Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.
Think through your threats — Good Parenting
Dear Dr. Debbie,
I often hear myself threatening consequences to my children (like taking away a play date) that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t carry out. What’s the best way to get them to do what I want?
Don’t miss last week’s column Elf on the Shelf becomes stressful — Good Parenting
The most effective threat is one that has been thought through. Are you willing and able to carry it out? To answer this question, you must think about whether the threat is reasonable for the child’s age, his health and safety, the time and other costs involved, and the affect this will have on other people (including yourself). Any threat you are ready to make good on is a good one. An empty threat, on the other hand, is often made under duress without much thought at all.
Here are some parental threats I have heard that should lead a child to conclude, sooner or later, that it’s not important to pay attention to what his parent is saying:
“Come with me now or I’ll leave you in this store.” Most shopkeepers would decline the offer. Better to help your child look forward to where you’re taking him next. Even a car ride can be anticipated positively if there’s a toy or song awaiting him there.
“Come with me now or I’ll leave you home by yourself.” By Maryland Law, this only applies to ages 8 and up – with consideration for the child’s maturity level. As above, better to help your child see the purpose, from his point of view, in coming along.
“Eat this now or you’ll have no more food the rest of the day.” This only makes sense if it’s within two hours of bedtime. Better to avoid food battles by offering well-timed nutritious choices in her meals and snacks throughout the day. Young appetites can fluctuate from day to day depending on growth, illness, and activity level.
“Eat this now or it’ll be waiting for you at your next meal.” As above, try to keep stress out of eating. Better to just pack up leftovers if there’s a chance his appetite will be stronger later. Tastes can change, too, so what was appealing one day may not appeal to him the next.
“Clean these toys up now or I’ll throw them away.” Who gave him these toys? Uncle Roger might think his gift wasn’t appreciated. Better to periodically cull through the shelves and toy box of a preschooler to reduce the number objects that need to be organized at the end of play time. Teach an older child to that he can sell excess toys at a yard sale or make a charity donation.
“Clean this mess up or you’re not going anywhere until you do.” This threat could keep you both stuck at home indefinitely. Messes happen. Better to use the opportunity to teach your child how to clean.
Used sparingly, a threat shows a child the connection between his behavior and its consequences. It is simply stated, reasonable considering the child’s age and abilities, and related to the situation. For example, a 2-year-old might be told, “You need your boots on if you want to play outside” so long as you’re content to have him play indoors or out. Plan to take him outside when the ground is drier. A 3-year-old can deal with, “Can you use the markers more gently or switch to crayons for making dots? I can put the markers away for now.” Then calmly do it if necessary. By age 4, he should be ready for, “We need to get the play room ready for your play date. If you’re too tired, I can call Erin’s mom to reschedule.” This is only if you know that Erin’s mom wasn’t counting on some child-free time today.
If you think it through, a threat can be an effective guidance tool.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com