Four Things to Avoid When Working with Preschoolers

You can motivate young children to do what you want using a number of different tools and strategies. Here are four that you’ll want to avoid because of the dangers associated with them.

Reverse Psychology

Reverse psychology coaxes a child to do the opposite of what you’re actually saying. You tell a child to do what you don’t want him to do, in order to motivate him to do what you want instead. For example, Dad, wanting his son to eat the green beans, says playfully, “I’ll be right back. Don’t eat those green beans while I’m gone.” When he returns, and his son has taken a bite, he reacts with shock and playfully says, “You ate those green beans. Don’t eat any more. I’ll be right back.” Upon returning he sees that his son has taken another bite.

Reverse psychology works because it appeals to a child’s desire for play and sometimes appeals to the desire to do the opposite of what the parent has asked. Although it may seem cute and harmless, it’s a dangerous tool because it encourages children to oppose your words. Encouraging kids to disobey, even in play, builds unhelpful patterns and can have negative results over time.


Another tool that may work, but that you’ll want to avoid, is bribes. “If you’re quiet in the museum I’ll give you some gum,” or “If you clean up your toys I’ll give you a piece of candy,” are simple attempts to motivate kids—and they work. The problem is that bribes appeal to a child’s selfishness and actually encourage children to think about “What’s in it for me?” Getting kids to change behavior to gain a reward often misses the heart. Remember that your goal for your child is to develop an internal responsiveness to authority. We want children to do what’s right because it’s right, not just to gain a reward. See how to build cooperation in your kids.

Instead, teach children about self-control, to be quiet in the museum. Train children to be responsible to clean up after they play. They don’t need, or shouldn’t need a reward in order to do what’ right. In this way you’ll be advancing the character they’ll need in other areas as well.


A third technique you’ll want to avoid is motivating your child with threats. This strategy appeals to a child’s fears by stating exaggerated consequences. “If you don’t come now, I’m going to leave you here,” or “If you don’t clean up those toys, I’m going to throw them all away.” Replace bribes and threats with firmness. Many children lack the internal character to do what’s right. Working hard to teach children what’s appropriate can be challenging at times but parenting shortcuts rarely build positive character.


In a similar way, yelling is counterproductive. Yes, it too works in the short run. If you’re trying to get your kids in the car, raising your volume level will do the job. Or if they’re getting wild, you can yell at them to settle down. But yelling isn’t necessary, firmness is. The problem is that yelling takes a toll on the relationship, building distance between parent and child.

Children who live with yelling hear messages in the tone of voice that says they are inadequate, unloved, and incompetent. Some parents use yelling to try to teach respect. Their underlying idea is that children will translate the fear or the intensity into some kind of respect for authority. Respect is a good thing to teach children but yelling and anger aren’t good vehicles to bring it about.

In fact, yelling won’t work for long. Kids actually develop disrespect for a yelling parent. It may seem to work in the short run, but yelling damages relationships over time.
 Again, firmness is the key and balancing firmness with relationship. Teach children how to respond to your words without you having to raise your voice. You do this by following through on your instructions.

Most parents need to develop a way to communicate firmness without some form of manipulation attached to it. Often that involves a clear and authoritative voice, moving close to the child, or actually physically redirecting the child to indicate that resistance isn’t an option. Although the child may react emotionally, that doesn’t mean that you have to be drawn into the intensity. You’re simply showing your child what you expect and what self-control and responsiveness look like in practical terms. Children learn that you mean business when you act upon your words, and yelling doesn’t have to be part of the equation.

Instead Focus on Training

Reverse psychology, bribes, threats, and yelling are all shortcuts. When parents don’t have good strategies they sometimes resort to less-than-helpful tools and end up paying a significant price later on. Instead, look at life as a classroom, you’re the teacher or coach, and responsiveness to authority and self-control are the curriculum. You’ll want to help your children practice doing what’s right. Parenting is hard work but the pressure you put on your child helps develop character in strategic ways. Hebrews 12:5-7 says it this way, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline.”

If you view discipline as training in stead of punishment, then you’ll think more strategically about your parenting. Some parents take shortcuts with their kids when they are young, only to find out a few years later that they’ve done some significant damage to the training process.

When you think discipline, look for ways to reach your child’s heart. See our helpful Parenting is Heart Work curriculum. Teaching character and maturity take work but the effort you exert is strategic. Choose your approaches wisely in these early years and you’ll build significant patterns that will last a lifetime. Look at our practical age specific guidance in the Shift Series, beginning with The Baby Adventure and then Toddlers on the Move and Preschool Explorers. Each book gives tips and strategies specifically for that age child.

  • Jerilyn Carrier
    Posted at 08:38h, 11 October Reply


  • B.J. Meurer
    Posted at 06:47h, 15 July Reply

    I love how you broke down these 4 issues. They are “go to” strategies used by parents all the time but they produce the wrong results in the end. When parents I’m working with first hear about using a heart-based approach, they often ask, “That sounds like a lot of work and time.” I often tell them that as parents you are going to put in work and time. You are just choosing when. Using yellings, bribes, etc. may save time now but will take lots of time and work to undo later. A heart-based approach to parenting takes time and work now, but you save time and work in the future. It’s also aligned with how God wants us to raise kids, and so it also becomes an issue of obedience and trust for us parents with Jesus. Thanks for another great blog post.

  • scott turansky
    Posted at 08:33h, 15 July Reply

    Thank you BJ for your comment. I appreciate you as a coach in the Biblical Parenting Coaching Program.

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