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How to motivate kids with consequences, without resorting to threats

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Q: Is it okay to use consequences as a means to motivate? I always say, "If you don't do X, your consequence will be Y. One. Two. Three." My kids seem to be interpreting them more as threats. They'll turn around and say to their cousins, "If you don't go get that ball for me right now, you're not going to get to play with me anymore," and they think it's the same thing.

A: Is it okay to use consequences as a means to motivate? My first question will always be: “How’s that working for you?” And if you say, “My kids seem to be interpreting them more as threats,” I would say you have a problem.

The use of threats, although effective in getting people to comply with demands, is not a long-term tool in the parenting toolbox. Why? Because every person is born with an innate alarm system. We have it to keep us alive, and most importantly, we have it to ensure we are not separated from those we love. If a parent pushes on that alarm system too much by chronically threatening, yelling at or nagging a child, then that child becomes unmoved by the threat, starts ignoring the parent, grows defiant or gets sneaky and secretive.

Why? If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: Humans are allergic to being pushed around and manipulated, and children are especially keen to knowing when there’s a threat in sheep’s clothing.

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And if you think it’s hard now, just wait until your kids are older. You are already seeing the mimicry now (they’re threatening their cousins), and if you continue to up the ante, all of that frustration will go somewhere. Friends, classmates and other family members will be on the receiving end of threats, too. Your children could also start getting bullied; they will be accustomed to being emotionally pushed around, and they may seek out people who push them around, too.

I’m not trying to be alarmist; you have so much time to change these patterns. And the best news? You’re aware that this isn’t working (or you’re becoming aware), and that’s a great sign. It can be hard to break the threatening cycle, but practice using other language, such as, “When you clean up your toys, then we go to the park,” or, “We will have the snack after you put away your shoes.” Practice smiling when you speak, which can relax both you and your children, then wait silently. This is the hardest part. If you are accustomed to threatening your children, waiting for them to experience the discomfort of not getting what they want is wretched, but practice makes progress.

Also, please reach out for support. Parenting coaches, online classes and books can be wonderful and practical resources as you change your habits. Remember: Parenting is a long game, and threats will not take you where you want to go. You can find an array of positive and science-backed books on my website,

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