A parent asked me recently what alternatives there are to rewards and
punishments. "I have found myself 'bargaining' with my 2-year-old to get him to do things, mostly
eat," she wrote. While she found consequences and rewards "effective," she wondered if there
are other ways to handle these situations.
When I hear parents - or parenting experts - say that consequences are effective, I often wonder what they
mean by "effective." In this context, I believe what we usually mean is that we get compliance from
children - they do what we tell them to do - at least for a while. Although we might feel some relief in the
moment, I seriously doubt that compliance meets our own - or our children's - long-term needs. Both the goal
(compliance) and the means (rewards and consequences) come at a price. They not only involve fear, guilt,
shame, or desire for reward, but they are also often accompanied by anger or resentment. And because rewards
and consequences are extrinsic motivations, we become dependent on them and lose touch with our intrinsic
motivation to meet our own and others' needs.1
I believe that human beings are more joyfully motivated by an intrinsic desire to meet our own and other
people's needs. This is a key premise of the Nonviolent Communication2
parenting practice I embrace. Instead of focusing on authority and discipline, NVC teaches that trusting
relationships are built through attentiveness to everyone's feelings and needs.3
In accordance with NVC philosophy, recurrent parenting challenges can be addressed by paying as much
attention as possible to everyone's long-term needs. This may take more time in the moment because it means
going beyond the present problem and remembering what matters to us most in the big picture. Yet it is time I
want to invest. I believe in the long run I will harvest deeper connection, trust, and harmony in my family -
and powerful life-skills for my child. I believe that these are the goals that most parents aspire to, and
that they are sweeter than mere compliance.
In practicing NVC in the conflict over eating with this parent's young son, for example, I would begin with
the premise that some needs of his are not being met. Even with a pre-verbal toddler or a child not used to
NVC language, we can still discover his needs.
Let's consider each one of NVC's three key approaches: giving empathy to the child; expressing the parent's
observations, feelings, needs and requests; and giving oneself empathy. Used individually or together, these
options can help a parent and child to connect and address both of their needs.
Empathy for the child
Empathy for another person opens the door to deeper understanding and connection. When a child son pushes
his food away or says "No" to the food, we should not try to change his actions. We can focus,
instead, on how he might be feeling and on the needs he is trying to meet. We can start by guessing: Is he
saying no to the food because he's trying to meet his need for pleasure - i.e., he doesn't like the food? Is
he distracted by other things and so wants to meet a need to focus on something more interesting to him? Is he
annoyed because he needs autonomy - to choose what and when to eat? Is he confused because he needs trust in
his ability to "hear his body" - perhaps he is simply not hungry?
Having connected mentally with our child's needs, we can asking him if any of these possibilities ring
true. For example: "Are you frustrated because you want food you enjoy more?" "Are you
distracted? You want to focus on your play?" "Are you annoyed because you want to choose when to
eat?" "Are you frustrated that we're asking you to eat when you aren't hungry?" We can simplify
the language - but keep in mind that most toddlers understand more than they can speak, and that by including
feelings and needs in your vocabulary, you are teaching your son emotional literacy. Even if your son doesn't
reply, you may notice that your tone of voice and body language have relaxed simply because you have connected
with his needs - and that a potential power struggle has been defused. Then we can go on to the next step -
determining if there are strategies that could meet both our needs.
In giving empathy, it's important that our goal not be to get our child to do what we want. It is a matter
of letting go our own agenda, without giving up on our underlying needs. Consider what, if anything, you'd be
willing to do differently to increase the likelihood of meeting your son's needs. Integrating our child's
needs into our strategies could include changing the daily menu, offering food somewhere in the house where
your son can eat as he plays, creating playful, colorful food together and eating it while you're crafting it,
and many more options. The strategy doesn't matter as much as being attuned to both your own and your child's
needs. By attending to your child's underlying needs you would also be attending to yours. There is ultimately
no conflict between your needs -you just have different strategies and priorities at that moment.
