

This is more for younger children who don’t have as much language, but can be for older children as well.  An explanation is more respectful than “Because I said so.”  The explanation shouldn’t be long and drawn out.  You set the limit and then add just a couple words to explain why we are setting the limit.  

2. Ask for input

This is the best technique for keeping a balance of control.  You set the limit and then ask them for a little input.  Would they like to do something instead or would they like to do what they are doing in a place or way that would be appropriate.

3. Check emotions

This is a great technique to teach empathy.  After setting the limit, you can suggest a possible emotion if the child is younger, or you can ask about their state of being if they are older.

Let’s look at a couple of scenarios:

You are making breakfast and your husband is rushing out the door asking for you to help him with something and your child throws something or hits something and starts screaming.

You need to set a limit and let your child know that hitting, throwing and screaming aren’t OK.  You don’t have time to problem solve so to set the limit, you first connect and then consequence.  

  1. Give an explanation

“No hitting or throwing, that isn’t safe.  I need to help your papa and make breakfast now.  If you do that again, I’m going to have to find a place for you where everyone will be safe.”

2. Ask for input

“We don’t hit or throw things. Would you like a soft ball to throw instead? (for younger children)   Do you want to help me make breakfast or what would you like to do instead? (for older children).  If you do that again, I’m going to have to find a place for you where everyone will be safe.”

3. Check emotions

“You may not hit or throw things.  You may be upset that I can’t help you right now. (for younger children)   Are you hungry?  What’s bothering you? (for older children).  If you do that again, however, I will have to find a place for you where everyone will be safe.”

As families move more towards using positive parenting and attachment parenting, setting limits and boundaries becomes increasingly more confusing if you aren’t allowed to use consequences.  So in order to remain positive and build your relationship with your child rather than tear it down, while still setting limits you:

First connect, then consequence.

I love this book, because it is very clear about setting limits and I really feel like that is the part that parents struggle with the most.  But it is also very clear that if you go right into setting the limit and giving a consequence then you are losing out on building your relationship with your child and helping them learn.

 

Bribe

We know as adults that bribing doesn’t feel good; it doesn’t feel right.  If our boss were to say, “If you’d stay a couple of hours later tonight, I’ll bring you a chocolate cake tomorrow”; we’d probably stay and do the extra work but deep inside we might be thinking, “gosh, I didn’t need him to offer the chocolate cake, I would have stayed anyway.”

It feels even weirder when someone in our family bribes us.  If our spouse were to say, “If you were to keep the house a bit cleaner, then you’d get a special ice cream.”  Well, wow.  First of all, it feels weird that they think they have the power over us to do that.  Second of all, they can help clean the house.  Third of all, I’d like something special because you enjoy the time you spend with me, not because I clean the house.  Lastly, I do the best I can to clean the house.  I would have grave concerns about my marriage if this ever happened.

And what about rewards? Rewards are just another type of bribe.  A child who gets a prize for good behavior is the same thing as bribing a child.

There are two reasons why bribing doesn’t feel right to us and isn’t appropriate for most reasons when working with young children.

Bribing affects long-term relationships

One example of this is when parents bribe their children for eating.  If you eat all of your dinner, then you can have dessert.  This is by far one of the most common bribes that parents use.  It works, it is easy and it gets the job done.  However, it affects the child’s lifelong relationship with food.   It gets to the point where the child demands dessert, the entire meal is plagued with negotiation and frustration and as they get older they idolize sweets as the end-all-be-all.

Instead of bribing children with dessert, you have a couple of options: 1) Offer the dessert (fruit, sweet muffin, or even a cookie) with dinner.  This will seem very strange at first and the child will eat the dessert first, but then continue to eat the dinner without a fuss.  Or: 2) The child is done eating when they are full.  Sometimes there is something sweet after dinner and sometimes there isn’t.  It really models how we want to be as adults and again, it will be strange at first, especially if everyone is used to bribes, but it really does work.

A second example of how bribing affects life long relationships is when a parent offers a treat for a certain behavior.   Sometimes parents will say, “I have a treat in the car for you if we leave right now.”   When we try to control another person’s behavior through bribes, we are saying two things; 1) I have all of the control and you have none and 2) people can be manipulated by giving them things.

