One of my pet peeves is a fake threat; a threat so outrageous that it’s clear to everyone within earshot that the parent doesn’t have the courage to follow-up. It’s clear to the child, too.
“If you don’t stop crying, we’re leaving the airport and we’re not going to Disneyland.”
“Do you want me to call grandma and tell her we’re not coming over to celebrate her birthday.”
“If you stay out past 10pm, you’re grounded for a year.”
“If you don’t get good grades, you’ll spend the whole summer at school.”
It’s one of the rules my wife and I agreed on before we started our family. We won’t threaten something to which we aren’t willing to commit.
Before I became a parent, a mother who was a coworker of mine once brought a plastic garbage bag filled with LEGO—about 15 pounds—in to work. She dropped it on my desk, saying that she had threatened her kids that if they didn’t clean it up she would give it all away. We’re talking about hundreds of dollars worth.
The kids hadn’t cleaned it up. She packed it up, brought it in to work and gave it to me.
She didn’t think twice about it. Stunned, I told her I would keep it for her while she calmed down. She told me she was calm; she was simply carrying through on her consequence. This mom was more proud of her parenting than pissed at the cost.
I didn’t open the bag and add the blocks to my own collection for years. Long after we both moved on in our careers, the bag still sat in the corner of my room as a stark reminder of one of the most powerful parenting skills; calm conviction.
I never asked her if she regretted making the threat, and I have since lost touch with her. I don’t know if her rambunctious young boys grew into decent young men. I like to think they did.
As witness to other parents before we had our child, my wife and I agreed that fake threats were wrong and lazy. As parents we’ve learned to choose consequences carefully, and not let the extreme emotions of the moment frazzle good judgement. We’ve learned to support each other and catch poor judgement before it takes root. We’ve also learned that even if the threat crosses to the silly side (and sometimes it does), we’ll need to support each other and accept it—a consequence for our own lapse.
A single fake threat undermines any future consequence. If kids know you’ll cave, they have the time, and the motivation, to make you squirm.