Recently I was interviewed for the Raising Toddlers Courageously online conference, all about sexual abuse prevention and body boundaries and consent. Besides talking about those, I mentioned incentivizing…specifically, how we’d used gummy bears to get our toddler into her car seat.
Then came the scandalized posts in the discussion group about me recommending bribes (yes, I used that word). I’m curious to hear your reaction too! Allow me to explain…
I am an advocate for giving your child as much autonomy over their body as possible. This is a fundamental step in gaining strong body boundaries. It empowers a child to stand up for themselves whenever something happens that doesn’t feel good to their body.
However, there have been times for us – and for all parents, I imagine! – when this has “backfired” and my daughter has asserted that she doesn’t want to do what we want her to do, and it’s her body.
One of my friends struggles with getting her toddler’s teeth brushed, and she recounted to me how her dentist recommended putting the child in a headlock. I shuddered. I’m sure you can imagine many reasons why that’s a terrible route to go.
In our family, we’ve managed to find some playful ways to get my daughter’s teeth brushed. To prep her for her first dentist appointment, and all subsequent ones, we’d play “dentist.” She’d sit in my lap and lie back into my husband’s and he’d brush her teeth. When she doesn’t want to do that, I tried an idea I gleaned from Tosha Score, brushing her ear with the toothbrush and asking if that would prevent cavities, then her nose, then her hair…it gets the giggles going, and then she shows me the right way to do it. Some days, we brush her stuffed animal’s teeth, and then of course, it’s her turn.
Other days, no game is good enough! If it comes down to physical force vs. skipping it, we’ve always let it go.
Something we can’t be as flexible about, though, is the car seat. My daughter has to get into her car seat each weekday morning to go to nursery school. Understandably, she’s disliked her car seat from day 1 – what curious active child wants to be strapped down? – and toddlerhood didn’t change that.
We tried everything we could think of. “Special time” during which she got to play in the car, pushing buttons, steering, hanging off the coat handles. Stuffed animals getting strapped in wrong so that she could show them the right way. Stern statements and limit setting. Breakfast snacks in the car seat. Songs and stories that couldn’t begin until she was bucked up.
For a while there, nothing was working, and my husband was chronically late getting my daughter to school, and himself to work or appointments. Some days she’d climb right in, but more often than not, she’d refuse and want to play in the car. They’d get into a power struggle and my husband would get frustrated. A few times he tried overpowering her, but she’s strong! And it broke his heart to hear her wail “My Body!” “No Papa!” “That hurts!”
What to do? Be late every morning and take the real-world consequences of that? Physically force her into the car seat? Or…try a bribe?
Yes, we called it a “bribe” amongst ourselves, because “incentive” is a kinder word, and we didn’t want to become complacent about what we were doing. Our daughter has gummy bear vitamins, and we started giving those to her in the car, after she was buckled in. It worked like magic.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. I too have read all about fostering internal motivation, avoiding rewards of any kind because in the long run they promote external motivation, “what do I get if I do ___?” kind of nightmare. In the long run, rewards don’t work.
Knowing that, we were careful to keep this temporary and not let the gummy bears become routine. Some days she’d get 2. Some days she got 1. Some days she got 3. Some days the gummy bears had been “forgotten” and she got them at home. When my husband noticed her expecting them, there’d be a dry spell. Within a month she was “weaned” from gummy bears and acclimated to the routine of getting into her car seat promptly.
We consider this to be a success, and that’s what I was trying to share briefly in the interview. The response in Facebook discussion group, however, was not warm. One mother pointed out that this is exactly how an abuser would manipulate a child into doing what the child didn’t want to do. Isn’t this setting my daughter up to compromise her boundaries?
I don’t think so. I think small children are bribable, period. Yes, this is what an abuser would do, because it works. I wish that we could prevent child sexual abuse by being vigilant to never bribe kids, but I don’t think that would actually have an impact.
What it boils down to, for me, is a partnership model of parenting. If I know that she’ll be uncomfortable in her car seat, but I have to ask her to tolerate that discomfort, what can I do to make it as bearable as possible? Getting to consent matters to me, and I think this is not so different from the negotiations and compromises we navigate everyday as adults.
Though we were at our wits end, I’m sure there are things we didn’t think of to try. If you have a totally different answer to this problem, or a different point of view all together, please comment below! This was not an easy one for us to crack, and we totally muddled through.
When there wasn’t an appealing solution, we chose what we thought was the least bad one – but sharing the story does open us up to criticism. If you’ve gone through this too, I hope you can shed any shame or doubt that lingers. Honestly, I think you probably did just fine.
