“I’m in my 40’s, and I’m still afraid of my old man.”
The comment came from a wiry, suntanned farmer sporting a fresh crew-cut. He was seated in the back row of a parenting seminar I was running. We were talking about discipline, and he was insisting that the ‘old-school’ parenting styles were far superior to the softer, gentler, kinder ways of working with our children that I was espousing.
He continued, “If my kids aren’t afraid of me, they’ll never do anything I tell ‘em.”
We discussed the issue and, eventually, the conversation moved on, but the comments stuck with me. Do we want our children to fear us? Is fear the best motivator, or is there something better?
Motivation Through Fear
It is undeniable. Fear is a strong motivator. And it is incredible just how effectively we can ‘motivate’ our children using fear.
“If you do that ever again, this is what I’ll do to you.”
“Do you want me to smack you?”
“Do that one more time and I’ll get your father.”
Even if we haven’t used lines like these, we have all witnessed them. And typically, children fall into line fast. No one wants a smacked bottom, a time-out, the loss of a cherished item or privilege, or some other punishment. So, parents feel as though the fear of punishment works. And it does.
But why does it work? And what does it actually do?
The Problem with Fear
Since people don’t like being hurt or punished, they are strongly motivated to avoid doing things that will lead to pain. Making our children afraid of us is a sure-fire way to dominate them and get what we want. But there are some issues with motivation through fear.
First, the quality of our relationships suffers. Trust is harmed. People avoid those they fear.
Second, we teach our children that power, fear, and domination is how they can get what they want, thus training them to dominate and bully others.
Third, we divorce our children from their emotions, demanding they keep a “stiff upper lip,” and desensitizing them to their own and others’ feelings, just as we are insensitive to theirs.
The fourth and final reason is most important.
The dad in my presentation said, “It’s the only way they’ll do what I tell them.” It is true that our children will do whatever we tell them when they fear us (so long as we are present or there is a chance they’ll get caught. Surveillance is key!) If our only objective is compliance, then fear is fine. But most parents have a deeper goal in mind for their children than mindless, strict obedience.
Fear is what we might call an “extrinsic motivator.” Our children are only doing the right thing because of what will happen to them if they don’t. This means that if we aren’t there to “catch them” doing the wrong thing, they have nothing to be afraid of and no reason to avoid doing that thing we don’t want them to do. Most children work out—very fast—how to manipulate a system: behave when the parent I fear is present, and do what I want when they’re not.
In simple terms, unwanted behavior is pushed underground, and kids become sneaky. We want our children to do the right thing for the right reason. And this is where fear fails.
Most parents want more from their children— and for them. We want them to do what’s right because they want to, and because they understand the reasons why. This is internal regulation. Compared to external regulation, internal regulation is associated with better school outcomes, improved social skills and relationships, enhanced moral development, and higher wellbeing.
What gets us to internal regulation? Kindness, respect, and understanding combined with clear limits worked out together where possible.
Researchers have demonstrated time and again that when we spend time building our relationships, our children trust us, and with trust comes incredible influence. It’s the kind of influence that lasts even when we aren’t there to watch our children. Our children are doing the right thing, not because they fear us, but because they love us and they trust us. No fear.
Dr. Justin Coulson is a parenting researcher, author, and speaker. He is the author of the new book, 21 Days to a Happier Family. Find him on Twitter @justincoulson. This post originally appeared on happyfamilies.com.au and has been reprinted with permission.