October 30th, 2016

Be a Rewarder not a Briber

The countdown to Christmas is now on! In the weeks before the festive season (8 weeks, since you ask) many parents will use the (potential) forthcoming visit of the portly gentleman as an inducement to good behaviour. Otherwise known as a bribe or threat. Don’t cringe –we’ve all done it. Who hasn’t said “Santa won’t bring you any presents if you don’t behave?” Which brings up the whole question of bribes, a standard-issue tool in the average parental tool basket, but one that has some downsides. So what is the difference between a bribe and a reward? Or is there no difference? Are they both problematic? This is an important question that we ponder in our classes and I distil years of thought on this issue for you below.

My dictionary defines a bribe as ‘an illegal payment made in exchange for favours or influence’ but that’s not how parents use the word. A bribe is something appealing which is offered prior to a behaviour as an inducement to the child to behave in a particular way. Correspondingly a threat is the promise of an unappealing event if the child does not behave as desired. A reward would be given after the behaviour in acknowledgment of that behaviour.

But as in many things in family life it’s all a little bit more nuanced than that. Let’s look at the language of inducement.

Bribe = “I’ll buy you these sweeties if you promise not to make a fuss about sitting in the shopping trolley.”

Reward = “You have been so patient while I was helping Ethan with his homework. You didn’t interrupt and just did something else for a while. Now you have earned a game of UNO with me.”

In the first example, the ‘if you do X you can have Y’ model involves a loss of parental control. The child is firmly in charge as the parent pays a price for what they want the child to do. One of the concerns parents quite rightly have is that this price goes up! ‘Bribe inflation’ means that the child will raise the stakes and may end up only doing what’s required for a treat and that treat will get bigger and bigger. “I won’t do it for 3 sweeties. I’ll do it for 4.” This teaches our children that they can manipulate situations with their parents and that ‘rules’ are negotiable.

Another issue with this model is that the inducement is portrayed as the coveted thing whereas the required behaviour is something to be endured only to earn the treat. This is problematic if we are bribing our children to do things we think are intrinsically good for them. And why else would we be requiring them to do it? Eg we say “you can play on the iPad if you do your reading/homework” or “you can’t have dessert unless you eat your broccoli.”  or “you won’t get a story unless you brush your teeth”. While stories and dessert and iPads no doubt have intrinsic appeal we actually want our children to see homework, reading, eating healthily and brushing teeth as of value in themselves. We also set up all kinds of problematic eating associations if we use certain foods as inducements.

When we use bribes our children are unlikely to learn anything beyond the skills of manipulation and bargaining, and the emphasis is on behaving well purely for material reward. In fact we want our children to do what’s required because it is the right thing to do.

So if bribes are so problematic what can we do? Is there a place for rewards? We think so.

Some rewards straightforwardly come after the behaviour, as in our example. But sometimes we may want to set up rewards in advance, while being wary of the pitfalls of bribes. A different way of speaking is the ‘When you have done X you will have earned Y’ model. This language is much more intentional and conveys trust that the child will do as required. This is much less coercive and focuses on empowering the child herself to learn the value of the behaviour, rather than being centred on material gain. Rewards may often be the natural positive consequence of the positive behaviour e.g. having extra time to play because they got ready so quickly or staying dry because they remembered their raincoat. Importantly rewards are earned and they occur after the child has accomplished something.

When I see you leave Tom’s house without any fuss when I collect you this evening as we discussed, you will be able to invite Tom to come and play at our house next week, as you’ll have shown me you know how to make a play date a real success.” (Empathise that it can be hard to stop playing if you’re in the middle of something fun and that it’s the parent’s timetable that always takes precedence.)

It’s important to have realistic expectations. Don’t expect your young child to brush his teeth or do his homework happily just because these are the ‘right things to do’. He will acquire those values over time and then he too will think they are the right thing to do. In the meantime you will teach him to do what’s required (repeatedly) by:

  • modelling the desired behaviour
  • having clear expectations about what’s required
  • commenting favourably (and sometimes rewarding) when he does it
  • following through in non-punitive ways when he doesn’t do it

The behaviours become habitual over time and then are internalised as values. Two things to remember about rewards:

  1. Use them sparingly and make sure they’re non-material
  2. Talk up the intrinsic benefits of the required task “Thank you for standing still and letting me rub in your sun cream. That’s really responsible. It shows me you understand how important it is to look after your skin, to stop yourself from getting burnt. Now you can have fun all afternoon playing in the paddling pool with your friends.”
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October 03rd, 2016

Ditch the Guilt

If you had a child start school or nursery for the first time this term I hope they trotted off happily without a backwards glance. But if they didn’t you may have felt helpless and even guilty as they grappled with uncomfortable emotions. Many parents feel it is their job to keep their children happy all the time. But we can’t do this. In fact it is our job to help our children manage these uncomfortable feelings, realise they are part of being human, we all have them, they pass, and in fact they’re not all bad because we can learn from them. Becoming aware of our own feelings is the first step in developing empathy for others.

If you’ve been feeling guilty that you can’t assuage your child’s upset there are two things that may reassure you:

  1. Your child will get used to their new environment, especially if you talk to them about how they feel and brainstorm with them on strategies for being happy
  2. You are not alone.

