Some “Choices” are Actually “Threats”

Imagine that you are at work, and you come in late one day.
Your boss approaches you and says, “If you come late again, I’ll have to fire you.”
You feel very motivated to not come in late again, don’t you?
But how do you feel about your boss?

We understand that the threat, even if it is what we are SUPPOSED to do, gives us an emotional response of anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, and other feelings that are not very positive.

But still, we neglect our children by threatening them regularly.

Imagine a child in a classroom.
The teacher asks the child to pick up the blocks and put them in a basket, but the child is having too much fun playing with the cars.
The teacher then says, “If you don’t put away the blocks, you won’t be able to go outside.”
Here are two possible responses:
A) The child becomes motivated and cleans the blocks and hurries to go outside.
B) The child refuses, and then runs away so that the teacher can’t stop them from playing cars.

For many teachers, this is a daily occurrence. For some teachers, they know that the threat of taking away outside time is ineffective in managing behaviors.

There are several reasons why the threat doesn’t work.

First, the young child is still learning to develop flexibility. This is an acquired skill. In essence, when we ask a child to be compliant we are asking them to stop what they are doing, and then do what the authority says to do. That is difficult for many children to do. So then the authority must understand and empathize with that difficulty and teach the child how to cope with it.

Second, the threat is an external motivator. I spoke a little bit about rewards as an external motivator here, but this motivator is different because the external motivation is a threat. This approach still does not teach a child to have an internal motivation to cleaning up.

In this particular case, the natural consequence to not cleaning up, is having a messy room, or not being able to do the next activity because the room is too messy. This consequence is very unlikely to be a motivator for a young child to stop what they are doing to clean up.

What can we do then, to motivate this child to clean up?

The answer lies in empowerment. A common response to authoritative approaches to young children is an automatic No, regardless of what you are asking them to do. But when you empower the child and give them Choices, then they feel in control of their surroundings. They feel capable. They are motivated because they believe they are in charge of themselves. Little do they know we have just done a Jedi Mind Trick.

When usually they have no motivation to clean up, they are all of a sudden directed to clean up without being forced to do it. The power of the choices is that they learn to internally motivate themselves to do it. It’s a Jedi Mind Trick.

When new teachers hear about giving choices, you often see one choice being a threat, and the other choice being something the child absolutely does not want to do.

For instance, we say “Do you want to clean up those blocks, or sit on the thinking chair?”

The result? Defiance and a power struggle.

Choices need to empower the child, but at the same time be directed at the desired behavior.

Take for instance cleaning up the blocks. You can give this choice:

“You can pick up the big blocks, or the small ones. What do you want to choose?”
“You can put the cars away, or the blocks. What do you want to do?”

In either case, you are giving choices directed at the desired behavior: cleaning up. At the same time, the child is empowered to make a choice that they can feel proud of doing. If neither of those choices are enticing, then you have to keep giving choices that make sense.

There is so much more to learn about giving choices. When to give them, what skills they are developing through choices, and why it works better than rewards and threats.

That will come later, but going back to our original topic of threats, we just need to know that there are alternative strategies to threats. They produce fear and anxiety which negatively impacts their overall ability to learn and retain information.

One other note about this. It feels really awfully WEIRD to give choices like this. It feels like all choices we give are awful, and you’ll find yourself continuing to threaten even by giving choices. You’ll find that you may give choices and neither choice is motivating. Keep trying! With practice and the intent of love and compassion, the child’s life (and your sanity!) will be better for it.

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