In support of you,
Mom of 2 teenagers here, so it’s been awhile since experiencing the car seat battle! If you gave your daughter a reward for every action she performed as you wanted, well then, you’d both be in trouble! That’s not what’s happening here. A toddler is not able to understand or develop the intrinsic motivation of staying safe while riding in a car seat, (which is uncomfortable!), that it is necessary to potentially save her life. Because of the gravity of the situation, external motivation is a simple and effective tool that works for now. Just as you don’t try to explain to her how the car actually works for her to ride in it, she will learn with time, when developmentally appropriate, WHY and HOW this strapping in is necessary. My youngest wanted to ditch his converted car booster seat when his sibling who’s 3 years older grew out of using one, but at that point, he was 9 or so and could understand why it was vital to keep using it, even though he didn’t like it. He wanted to be the safest person in the car! Sounds to me like you’re going about it the right way, thoughtful and respectful of all involved. You’re not setting her up for anything if this is a specific battle with specific motivation that achieves the desired response for insuring her safety.
At my house, we call this Mindful Motivation. It’s that grey area between intrinsic motivators (feelings of connection, competence and autonomy) and extrinsic motivators (the carrot at the end of the stick). Doing it thoughtfully and with the child’s understanding of the values behind the “bribe” makes it a collaboration that can work (not a knee jerk reaction) and teaches other great lessons too.
Thanks, Rachel! I’ve probably heard the term “mindful motivation” before, but never known quite what it was. It’s so useful to acknowledge that there IS a grey area between intrinsic motivators and extrinsic motivators, and to think about how to navigate that tricky space.
Yep, It’s the name of my signature Workshop. Could be the one you came to in San Francisco. I don’t think I’ve heard of it anywhere else in reference to parenting and motivating children. Let me know if you see it anywhere.
I like your phrase “a partnership model of parenting.” Most of the time we can use negotiation and compromise, but the end of the day we are the parents, and car seats are probably the clearest example of an area where we cannot compromise and just have to ask our kids to trust that they are a necessary evil. I love hearing all the creative approaches you tried–and very likely with another child any one of those might have worked.
My child figured out how to unbuckle herself at about two (and as she was a late talker, this was essentially preverbal). You can imagine how terrifying it was to be driving down the street only to realize your child was popping her head into the front seat. I dealt with it by pulling over immediately and saying, “when you are buckled back in your car seat, the car will go again.” And then I waited quietly. That first day, I did my best to engage with her as little as possible until she was ready to go. Subsequent days I made sure I had a book with me and I just read. If she tried to get my attention or climb all over me, I’d say, “I’m reading right now. When you are back in your carseat, we’ll continue driving and we can sing a song.”
It took around two weeks. During that time I asked my principal to be as flexible as possible about my arriving late but made it clear that if she wanted to get a half-day sub for my classes, I understood and was willing to use my accrued sub days until my daughter learned that the car didn’t go if she wasn’t buckled in. Thank go that very first day I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere so I had no external pressure to hurry the process. That set the pattern of my nonchalance so I never had to engage directly with my daughter.
Toddlers tend to thrive on routines and rituals. When every day or every time they have to do something before something else happens is a routine or ritual. By making their life more predictable, they can anticipate what’s coming and what’s expected, and because of anticipation, opposition is minimized. Examples: wash hands before you eat, brush teeth before bed, take a bath before story time, dinner before desert, clean toys up before going to the park.
It helps children to have something to look forward to. Parents can use a logical sequence of events, holding something pleasant for last, to hold back something to look forward to, and increase cooperation. I wouldn’t call this bribing. Sometimes toddlers get so stuck in opposition mode that they can’t even think about the fun things that are to come next. So you can create a special ritual to offer for those moments, and if it’s something that you would give to the child anyway, I don’t think it necessarily adds up to a bribe, just something to look forward to when something not so fun is required. It is a powerful tool, and clever sequencing of routines.
A classic bribe, in my mind is more like giving the child something in order for them to do something, usually right now, for which they’re unwilling, something not in their routine, and often mentally unprepared to do, with a promise of something you would normally not give to your child, like a humongous chocolate bunny, a bag of MnM’s. I think saving the daily dose of vitamin gummy’s for this difficult moment was perfectly clever. To me it falls in the category of logical sequences of events, a routine or ritual created to help combat opposition, something I call “First this that that.” Something toddlers tend to accept.
We parents often feel super helpless so we tend to try to compensate in a big way, but many toddlers will comply with something more simple eg if you ask them what song they might want you to sing while buckling then in.
And the last thing that might be helpful in reducing reactance and increase cooperation, is to talk about th expectation at times when it’s not a hot topic, eg at dinner time or play time. Keeping the expectation clear and alive when it’s not happening, will, over time, help compliance when the moments arrive.
And some respect for Anya to deal with the backlash after the comment in such a mature, measured and polite manner!