Hollow Threats as Discipline

QUESTION

Dear Mr. Dad,
My wife and I have a 3-year-old who's quite a handful. The other day in a crowded department store he was running around and my wife got so frustrated that she said, "if you don't come over here right now, we'll leave you right here."

We usually agree on discipline issues but I think it's not a good idea to make threats we don't intend to carry out. But my wife says it's just something to attract his attention. Who's right

ANSWER

You are.

Kids are constantly testing boundaries and they need the adults around them not only to set but to enforce limits for their behavior. It gives them a feeling of security and safety. It also lets them know that you mean business and, in most cases, it will eventually have the desired effect.

But making threats you don't intend to follow through on right away undermines all your efforts. It may, as your wife says, attract attention, but it won't be for long. Almost every child will see your inconsistency and empty threats as a license to gamble that you're not serious.

After all, how many "last warnings," have you given? Your child knows you're not really going to leave him in a crowded store, just like he knows that you won't take away his desert for a year or that a tree won't grow in his stomach if he swallows a pit.

If you and your wife really want your child to start paying more attention to you, you need to give clear, concise, consistent messages followed up -- immediately -- by logical consequences. For example, if your child is drawing on the walls with crayons, you take away the crayons for a week. In other words, the consequence should have something to do with the behavior you're trying to stop.
-- "Mr. Dad"

Armin Brott

A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is the bestselling author of The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips and Advice for Dads-To-Be, The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, Fathering Your Toddler, The Military Father: A Hands-on Guide for Deployed Dads, and four other books on fatherhood. He has written on parenting, fatherhood, and health for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and dozens of other periodicals. He also hosts "Positive Parenting," which airs on a dozen stations in the US and worldwide on the American Forces Network. Armin lives with his family in Oakland, California. You may visit his website at mrdad.com to learn more.