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.