Why and how to avoid blackmail from children’s education?

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What is the point of removing blackmail in child rearing?

If… then” rewards (“if you get a good grade, then you get a present”/”if you listen well in class, then you get to play soccer”) are rarely effective because children don’t move for themselves in this case, but to :

to please,

not to disappoint,

to have peace

receive a reward.

This is called extrinsic motivation: it is easy to fall into a system of punishment/reward, blackmail or even threats. The child may obey in the short term, but the “ifs” and “buts” do not contribute to the emergence of a young person who is an actor in his or her own life, who knows how to take individual responsibility and set in motion what is important to him or her.

This “if you… then” approach may occasionally push the child to immediately achieve the proposed reward. But it rarely, if ever, inspires him to make a continuous effort. Every word we say suggests that we are questioning his ability to progress. There is also something immoral about promising rewards as a bargaining chip. Some children will intentionally misbehave in order to get a reward for good behavior.

Not so easy!

Eliminating blackmail and “if…then” rewards is not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes we don’t realize we are using them and we lack the ideas to replace them (I speak from experience here).

All of us parents are tempted to abuse the blackmail: “if you don’t eat your vegetables, then you won’t have dessert”, “if you hit your sister, you will be punished in your room”. I must admit that I am a specialist of rewards like: “if you go to the shower now, then we will watch a cartoon afterwards”. I’ve even used threats like “if you don’t put your shoes on now and get back to school on time, I’ll put you in the canteen next week”. Yes, yes… I’m not proud 🙁 !

However, blackmail, punishment, threats, rewards are all doomed to fail in the long run.

How to replace blackmail, threats, punishments and rewards?

Here are some ideas that can be effective, inspired by various readings:

Let the child experience the consequences of his behavior

Consequences can be natural when no adult intervention is necessary. The experience of the natural consequence offers excellent learning opportunities for the child (… as long as it is not accompanied by a “See, I told you so” 🙂 ).

Logical consequences require the intervention of an adult or another child. They sometimes need to be stated in advance.

They can take the form of:

choices (either stop making noise or leave the room)

positive redirection of the action (to make noise, it is outside or in your room),

non-violent requests (when you make noise while playing, it bothers me. I need peace and quiet when I read and I ask you to play somewhere else or to find a way to play quietly if you want to stay in the same room as me), reflection (what could help you play without making noise?),

problem solving during a family discussion (see here),

taking action: taking action to protect people, property, oneself, the relationship (examples here).

Jane Nelsen explains that consequences have a restorative and educational function when they are :

Related: the consequence is logically related to the behavior.

Respectful: the consequence is implemented with firmness and kindness. It should not imply devaluation, guilt or humiliation.

Reasonable: the consequence is not excessive and seems fair to both the child and the adult.

Revealed in advance: the child knows the rules of the game if he or she chooses inappropriate behaviour.

Ginott describes a situation in which the mother has replaced her threats (“if you continue, you’ll be punished/ you’ll get a spanking/ you’ll never see that gun again/ you’ll hear from me”) with the use of logical consequences:

A 7-year-old shoots his little brother with a foam arrow gun. The mother says, “Not at the baby. Shoot your target.” (redirection)

The boy shoots his brother again. The mother pulls the gun away, “You don’t shoot people.” (transition to action)

In the above example, the mother does not use threats or warnings that would be taken by the child as a challenge to his or her autonomy.

Invite children to come up with their own solutions, acceptable to the whole family

The adult can ask the child if he or she has any ideas for

  • repair the damage done
  • avoid the problem in the future.

This can be done by asking questions such as: “Do you have any ideas on how to get out of this situation/ repair the damage you caused to so-and-so/ make up for something that was broken or stolen…?

When the child lacks ideas, the adult can offer suggestions in order to reach an agreement that satisfies both the child and the adult.

In all cases, do not forget to encourage the child :

  • verbally: “That sounds like a good idea!”
  • physically (e.g., accompany the child to the merchant he/she stole from for moral support in apologizing).

Giving the child choices

In Talking so children will listen, listening so children will talk, Faber and Mazlish advise giving the child a choice in conflict situations.

If a child is running in a supermarket, rather than saying, “If you keep running, then no TV for you tonight,” they suggest :

point out a way to be helpful (e.g., pick out tomatoes or get a carton of milk), offer alternatives (“You can walk or sit in the cart”) Give him/her ways to make things right from which he/she can choose. Replace “If” with “As soon as” and complete with curiosity questions

Jane Nelsen in her book Positive Discipline writes

As soon as you put your toys away, we can go to the park is more effective than If you put your toys away, we will go to the park. The “as soon as… we…,” approach implies that the choice to go to the park is not really an issue for us. The tone used in the phrasing should indicate that the adult will not intervene until the condition is met. The child will then experience the consequences of his or her choices. It is up to the child to fulfill his or her responsibility if he or she really wants to go.

The idea is to replace the notion of condition by a notion of time: when, as soon as, as soon as.

On the other hand, if, for some reason, we have to go to the park, we will choose to proceed with questions of curiosity: Who wants to go to the park? What do we need to do to be ready to go?

Replace rewards with unexpected and timely surprises

Ginott writes:

Some parents have been so conditioned by their children that they don’t dare return from the races without bringing back a gift. The children greet them not with a hello but with a “what did you bring me?”.

Surprises are more effective and pleasant when they are not planned in advance or haggled over. Surprises then regain their meaning: recognition and appreciation.

Practice active listening and reflection of feelings

The parent tries to understand what the child is feeling, to get the hidden message behind inappropriate behavior. Then the parent transforms their understanding into their own words and returns the message to the child for verification. But the parent should be careful not to turn his or her own message into an evaluation, opinion, advice, reasoning, analysis or question. Empathetic listening helps the child to say more, to go deeper, to better develop his or her thinking. Finally, empathic listening helps the child find his or her own solutions to problems.

It seems to me that you are…

You feel sort of like…

You wish you could/you wish you could better…/you don’t…

You probably hate…

You look/ sound/ feel like you are…

…, right?

You mean that…

You think that…

This thing/ this event/ this decision seems to you…

No wonder that/not surprised that…

Use positive reinforcement

For a child who never puts his laundry in the wash or clears the table, it’s literally an accomplishment the day he does it spontaneously. But do we think to point out how much we enjoy it? To let him know how pleased we are?

Saying a few positive words to the child in these cases, in these small things, makes him want to reproduce this positive and rewarding situation for him. He will feel an immense satisfaction.

The way of valuing the small exploits of the daily life by a positive reinforcement is very important. It is not a matter of being ironic or making fun of the child, but rather of :

  1. express gratitude for an attitude that makes daily life easier: say thank you Thank you for helping me to…
    Thank you for doing…. because it means we can now…
    It makes mornings/meals/outings more enjoyable when you…and I thank you for it
  2. share our feelings and explain why we are grateful to our child I am happy when you…
    I am proud of you
    It makes me feel good/ warm when you…
    I really appreciate when you… Putting school in perspective

When success at school is no longer seen as a goal but as a means, a tool, the pressure is off for the child and his/her parents. Encouraging children to succeed in life rather than in school will allow them to cultivate their own projects. Grades are an evaluation of work and not of the person.

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