I take a "No" from my son as a reminder to make connection with him a priority. Sometimes this
means focusing on understanding his needs, but other times it means paying close attention to how I'm
expressing mine. I often discover that I have asked him to do something without talking about what needs of
mine I'm hoping to meet and how I'm feeling. I get locked into repeatedly demanding that he do what I want!
Yet my experience shows that people are more open to considering one another when they understand each other's
underlying feelings and needs.
When your child won't eat, you might say: "When I see you pushing the food on the table and not
putting it in your mouth, I'm worried because I'd like to help your body be strong and healthy. Would you be
willing to eat what's on your plate?" The trick here is that, since most human beings have a huge need
for autonomy - especially when we fear our need for autonomy won't be met - it's most likely that our child
will say no! This is precisely the reason that I wouldn't want to force him. I believe that the more
children hear demands, the less they want to do what we ask. The result is that we both miss the joy of
cooperation and mutual consideration. Therefore, what we do with the "no" is pivotal to building our
child's trust in our willingness to embrace both our needs and his. We may choose to empathize with our child,
or express our own feelings and needs again. This time we might say: "I feel frustrated because I need
more ease and cooperation around meal times," or "I feel confused and I'd like to understand what
you would like now."
Each expression in NVC ends with a request that usually begins, "Would you be willing to….?" By
asking for a reply, we can continue the flow of dialogue about a problem. Yet I find that often, parents
repeat the same request no matter what feelings and needs they express! That tells me that they are still very
intent on getting their child to do exactly what they want them to do. The child will sense that and object
more strenuously. So another helpful focus for dealing with "no" is to pay attention to the kinds of
requests we're making. Are we repeating the request to eat? Then likely our child hears this as a demand. See
if you can identify anything else that would also help meet your needs and ask for that. For example, you
might ask him if he'd be willing to tell you when he'd like to eat - he might say five minutes. Then
you set a timer, and in five minutes you've met his need for choice and he'll likely sit down to eat in good
Self-empathy in NVC means checking in with our own feelings and needs. This may seem odd at first, but I
have found it profoundly effective at increasing self-connection and peace of mind. Just taking a minute
before reacting can reduce anger and prevent a power struggle!
In the case of a child refusing to eat, self-empathy may sound something like this: "Wow, I'm feeling
so stressed out! I want to be more relaxed. Plus I'm worried because I need confidence that he's getting the
nutrition his body needs. And I'm so frustrated because I'd like cooperation around caring for his health. I'm
also troubled because I need to understand what's going on for him - I really have no idea!" Once we
inquire with our hearts about our needs, we often discover a multitude of needs and may feel overwhelmed. I
believe this is temporary and that our sense of self-connection and clarity about our needs increases with
time, making self-empathy a quick and satisfying process. At that point, we can experience relief from stress,
tension and anger - even without changing anything about our child's behavior! This in turn gives us greater
freedom to work with them to meet both our needs, rather than attempting to force a change.
Having gotten clearer about our needs, we can consider what we'd like to do. Each of our needs might be
fulfilled through a variety of different strategies. Could we empathize with our child to try to understand
what's going on for him? Could we express our feelings, needs and requests to him? Could we consult with our
child's physician about whether to worry about how much he's eating? Could we talk with our partner or friends
about it? Read a book about toddlers and eating? Give our child more choices about what to eat? Play together
with his food? Or perhaps something else? Strategies that come from understanding all our needs are more
likely to meet those needs.
Self-empathy is often crucial because it helps us release our insistence that our child do what we want.
Then, whether we choose to express our own feelings and needs or empathize with our child's, we are more
likely to contribute to connection. Furthermore, through self-empathy we offer ourselves the gift of
understanding and connection that we lack so sorely in our daily lives - a welcome, nurturing moment in which
we can express and meet our own needs.
Conflicts with children are challenging for parents for many complex reasons, ranging from our own
childhood experiences to the stresses of daily life. The level of challenge leads us to want to take quick
action to resolve the situation. Yet I believe parenting is not about quick fixes that get our children to do
what we want. I believe it is about working with our own and our children's needs and staying in touch with
the long-term view. We are in a life-long relationship, and by focusing on connection and on meeting
everyone's needs, we build mutual trust and nurture our collective ability to thrive as a family.