Parents are good at guilt. It may be the most common emotion we experience around parenting. I have the feeling that mums experience it more than dads but maybe that’s because I’m a mum. What do you think, dads?

What do we feel guilty about?

When I asked a group of parents they said they felt their role was to provide the best for their kids and a lot of their guilt was when they didn’t live up to this standard. What does that mean?

My test group said what it meant to them was providing:

  • the best schooling – this may mean deciding whether to send them to state or independent school, or getting into the best nursery or school open to you, enrolling in and taking children to the most enriching Extra Curricular Activities
  • the best food - nutritionally sound, does this also mean organic?
  • the best nurturing environment in their childhood - a stable home life, 2 parents? A calm, non-shouty atmosphere! Parents worried about not spending enough time with their kids/their partner/their own parents, taking ‘me time’, working/not working, taking exercise, not doing anything culturally enriching but vegging in front of a screen, the house being messy….etc, etc. 

What does it mean to you? 

Expectations of ourselves as parents are very high. It starts early and can be fuelled by information available on the internet. We may plague ourselves with questions like: Did I do the wrong thing in allowing my baby to cry/not wearing him in a sling/not co-sleeping? 

Access to information is now unprecedented and we don’t have to look far for evidence that we are screwing up our kids! Ericka Christakis, Early Childhood Educator and Harvard College Administrator speaking at the Aspen Festival of Ideas in 2012 said “we live in what we call the ‘epidemiological age’, where we have a lot of information about what is unhealthy and healthy”. She referred to the fact that the British Medical Journal not too long ago prohibited the word ‘accident’ in their reporting, because they argued that really are almost no accidents, ie incidents are avoidable. The logical conclusion is that it is the job of parents to avoid them. 

Christakis continued, this view is that if you look at the antecedents for almost all bad things that happen to us in life, including famines and droughts, and children getting hit by cars, and suicide, that these are really preventable injuries. She said this leads to a huge shift in how we view childhood, because if we're starting to think that all these bad things are preventable then every time you decide not to put a helmet on your child when they're riding a scooter on the pavement you start feeling like a neglectful person. It creates a lot of anxiety to live in a world where we feel so responsible as parents. 

At the same event Lawrence J. Cohen, Psychologist and author of Playful Parenting added “There's a taboo against putting a price on the safety of your child. And I think we have the same taboo on [aiming] at anything less than the absolute pinnacle of success, and if we don't then we're short-changing our children.” 

This sense of responsibility and attendant guilt is fuelled by a propensity to criticise parents. 

Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs noted that “We're so culturally prone to beat up parents”. If you go onto any online platform for parents you will see a lot of blame and judgment for parents, from other parents! 

It’s worth noting here that there is a difference between shame and guilt and how those emotions make us behave. Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person, a judgement about myself as a person, whereas guilt is the feeling I get when I’ve done a bad thing, a judgment about my actions. When we feel shame we can feel worthless and then may lash out or try to avoid the situation. Feelings of shame are very linked to our sense of self-worth –what we believe about ourselves and our value. “Man often becomes what he believes himself to be” - Gandhi.  Your thoughts about yourself shape your reality.

When we feel guilty about our actions we tend to experience regret and want to make amends. We think “I am a good person who made a mistake”. Guilt could actually be a good thing if it is a catalyst for change

Sherry Bevan, author or The Confident Mother, said “When we feel guilt, there is always a reason.  The purpose of guilt is to tell us that we are hurting someone or doing something wrong.” She quotes Audre Lorde’s from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches,  “Guilt is … a response to one’s own actions or lack of action.  If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.”  

Shame is not useful if my feelings about myself stop action.

It may be helpful to reflect on the reason for feeling guilt and decide what you can do to stop feeling guilty. Sherry mused “Assuming of course you want to stop feeling guilty. I sometimes wonder whether some people don’t enjoy feeling guilty. As if they enjoy being punished or feel like they deserve to be punished. Perhaps for some former ‘crime’ they committed”.

If you are feeling guilty about something, first get clear on what exactly you are feeling guilty about. Then ask yourself whether your guilt makes sense? If somebody else was in the same situation and said "I feel really guilty about xyz", would you think their guilt was justified?

If the answer is yes, what can you do to stop the guilty feelings? Are you expecting too much of yourself or of others? Are you trying to do too many things at the same time? And if the answer is no, if the guilt isn't justified, stop wasting time feeling guilty. 

When you think of guilt as a catalyst, it stops being negative and you can use it to make a change for the positive.

My friend Caroline Ferguson who is a wonderful mindset trainer, suggests doing the following when we feel guilty: 

  • Treat yourself like an intelligent child that you want to nurture and inspire
  • Visualise the person you want to be and behave like her
  • When you have negative thoughts about yourself –ask is there a kinder/more constructive way to say that?
  • Keep a journal in which you write daily affirmations for yourself
  • Celebrate your achievements
  • When others compliment you say thank you and accept it

My last practical tips:

  • Stop making comparisons with other parents and children
  • It may help to find out what is normal behaviour for your child’s age group and temperament and adjust your expectations. Read Chapter one, Knowing Your Child in Real Parenting for Real Kids.
  • Don’t read parent websites where there is a lot of judgmental chat but do read books like Real Parenting that celebrate the efforts of parents just like you.
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