We want our children to build life long positive relationship with their family members as well as everyone around them.  They can’t build positive relationship by controlling other people and using ‘treats’ to control them.  There needs to be some equality in the amount of control to have a positive relationship and gifts should be given because of the joy it brings, not because it can manipulate people.

Bribing affects intrinsic motivation

This one is pretty obvious and we all know it, and yet, we still bribe our children.  When we ask them to do something with a reward at the end, we are teaching them to do things based on what they will receive rather than how it will make them feel.  We are separating them from the essential skill to decide to do things for themselves.

The pipe dream for most parents is for children to be OK (or even want to) help out with chores, or do their homework.  These are the types of jobs that we want our children to be motivated intrinsically to do.  So the worst thing to do is bribe them for these behaviors.  This will make them want to do them even less.  What you need to so is build these behaviors into your daily life.  Show them that mom and dad do their chores and their work without fussing.  Talk about how nice the house is or how the family can support themselves when they do a good job.

I’m not saying that you can’t set a limit.  For instance, if you child needs to clean up after dinner and you don’t want to bribe him by saying, ‘if you clean up, you can get a treat’, you can say, ‘We all clean up after ourselves. Once you clean up, we can have play time.’  or another option is, ‘We all clean up after ourselves.  I’d be happy to do it for you, but then I won’t have time to help you read a book before bedtime.’

But you don’t want to be saying, ‘We need to leave the park now.  If you get into the car, I’ll get you an ice cream.’  Instead, you can say, ‘We need to leave the park now.  Would you like to come back again next week?’  I’m not saying that your child won’t fuss simply because you ask them if they want to go back to the park again.  They will, and fussing is OK.  Your children have emotions and being upset that they have to leave is an acceptable emotion.  You can comfort them by saying, ‘I know, I love to come to the park too and leaving can be hard.  Do you want to come back next week?’

When are the three times bribing is OK and why?

The three times that it is OK to bribe your children is potty training, working with children with special needs and during or after big physical feats.

Potty training

Pretty much every parent talks about using M&M’s during potty training but most parents don’t know why.   Let’s first look at the two reasons we don’t want to bribe; long-term relationships and intrinsic motivation.  Potty training is neither of these.  Your child won’t have a long-term relationship with learning how to pee and poop.  It may take years to finally stop having accidents, but the act of usually getting our waste into the toilet is short-lived.  There are also no problems with children not having enough intrinsic motivation using the bathroom.  We don’t hear older children saying, “I really should use the bathroom, but I just can’t motivate myself to do it.”

Because potty training doesn’t go against building a long-term relationship or intrinsic motivation, it is perfectly fine to use bribing to get results.

Children with special needs

I have spent many years working with children with special needs and although all children are different, there are a lot of children who benefit from using rewards for certain behaviors.  For children who are on the autism spectrum, they develop relationships differently than typically developing children.  The way that they build relationships aren’t always harmed by using rewards.  They also have a different way of being motivated.  Their brains work differently and I have found that using rewards and bribes only affects them in a positive way rather than in a negative way.

During or after a big physical feat or Getting something special for doing something special

Let’s again look at the two reasons to avoid bribing, long-term relationships and intrinsic motivation.  If you were to offer an energy pill (skittle or small candy) during a bike, hike or ski, then you are not affecting any long-term relationships. Your child will learn that a little food during a physical activity helps with energy, which is absolutely scientifically correct.

Or if you were to offer a trip to the ice cream parlor after a big bike ride or after the swim race, then you  aren’t affecting long-term relationships or intrinsic motivation.  The child will still perform just as well during the bike ride or the swim race, with or without the ice cream.   And they may associate a big physical day with something fun at the end which is an OK association.  How many of you go out for a yummy meal after a big hike, bike ride or climb?  We certainly do.  It is enjoying life and celebrating all of the things we are physically able to do.

Treats vs. bribing

Just like rewards are the same thing as bribes (you do this and you get that) treats are very different.  Treats are simply for the sake of something special.  This definition does it more justice than I ever could:

“An event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure.”

Life isn’t just about abstaining ourselves from enjoying treats.  Treats by their very nature are special things to have every once in a while.  As soon as we are giving out treats for every behavior, they are no longer treats by definition.

So taking your children out for an ice cream every once in a while, or getting a new toy at the store, “just because” are encouraged.  Just don’t attach them to any behavior and you won’t be negatively affecting any long-term relationships or intrinsic motivation.