A friend of mine wondered the other day what’s left if you can’t bribe or threaten the kids. Reading parenting magazines and forums every single form of discipline seems to be off limits and somehow damaging to the child according to at least one study. Bribing the kids is bad. Naughty chair is bad. Physical punishment is obviously bad. Shouting at children is bad. Threatening children is bad. Ignoring children is bad. So what kind of weapons does your average parent have left? Some sources suggest negotiation as the only available thing.
I believe that people who suggest this have not negotiated with a toddler. Up till around four years of age, children’s negotiation abilities are right up there with Al-Qaida’s. By that I mean that their flexibility and willingness to compromise have either not developed or they refuse to use them.
The average “negotiation” that I have with my three-year-old goes like this.
Child: “I want a banana.”
Mother: “But we’re having dinner in fifteen minutes. You’ll lose your appetite if you have a banana right before dinner.”
C: But I want a banana.
M: I’m sorry, darling. I know you want one. You can have one after dinner.
C: I want a banana NOW.
M: No, honey.
C: I WANT A BANANA!
M: How about a tangerine? That’s not as filling.
C: BANANA! BANANA!
M: Okay, how bout this. Go and watch cartoons with your brother and I’ll bring you some carrot sticks to munch on.
C: NOOOO!!! BANAAANNNAAA!
And so it goes. Is this what you’d call a negotiation? Wikipedia defines negotiation as:
a dialogue between two or more people or parties intended to reach a mutually beneficial outcome, resolve points of difference, to gain advantage for an individual or collective, or to craft outcomes to satisfy various interests.
The above is not a dialogue, but a monologue on the part of the child. The child is not listening, not ready to compromise, not ready to meet half-way. The child is not negotiating. Note, that the mother attempts to present compromises, but the child is not willing to meet them. The child wants all or nothing.
I’m not saying you can never negotiate with a child in this age group. Sometimes they are ready to compromise and sometimes you can compromise. It’s a good idea to let your kid have some say on occasion, but in some situations mother (or father) simply knows best. No, you can’t go to daycare in your underwear. No, you can’t eat the chocolate bar you found in the sandbox. No, you can’t water the television set.
So what can you do to curb your child’s wayward behavior? Personally I don’t find that any child will suffer permanent damage if a parent occasionally resorts to bribes and threats. Children are resilient, that’s their very essence. But bribes and threats, and even more so punishments, don’t necessarily work all that well, at least not in the long run. Punishment should be spared for when a child does something really bad.
With my children I’ve found the carrot to be a lot more efficient than any stick. Right now we’re using stickers to calm down bedtime. After a certain number of stickers, the child gets something nice. You shouldn’t do this too often, though, or it will wear thin. Just verbal phase for the behavior you hope for is simple but good. Attention to good things, no attention to bad things works often very well. Many parents tend to do the opposite, giving their child a lot of attention when they misbehave and not paying them any mind when they sit quietly on the sofa. It’s understandable, everyone does it, but it can develop into a big problem.
Children are not that different from any other human beings. They react well when they feel that they are respected and loved. They react poorly if they feel like they have no freedom and their opinions and ideas are not listened to. Lack of love scares them to death. A good parent gives the child ample freedom, but sticks stubbornly to the really important points. If you don’t nag about every little detail, your children will listen to you when you have something truly important to say.
The best parenting advice I’ve ever had was to spend time with your child doing something you both enjoy. Nothing develops your relationship with your child like having a good laugh over something you both find funny.
Maybe when the kid is older you’ll even find it in yourself to laugh over those two hundred times you negotiated about when to eat a banana.