Imagine for a moment that you have just got home from a long day at work. You are sitting down with a drink and watching your favourite T.V show when the phone rings. Your best friend is crying and says that she needs your help.
What would you do?
I’m guessing that you would leave the drink, the TV show and the comfort of the chair, to do something for your friend.
Ok, we know that you’re capable of being a good friend. Your friends make you feel good, they love you, they understand you and they want the best for you and for you to be happy. Friends reciprocate and are motivated to help each other.
Here’s the important thing to note: When your friend asks for your help, the feeling that you can and want to help is involuntary. That feeling happens because you care about your friend’s happiness as if it is inextricably linked to your own. However, as no one is threatening, forcing you or controlling your behaviour, any action you decide to take is completely voluntary.
Now consider you are in a parallel universe and you have also just got home from a long day at work. You are sitting down with a drink and watching your favourite T.V show when the phone rings. Your best friend is crying and says that she needs your help and if that you don’t come round and help her out she will make sure that you won’t be invited to her party on the weekend and that you are a bad person.
How would you feel? What would you do?
I’d wager that you would involuntarily feel upset and annoyed, maybe a bit concerned but definitely want to tell your friend to go take a running jump.
Our children feel no different than our own involuntary reaction
To paraphrase the Great Bard himself: “If we’re like you in everything else, we’ll resemble you in that respect.”
Threats can become so easy for parents to issue for short term results, that they don’t even know that they are issuing them. Here are some common examples of situations when parents use threats to make their children do something:
- Getting the kids into the bath, so we threaten no bedtime story.
- Wanting the kids to leave the playground, and we threaten that next time we will leave them at home.
- Struggling to get the wriggling kids to get into the car seat, so we threaten them that they won’t get pudding.
- Telling the kids to stop running around at the school gates, and threaten them with no screens when you get home.
Sounding familiar? Well, I’m sure it does because this is all part of parenting when we haven’t learnt a better more effective way of getting the results we need.
The best reason to adopt better tools is to understand why those we currently use aren’t truly effective. Let’s consider seven main reasons why threats often backfire?
1. Threats erode our relationship
Our true influence lies in the power of our relationship; we do things for others because it makes us feel good and we inherently want to please.
Though at times it’s hard to believe, our kids actually want to please us too. But if we use threats to control behaviour, it affects our relationship and stifles our kid’s innate desire to want to please us.
2. Threats make our kids resent us
Threats might stop unwanted behaviour in the short-term but at what cost to our relationship?
They do nothing to motivate our children to want to listen to us. In fact, it leads our children to resent us, we tend to dislike people who punish us. And so, we unwittingly cause an endless power struggle.
3. Threats focus on a reward economy
Insights from behavioural economics teach us the problems when we shift from the use of social norms to a reward economy. Punishments and threats are not the opposite of rewards; in fact, they are the same thing. They both control behaviour as an external motivator.
As in the earlier examples of helping a friend, you can see that relationships don’t work best as a transaction. RELATIONships are…well, they’re relational.
4. Threats teach our kids to think ‘What’s in it for me?’
When we issue threats, the first thing the child must process is “What’s in it for me?” and “Is the threatened punishment enough to stop my behaviour?”, rather than the preferable “How does my behaviour affect others?”.
It makes our kids self-centred, the very thing we are trying to avoid. We want our kids to think for themselves, to think of others and to make the right choices. We want them to use their internal drive and motivation. To do this, we as parents need to give them the correct information as a tool.
This is a good opportunity to use an example to best illustrate the point:
A mother was waiting at the school gates with her toddler son. He was (as toddlers do) busy running around the path, and his mother wanted him to wait by her side.
“Come here right now! or no T.V later.” Was her first demand.
What should she be trying to communicate and teach her child?
Rewind, and start just before the mother speaks.
“It’s fun to run around the path, and I’m scared if you run around the path you might fall over, or you might get lost, or I can’t see you.”
All the above positive reasons would teach her son why he needs to wait by her, will strengthen the relationship and the child feels understood. There is no need to issue a threat.
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5. Threats shut down communication
Threats shut down the thinking part of our kid’s brain, and we just activate their lower reactive brain which automatically drives them into fight, flight or freeze mode. No learning or thinking is happening, and we are not teaching them the desired lesson.
By cutting off all communication and learning paths we create power struggles and stress, which is why we find ourselves in a negative cycle of threats and punishments.
We need to teach our children how to communicate their wants and needs, how to work out disagreements and how to respectfully put their point across. Threats are short term, negative and only teach that “Might wins”.
6. Threats kill motivation
Motivation is based on how we see ourselves in the world. True motivation does not come from external threats.
I asked my daughter once why she listens to me and her reply was “Because you get me, mummy, you understand me.”
That is true motivation at work! She listens because I make her feel connected and understood, just like with our friend in need. She might not want to do what I ask, but her intrinsic drive to build on our relationship is the biggest motivator by far.
7. Threats kill Empathy
Our children feel misunderstood and frustrated when our default tool is to go straight in with a threat. We are not teaching our child empathy.
Empathy is a learnt skill. A child who is not shown empathy will grow up to be an adult who struggles to show empathy to others. We need to show our kids that we do and will keep trying to better understand them. If we want our kids to think of us and others, we must first teach them what empathy looks and feels like.
Acknowledging their wants and needs is not the same as agreeing with them. Empathy acknowledges our child’s need to feel heard and understood.
Look at how easy it is for us to go straight in with a threat if our child does not comply right away:
At the local pool, I overheard a mother with her 7-year-old daughter. The little girl had just finished swimming and was warming up under the pool–side shower. She couldn’t have been under the shower for more than a few minutes when her mum asked her to get out with an immediate threat.
“Get out now, everyone is waiting. Get out now or I won’t bring you next time.”
How much better would it have been for both mother and child, if the mother had said something like:
“Ooh! That looks so warm under there, it must have got a bit cold in the pool. You looked so great driving off the diving board. Wow, that was high! We must hurry up now because everyone is waiting. Here is the towel and mummy will help you to get dressed quickly.”
By showing empathy first and connecting with her daughter she would certainly have motivated the child to make the right choice and continued the happy day.
Our children get used to our threats and they start to feel controlled and resentful towards us because of the endless power struggles.
By thinking that we just need to be stricter and dish out worst punishments or threats we fail to see our system is flawed at its core.
It doesn’t have to be that way!
We need to start the process of learning, and teaching our children how to make the correct and positive choices in life.
Next time you feel a threat coming on, why not give the following six simple steps a go instead:
- Button your lips
- Take a deep breath
- Think of the situation from your child’s perspective
- Begin your request with empathy
- Sit back and laugh at how much easier parenting can be without the threats.