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.

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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Lying, Cheating, and Stealing

In recent weeks, my six-year-old has suddenly become completely untrustworthy, lying, cheating, and stealing whenever she gets a chance. Yesterday we came home from the grocery store and I found that she had stolen some candy! I’m getting worried, not to mention the fact that I’m feeling like a bad parent. What can I do to nip this in the bud?

The first thing to do is relax. Child development experts agree that before age three, kids have no clear understanding that these behaviors are wrong. Between three and six, children develop an understanding that lying, cheating, and stealing are wrong and they begin some innocent exploration of limits, lying about little things, like whether they’ve washed their hands or gone to the bathroom.
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Helping teens overcome self-injury

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m really worried about my daughter. She’s a sophomore in high school and until the beginning of this year she was a happy, cheerful girl. Recently, though, she’s been losing a lot of weight and is always wearing big long sleeve shirts. She won’t show her mother or me her arms or her body. She’s also very secretive and spends a lot of time alone in her room. My wife and I are terrified that our daughter is cutting herself, and we’re both really scared for her safety. What can we do?

A: Okay, the very first thing you need to do is get a health professional involved. Unexplained weight loss, sudden changes in behavior, unexplained major mood changes and weight loss are all major red flags. Keep a detailed record of what you see your daughter eating over the course of a week, as well as any behavior that concerns you. Then, take your notes to your family doctor and get his or her advice.

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