“Oh boy! I can’t wait to spank your bottom and lock you in the garage! Hooray!”

I know. You’re thinking, “What an awful thing to say to a child!!”

I can explain.

For the last month or so, it has been my three year old’s sincerest desire to not buckle his seatbelt. Ever. Oh, he’s old enough to fasten his five point harness all by his onesie. He’s also old enough to hide behind the seats, dive into the very back of the minivan and maintain stealth-like silence while I call for him.

As you can imagine, we get in and out of the car at least a dozen times a day–running errands, picking up and dropping off his siblings at lessons, etc…So this whole not buckling up thing was becoming a bit of a tiresome hot spot of contention despite all my barking and blatant threats. Those threats went something like this:

“I really don’t want to, but I will spank your bottom if I have to!”

“One! Two! Don’t make me say three!”

“This is your last chance!”

See the problem? He could sense my inner conflict. You see, I struggle between the need to be a tough Alpha Dog vs. not wanting to harm my darling little puppy dog of a boy. And being the clever dog he is, he exploits it! Time and time again, he’d giggle in the face of my seat belt warnings no matter the volume and menacing timbre of my voice. Or worse, he’d shed tears and tears of sorrow, but not change his behavior one bit. (And I had followed through with my threats a number of times, but I guess he figured he still had a decent chance of coming out of the ordeal unscathed and he liked his odds too much to reform.)

I needed a new strategy. I was playing both prosecution and defendant. Wanting justice while giving plenty of leniency. I lacked psychological leverage.

So one morning while we were running late getting someone off to practice and he was hiding in the very back of the van, refusing to get into his proper seat, I blurted out on a whim, “Hot dog! If Dean isn’t in his car seat all ready and buckled, I get to punish him! Yippee! I’ll get to lock him in the garage! Spank his bottom! Take away his dessert! Wahoo! I can’t wait!” Then I let a maniacal chuckle escape my lips and I made sure he caught a quick glimpse of the weird glint in my eye.

I had never seen a child buckle up so fast. Tears were streaming down his horrified expression, but it worked and I hadn’t laid a finger on him. I hadn’t counted to five. I didn’t even raise my voice. He acted as though I had just opened a metal briefcase on a cart and snapped on a pair of latex gloves in preparation for his vivisection, he was so scared.

The mere understanding that his own mother would derive a great deal of satisfaction upon seeing him brought to justice, good and punished, was enough for him to act. She was no longer conflicted, no, but had in fact, lost it!

Now he gets buckled up immediately, every time! All I have to do as we head out through the garage is ask him, “Do I get to punish you?” with a crazed smile and he hustles to it. Then I swivel around from the driver’s seat and give a convincing, “What? You’re buckled already?? Rats!! Foiled again! Now I don’t get to punish you!!” with my fists dramatically clenched in fury.

Then he gives a proud but nervous laugh–he’s escaped the clutches of the cat once again! Then I lower my gaze and whisper, “You may have won today, Dean…But next time…next time…” Then he grasps the breastplate portion of his plastic harness and shakes his head with a “Noooooo!!” about an octave too high, but there’s a smile behind it.

This isn’t advice you’ll hear from Dr. Sears or read on baby center.com–don’t get mad, rather feign madness–but it works.

At least with three year olds and seat belts.

Margaret Anderson is a BYU grad, returned missionary, free-lance writer, wife and the mother of five small children. Read more at www.jamsandpickles.wordpress.com