A new habit has sunken in lately and found a foothold in my kindergartner’s tiny arsenal of comebacks: whenever something isn’t going her way, she lays out a quick threat.
For instance, recently she was indignant about not being allowed to play outside after dark. She stomped and negotiated, none too successfully. When she finally understood that I wasn’t going to back down from my decision, she mastered a ferocious scowl before issuing her thoughts.
“Fine. I’m never going to talk to you, EVER again.” Completely untenable as a threat, and immediately disproven. “And I WON’T let you play with ANY of my toys.” She marched away, full of importance and anger.
Mostly, we just address the rudeness and let her discover that threats aren’t getting her anywhere. But the daily spout of angry warnings are wearing on our patience.
I’ve wondered where this streak of threatening words have come from, and vowed to find a way to remove the warnings from her repertoire. Certainly they point to larger issues: control and entitlement among other things.
But the real eye-opener came when I heard her habit coming from my own mouth. She’d decided not to pick up after herself, so I looked her straight in the eye and said, “If you don’t pick up your things when you’re done with them, I’m going to take them ALL out to the trash.”
I felt confident that my own ultimatum would be swiftly followed. Surely she wouldn’t make me follow through on my threat – the consequences were too high. She wouldn’t take that chance.
Except, she did. Further refusals forced me to either follow through or back down.
You can probably guess what I did. My ultimatum was worthless because I wasn’t actually willing to act on it. Instead, I backtracked and came up with a consequence I could live with. Something much less frightening, but simpler to uphold. Either she cleaned up without delay, or she would help me with a further list of chores. It was her choice.
Seeing her threats played out in my own voice had made me pause. It seemed very likely that I myself was helping her grow into this habit of demands and threats.
When parents let irritation override logic, it can be tempting to force compliance through threats. But threats are tricky to use because of their inherent requirements upon the parent: they force us to come up with consecutively higher consequences, not all of which we’re actually willing to implement. And if our kids understand that we don’t mean what we say, we become trivial. Not only that, but the habit of using threats – fear – as a motivator for our kids will put us at odds with them in every instance of disagreement. Instead of finding ways to let natural consequences rule, we get caught up in contriving new and better punishments. And punishments sow resentment, distrust, and disconnect.
Since discovering my own tendency to use insupportable threats, I’m trying to learn new ways of thinking about obedience. To let it be about choices and natural consequences rather than demands and threatening penalties.
I don’t want the relationship between my kids and me to be one of constant upstaging – who can require the most from the other – but one of trust and respect and guidance.
And if I REALLY want my daughter to stop using threats when things don’t go her way, teaching by example is a good place to start.