In an unconscious moment, I resorted to bribing one of my daughters. “If you clean up, I’ll hang the dreamcatcher where you want it,” I said. Without turning her head, she looked at me sideways and casually drawled, “That sounds like something another person’s mother would say.”

Dreamcatcher by Ewen, August 2015
A perfect dreamcatcher of wood, bone, threads and feathers.

My motivation was all wrong in the first place. I was feeling pressured to clean up by a voice in my head who wanted to impress someone outside our family. As I was not feeling good about it, I was trying to pass the physical responsibility to someone else. Unconsciously, I located a weakness in my daughter’s world and sought to exploit it. Nothing about that self-analysis is good, and I’m thankful that I was saved from my own actions by my enlightened daughter.

It’s amazing and encouraging and terrifying when my children call me out on the unconscious impulses that still regularly slip past my tongue. I’m amazed that they inhabit a state of being where they can recognise a reaction and not take it personally. I’m encouraged that I must be parenting in a good way most of the time so that an anomaly is obvious. And I’m terrified to discover that I’m still regressing into unconscious parenting.

Our democratic societies have long recognised that bribery is wrong. Adults accept that bribery is not part of a healthy relationship. We do not put up with law-makers or leaders who accept or offer bribes. So why is it still perpetuated at the first level of interpersonal relationships — those we have with our children?

Bribing a child takes away their opportunity to develop intrinsic motivation. Instead — like rewards — it creates a potentially addictive scenario where children learn to behave according to external responses. I know that I don’t want my daughters to be dependent on others to validate their behaviour. Even if a couple casual bribes is not going to taint a child’s life, I’d rather err on the side of not bribing instead of one little bribe won’t hurt!

A parenting offering bribes is also delivering the message that the child must be motivated to be good because they’re not inherently good on their own (hello, Christianity). I’d prefer my children to find their own self-motivation for positive behaviour — I can only do this through modelling it, actively witnessing their actions and encouraging every growth as it happens.

Any attempt at manipulating a child’s behaviour is also delivering the message that the desired behaviour must be unpleasant enough on its own. Is tidying up unpleasant? Sometimes I think so, and sometimes I enjoy it. I’d like my children to tidy up when they’re happy to do so. It’s much nicer to live with a pleasant attitude in mess than with turmoil in a spotless space. If I’m determined to inhabit that spotless space while keeping my family peaceful, I’m the only one responsible to bring that into being through consistently and happily tidying up.

Conscious parenting requires maintaining a generous frame of mind towards our children. We accept that they will have seasons of growth, hibernation and regression. We allow that they won’t always want to behave as we would like them to, as we have been taught and pressured. We offer them the freedom of individuality and accept that their values and priorities and motivations will be different to our own.

I’ve discovered that communicating my vulnerabilities to my children gives them the opportunity to respond — in love or in indifference. My critical part is to not take their actions personally.

The best conscious alternative to my recent bribery attempt would be to expose my thoughts so my daughter could see that 1) I felt vulnerable and wanted to impress an outsider, 2) I thought a cleaner space would do that, 3) I didn’t actually want to do the actual cleaning up, and 4) it’s clear that I can identify numerous things that my children would like me to do and I’m still possibly withholding some of them for future attempts at manipulation.

After talking it all through — apologising, giving her the word “bribery” as an identification for that kind of behaviour, clarifying that it’s not a healthy way of relating at any level and exposing my own emotional baggage — I rephrased my request. “I’d like you to clean up. And I know you want me to hang the dreamcatcher for you. Let me know when you want it done.”

There, that’s clear. She knows what I want, and she is also completely free to choose to respond — or not. I have offered to give her what she wants, and at the same time my actions are not dependent on hers. Her motivation to respond to me will be built on the foundations of our relationship prior to this moment, because really, children want to please their parents, as we all seek to please those we love.

Now that I’m not making my service conditional, my attitude has completely changed. I no longer feel the unconscious weight of trying to impress someone else, and I’m also possibly feeling motivated to clean up her mess. Or not. I’m free too. :)