What To Do When You Can't Bribe or Threaten Your Preschooler

If I can spend $2.99 to get out of a bad situation, that’s a very acceptable, albeit short term, win in Mommy land.
12/12/2016 07:56 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2016
Stephanie Rausser via Getty Images

I’m not proud of this, but when my kids start acting up in public, my immediate reaction is to try to bribe them.

My reasoning may not be sound but it IS simple; Sadie and Patrick are four years old and they love blind bags, which cost $2.99. If I can spend $2.99 to get out of a bad situation, that’s a very acceptable, albeit short term, win in Mommy land (with potentially negative repercussions, I know!)

My second reaction is worse than my first: threatening them.

Please don’t think I am a monster; I’m talking threats like “You’ll lose a star on your chart!” or “No more blind bags!” (Yes, we exhaust a lot of mental energy on blind bags in this house).

But those inane, absurd mini-rants definitely count as threats and I am VERY guilty of hurling them, as is my husband. (If I am going down, he is going down with me!)

As I sat down to write this I did a little research into threatening your child and learned what I already suspected – that it is essentially the least effective thing you can do (great). And it’s even worse if you have no intention of following through; “idle threats and promises will only make your child loose his trust in you, and he will not obey you.

But in the spirit of keeping things (sometimes painfully) real, I’ll own up to doing it on more than one occasion, including yesterday.

I unsuccessfully tried bribing and threatening Sadie and Patrick yesterday afternoon after they went to see The Nutcracker with their great-grandmas. Normally I would have gone to the play (it was a class trip), but on this particular day I invited the great-grandmas to go instead. I felt equal parts wonderfully generous grandchild and selfishly brilliant woman; Sadie and Patrick built a memory with their great-grandmas and I got to go to yoga, coffee and Saks Off 5th Avenue alone.

Insert satisfied (and soon to be gone) smile here.

Because 99% of preschooler-centric plans go to you-know-what right at that moment when you believe you thought of it all. My arrival at school and the words “let’s go to lunch” triggered a volcanic tantrum (Patrick) and a spectacularly dramatic meltdown (Sadie). One kicked like a tiny angry ninja, the other puddled on the ground like mercury. Both cried and begged to go home.

But we couldn’t. Two 80-year-old women were hungry and I was going to feed them NO. MATTER. WHAT.

I knelt over the kids quickly, half covering their cry + kick + sob + whine scene. My bribes and threats came so fast and furious, I felt like an auctioneer at Sotheby’s.

Nothing worked. 

I sat down on the floor, exhausted, and considered copying them. Not to prove a point; simply because I was DONE with this particular ride on the mommy emotional roller coaster. We were in public, with family, and locked into plans I truly did not want to break. Something had to give.

And it was me.

I needed to give Sadie and Patrick my love. I pulled both kids into my lap and hugged them. I whispered that it would be OK; that I would take turns carrying them to lunch; that they could sit in my lap and share french fries with me when we got there. I promised them I’d be there for the rest of the day.

Sadie and Patrick didn’t need “stuff” or the threat of me taking their stuff away. They needed ME. Present, aware, paying attention and just loving them. My best guess, in retrospect? They saw their friends’ moms at the play and didn’t share my enthusiasm for “Great-Grandmas Day Out.” 

When I gave them the love and attention they needed, they responded with exactly what I needed – 45 minutes of calm and kindness at lunch. They even smiled for a pictures (sort of).

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