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Threats and Bribes – the Secret Life of Conscious Parents

I swore I would never threaten my children.
I swore I would never bribe my children.  Especially with food.
I swore it would never happen to me. 

Then I had children.  See if this sounds familiar: “John, if you don’t eat your salad, you won’t get dessert.”  Or how about, “If you don’t put your dirty socks in the laundry, I’m going to start throwing them away and you’ll have to buy new ones out of your allowance!”  Here’s the one that actually came out of my mouth the other day: “If you keep making that noise I’m going to do something drastic – and it won’t be funny!”

Threats and bribes.  I can’t believe my parenting skills have actually been reduced to this.  What happened to the patient mom who would sit down and talk about why he needed to do one thing or another and would painstakingly explain the reasoning behind my decisions?  What ever happened to the conscious parent who watched every single word that came out of her mouth? 

I’ll tell you what happened: life happened.  We started to grow up and to speed up and to get into the grooves and ruts of daily life.  I’m so embarrassed.  It makes me want to hide my parenting in a closet.

But wait a minute!  What’s really going on here?  Am I really a bad mom, reduced to old parenting patterns that are coming out unconsciously?  Here’s what my friend Heather said:  “Shelly, you can either look at is as threats and bribes, or you can look at it as positive reinforcements and natural consequences.”  She’s absolutely right. 

What’s the difference between bribes and rewards, threats and consequences?  Not much besides the energy behind them.  A bribe for good behavior seems somewhat desperate and mean.  A reward is loving and positive.  A threat is definitely desperate and mean.  A consequence is natural.  A lot of conscious parenting is actually about how you frame things, for yourself and your children. 

The fact is, children between the ages of two and twelve are very black-and-white thinkers and they need the boundaries of consequences and rewards to help them make good decisions.  Eventually they’ll grow out of that and you’ll stop finding yourself making ridiculous threats and offering candy as a reward for good behavior.

We do what works.  Rewarding good behavior works – as long as your child is growing a healthy inner world and realizes what her values are and why you’re working so hard to help her make good choices.  Because eventually, the only rewards for her behavior will be coming from within her own heart and conscience.  Rewarding good behavior only works when it’s building your child’s self-esteem and value system.

Really understanding the difference between punishments and natural consequences is important, too.  According to, to “punish” someone is to “subject to pain, loss, confinement, death, etc., as a penalty for some offense, transgression, or fault.”  We do not, ever, need to subject our children to pain as a penalty.  That is a very destructive pattern in our society that must be broken.  In our family, we rely on natural consequences.  If you don’t put your socks in the laundry, they won’t get washed.  If you fail your math test, you’ll have to miss your play-date to study for the next one.  These are the natural results of the actions, not punishments for getting it “wrong”.  It’s all about building your child’s self-esteem and value system.  It’s not about inflicting pain.

Rewards and consequences are a natural, loving way to help your child grow and learn to make good choices.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using these tools – as long as you are being conscious about why you are using them and what affects they are having on your children.  That’s what conscious parenting is all about.  No more secrets, hiding our bribes and threats in the closet.  Only positive, loving parenting.

Shelly Walker




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