Hollow Threats: Do You Really Mean That? Are You Sure?

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have a 4-year-old daughter who always seems to be in motion, and she’s not terribly good at following directions. A few weeks ago we were out shopping at the mall and she was running around all over the place. She wasn’t really causing too much trouble, but it was pretty crowded and my wife was getting frustrated. Finally, she grabbed her, and said, “If you don’t stop that running around, we’re going to go home and leave you right here.” I think it’s a bad idea to make threats that you have no intention of carrying out. She says that she was just trying to get her attention. I hate to put you in the middle, but which of us is right?

A: You are. You’d be amazed at how often I get this question and how important it is.

One of the major jobs of childhood is to test boundaries. Think of your child as a research scientist who turns every rule into a hypothesis. “Hmm,” she says. “The laws of physics (AKA mom and dad) say that I’m not allowed to do that, but I wonder what would happen if I did?” The only way for any self-respecting scientist can test the hypothesis is to break the rule and see what happens.

If, like the laws of physics, the threatened consequences actually materialize, the boundaries you set will make her feel safe. Plus, she’ll feel secure knowing that when you give her a warning or any kind of “if… then…,” she’d better listen up. Of course, she’ll still test your limits, as any good researcher would do; that’s her job. (But be careful: too many boundaries may make her feel so trapped that the only way out is to test as many as possible.)

However, if you’re not consistent in enforcing the rules, your threats may be successful in the short run (e.g. she’ll stop running around at the store for a few minutes). But long term, she’ll learn that it’s okay to ignore you. How many times have you given a “last warning” and then followed it up with another “last warning” and maybe one or two more?

Eventually, your child may come to see your warnings as suggestions or invitations. Just think of all the completely crazy things we tell our kids. Stop shooting Nerf guns in the house because you’ll put someone’s eye out; eating too many carrots will turn your skin orange; swallowing cherry pits will make a tree grow in your stomach; if you do A, B, or C, you’ll fall down and break your neck; if you do D, E, or F, I’ll take away your dessert for the rest of your life; and so on.

Your daughter knows perfectly well that you’re not going to abandon her in the store, that a tree won’t really grow in her stomach, that you really won’t take away her dessert for any more than a day or two, and that pretty much nothing you say turns out to be true. The lack of consequences just makes whatever it is you’re trying to keep her from doing sound that much more attractive.

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 she’s 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.

Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle

George Hagen, author of Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle.
Topic:

Issues: Creating books for middle schoolers; riddles and puzzles, ravens, magic, mystery, family secrets, and redemption; childhood literary idols.

How (Not) to Be a Husband + Creating Books For Middle Schoolers

Tim Dowling, author of How to Be a Husband.
Topic:
Exactly what not to do in every situation.
Issues: Forty guiding principles of gross marital happiness; twelve labors of marriage; how to become a relevant, productive member of your own family and household; intimate, embarrassing, and very funny stories that will resonate and delight.



George Hagen, author of Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle.
Topic:

Issues: Creating books for middle schoolers; riddles and puzzles, ravens, magic, mystery, family secrets, and redemption; childhood literary idols.

Temperament — Hey, We Were Born That Way

Dear Mr. Dad: We have a two boys, ages 6 and 4. We’ve tried hard to raise them the same way, but they’re completely different. The older one is generally pretty calm and cheerful, but the younger one is wild, noisy, and impossible to discipline. How could two kids raised in the same house by the same parents be such polar opposites?

A: You may think you’ve raised your kids the same way in the same house, but you really haven’t. First of all, you and your spouse have changed—a lot. When your first child was born, the whole parenting thing was totally new. Like most new parents, you probably had no idea what you were doing and you were afraid of making mistakes. By the time baby number two arrived, you’d gained a lot of confidence and discovered that most of the things you’d worried about were trivial at best.

Second, as you well know, taking care of two kids is very different than taking care of one, so there’s no way in the world (barring cloning yourself) that your youngest could have gotten anywhere near as much of your undivided attention as his big brother did. Given all that, how could your children not be different?

But even if you had raised both children in identical circumstances, there’s a good chance that they’d still be very different.

About fifty years ago, researchers Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas found that every child has a unique collection of emotional and behavioral traits that make up his or her “temperament.” That temperament is noticeable almost from birth and continues throughout life. Here’s a brief overview.

  • Approach/Withdrawal: This is your child’s initial reaction to meeting new people, tasting new foods, or being in unfamiliar situations. Approaching children are extroverts and enjoy the new and different. Withdrawing children are shyer and take time to get used to new things.
  • Adaptability: This is how your child reacts to changes in routines. Fast-adapting children adapt easily, slow-adapting kids get upset if anything changes.
  • Intensity: This is essentially your child’s volume knob. Low-intensity children (like your oldest) are relaxed and even-tempered. High-intensity kids do everything—whether it’s shrieking with delight or having a tantrum—incredibly loudly.
  • Mood: Positive mood kids laugh and smile all the time. Negative mood kids tend to be pouty, even for no reason.
  • Activity level: Low-activity children can sit quietly for long periods of time and prefer low-energy games and activities. High-activity kids can’t sit still and prefer higher-energy activities.
  • Regularity: Predictable children get hungry, tired, wake up, and even use the bathroom at about the same time every day. Unpredictable babies are, well, unpredictable.
  • Sensitivity: Low-sensory-aware children often seem oblivious to bright lights, strong odors or flavors, textures, and even pain. High-sensory-aware children are easily overstimulated and have a tough time dealing with everything from temperature to noise.
  • Distractibility: Low-distractibility kids can focus intently and may not notice interruptions (or attempts to get them to stop what they’re doing). High-distractibility kids have shorter attention spans and an easier time moving from one activity to another.
  • Persistence: Persistent children can entertain themselves for hours and will spend lots of time working of projects or learning new things. Low-persistence children lose interest quickly, often claim to be bored, and take a little longer to finish anything, whether it’s homework or a Rubik’s Cube.

 

Bottom line: Temperament is what it is—there’s no “right” or “wrong.” Your children are the way they are mostly because they were born that way, and there’s very little you or your spouse could have done to change things.

Raising kids who are grounded, generous, and smart about money

Ron Lieber, author of The Opposite of Spoiled.
Topic:
Raising kids who are grounded, generous, and smart about money.
Issues: Why we need to talk about money; how to start the conversation; the allowance debate; the smartest ways for kids to spend; how to talk about giving; why kids should work; how much is enough?

Straight Talk on Parenting + The Opposite of Spoiled


Vicki Hoefle, author of The Straight Talk on Parenting.
Topic:
A no-nonsense approach to growing a grown-up.
Issues: Creating a blueprint of where you want to be; understanding that parenting is more about on-the job training and less about being perfect; bedtime bedlam, morning meltdowns; sibling squabbles; sass and backtalk; the trouble with tech.

Ron Lieber, author of The Opposite of Spoiled.
Topic:
Raising kids who are grounded, generous, and smart about money.
Issues: Why we need to talk about money; how to start the conversation; the allowance debate; the smartest ways for kids to spend; how to talk about giving; why kids should work; how much is enough?