Sunday, February 19, 2012

Read This Right Now, or I'll Never Talk to You Again

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. 


  1. I read it! Please talk to me again!

  2. I'll always talk to you, Whit -- especially since you read my drivel :)

  3. I've had the same worry before, but I think (maybe) it's just a normal stage of development. I mean, I remember hurling the same threats when I was in elementary school...and sometimes the way we issue consequences (even ones we're going to follow through with!) sounds like a threat, you know? ("Penelope, if you don't get out of the street right now you're going to lose your outside privilege and have to go upstairs with daddy.") Sometimes basic cause and effect sounds like a threat, too ("if you don't brush your teeth you're going to get cavities") and it's tricky to tease out the differences.

    This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately because it's happening in my house, too, and I hate hearing myself say "If you don't..." and then thinking I sound like the kids.

    Do you really think it's a problem though? Or about not following through with consequences? You're such a good mama; I respect your opinion!

    The kids make me laugh sometimes though, because it's like the last gasp at a temper tantrum. They take it to such extremes: "If you don't _______ I'm never going to play with you EVER AGAIN, and I'm not going to play with daddy or Grandma Janie or Grandpa Dan OR UNCLE BRIAN again either!!!" (How could you help but smile?)

    Sorry for the endless comment! This is apparently a conversation I've been wanting to have!

  4. That's exactly what happens here, too! And half the time, Mia's issuing threats that directly hinder her own happiness: "Fine -- if I can't have that candy, I'll NEVER EAT CANDY AGAIN!!"

    And I'm left giggling :)

    Really, I'm mostly hoping that I'll find a way to actually use consequences wisely, instead of just yelling some random threat which may or may not be ever undertaken. I want to either follow through with a consequence or never have given it in the first place. And I DO hope this is just a part of 6-year-old growing pains. Hopefully I'll have mastered some sustainable plan by the time my baby is this age!

  5. I'll start by saying that my "kids" are 24 and 22...and I had one who kept all her rants on the inside and one who expressed everything he ever thought or felt. I think you make two great points. One about naturaly consequences and the other about example. It's so very easy to forget to listen to/examine ourslves as parents - you've done, in my opinion, the hardest and best thing here by starting with yourself, keeping it real and making personal adjustments. I also think it's both painful and very necessary to allow life's natural consequences into their lives. And that gets harder and harder the older they are. But it's so essential to their growth and their future ability to have any kind of self control/self monitoring.

    I grew up in an environment where one only expressed oneself politely. And the verb had to agree with the subject. And you could never start a sentence with and....if you get my drift. So, our house was (is) one where we were all free to express ourselves...good, bad, ugly. We never took overly dramatic language too seriously - my husband doesn't have a dramatic bone in his body...just let it run it's course. And, as you've said, never tried to upstage it or react to it. Sorry for the long response, but I'm pretty passionate about parenting, and I love reading words like yours! (the title totally hooked me, too!!)


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?