Some parents bribe their kids when faced with an avalanche of tantrums and whining. There are entire discussion threads devoted to the most effective toddler bribes.
Other parents resort to scare tactics. A friend of mine once warned her daughter not to scream in grocery stores because monsters would hear her. Many people, especially those who place honesty at the top of our ethics pyramid, would consider such tactics underhanded.
You should NEVER lie to a child, they would say.
And I roughly agree with them, though separating lies from creative fantasy can be a gray area. The Puritans thought novels and theater were straight from the Devil’s playbook, for example, since they involved people spinning yarns that weren’t true or pretending to be people that they weren’t… a SIN.
Well… thus far, I’ve tried to wield honesty as a weapon when appropriate, but enforcing social norms by definition involves some amount of lying.
My two-year-old daughter Bridget really doesn’t want to sit at the table to eat her food, preferring to run around eating it as she plays or explores, which means dropping food all over countless crevices in the house.
I tell her that we can only eat food at the table, which is technically a lie, because people can definitely eat food without sitting down at a table. She’s able to bust that myth every time she eats standing up, so why take me seriously?
I supervise her whenever I’m around, but human beings with opposable thumbs are surprisingly tricky. She uses step stools to dig into kitchen cabinets in the middle of the night, leaving unholy crumb trails all over the house… occasionally, even decaying bananas or apples under her bed which aren’t found until their funky stench prompts investigation.
Morning after morning, I wake up to find graham cracker bits all over the carpet, tables, and furniture. Demanding that Bridget clean them up kicks off predictable routines involving defiance, time-outs, and repeated lectures.
Even her four-year-old sister Brontë is getting frustrated, and she doesn’t struggle nearly as much as I do with ethical training methods. Four-year-old kids are a paradoxical mixture of wild fantasy and pragmatism, as evidenced by the following recent exchange:
Me (upon finding Graham cracker ground into the carpet again): Bridget, don’t throw food on the floor! It STINKS and we’ll get ants all over the house!
Brontë: YEAH. Ants and WOLVES!
Bridget looks alarmed.
Brontë: Right, mom? Ants and wolves will come?
Me: It’s possible.
Bridget trots over to the garbage can and chucks in a handful of cracker.
By God, it worked.
Bridget stopped dumping sugary crumbs once she learned that violent wolves might tear into our sanctuary after smelling them.
Apparently, my four-year-old had already thought of bringing monster threats to the table… and I just let them slide.