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.

How to Teach Your Child to Live a Disciplined Life

By Shefali Tsabary, PhD

It’s been said that the only things we really learn are the things we learn for ourselves. That’s because only when we learn it for ourselves does it become intrinsic to us. We just naturally do it, without having to be coaxed or disciplined. The key to raising a self-disciplined child is for them to learn for themselves—a process we undercut when we impose the lesson on them.

As a clinical psychologist working with families, I’ve found that children learn best from consequences, whereas punishment generates resentment. A child who is punished may fall in line, but their heart isn’t in it. They don’t learn to be self-disciplined—which is why so many of our kids have a traumatic time in their teens.
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You Forgot to Do Your Chores? Again? Really?

Dear Mr. Dad, My wife and I are extremely frustrated that we are always seem to be reminding our children, ages 10 and 14, to do their chores. They know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, but they’re constantly “forgetting”—even if it’s something they’ve done three times a week for the last six months. We’ve discussed this with some of our friends who have kids about the same age, and they all have the same problem. Is there some way to get kids to do their chores without having to nag them over and over?

A: Kids have been “forgetting” to do their chores since the beginning of time—and parents have been nagging just as long. I’m sure Ma and Pa Cro-Magnon got sick and tired of reminding their cubs to put their spears away or take the sabertooth out for a walk. No question, kids sometimes “forget” their chores as a way of getting out of doing them (an approach that’s often successful). But sometimes they really do forget—even after being reminded 174 times. Unfortunately, there’s no sure-fire cure for this kind of selective memory loss, but there are a few strategies that may help.
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Lies: I Really Want to Believe You, But….

Dear Mr. Dad, I have a real problem with my ten-year-old daughter: Just about everything she says is a lie. If she tells me she’s texting a girl friend from school, it’s probably a boy. If I ask whether she’s cleaned her room, she’ll look me straight in the eye and tell me Yes, even though I know (and she knows I know) that she didn’t lift a finger. If I were to ask her if grass is green, she’d probably tell me it isn’t. Why is she doing this and how can we get her to stop?

A: Telling lies is a part of human nature, and it starts very early in life. A study on lying done at Toronto University in Canada found that about 20% of two-year-olds lie, but by age four, 90% were doing it. And the lying doesn’t stop when we grow up. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that 60% of adults can’t make it through a simple 10-minute conversation without telling at least one lie (in fact, people in the study told an average of three lies in that 10-minute period).

Lying is a learned behavior. When we’re very young, we look at the adults in our lives as all-powerful and all-knowing. Trying out a lie—and getting away with it—shows us that people can’t read our minds. As we get older, we discover that lying can sometimes get us out of trouble and may even help us avoid getting punished. The more successful the lies, the more often they’ll be told.

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When Good Teens Go Bad

Our 18-year-old son just got arrested. He’s been in trouble with the law before and never did well in school. His mother and I know he’s responsible for his own actions, but we can’t help blaming ourselves. We feel like failures as parents. Where did we go wrong and what can we do for our son?

Parenting an adolescent isn’t a particularly easy thing to do even under the rosiest of circumstances. Having a healthy, well-adjusted, top-performing, polite, well-groomed, socially conscious teen would certainly make the process more enjoyable for everyone, but what if, despite all the wonderful things you’ve done for him, he turns out the very opposite?
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Different Discipline Styles

My wife and I discipline our children in very different ways. Oftentimes it leads to us arguing in front of the kids. What can we do to prevent this? As parents, how can we get on the same page with how to deal things that come up with our kids, good and bad? And how do we work this out so it’s not causing tension in our relationship?

When parents have different disciplining styles, there’s bound to be dissention and arguing. Tension’s a given anytime two or more people work on the same project but each take a different approach.
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