“If you don’t…, I’m going to…” Does Threatening Your Kids Really Work?

Yup. It sure does, if threats are applied judiciously, realistically, and consistently.

Oh, I know, I know, it’s all about positive reinforcement and encouraging good behavior rather than punishing bad. But when your child is behaving in an unacceptable way, is it better to provide a negative inducement to stop – “If you don’t stop doing that, I’m not going to let you watch your movie” – or a positive one – “If you stop doing that, I’ll give you twenty bucks”?

First of all, threats have to be realistic and reasonably minor in the beginning. You first threaten amputation of the little finger, then move steadily and inexorably on until you reach the thumb. Jesus, don’t start with the whole hand, or you don’t have anywhere to go. Start small.

Let’s say your three year-old won’t stop getting out of bed and leaving his room after you’ve put him down at night. Hey, you’re a nice guy, for the first two times you simply put him back in bed and ask him politely to stay there. Five minutes later he’s out of bed. This time you tell him if he gets up again, you’ll take away something he’s sleeping with – a car, a bear, whatever. He gets up again. What do you do? You follow through on your threat. And double down. Up the ante. Perform some other gambling analogy. This time you tell him he’s not going to be able to play with his train set the next day. Oh man, he loves that train set. You can see the calculation going on in his little head. But tomorrow is a long way away, and getting up is right now…so he does. If he so much touches his train set the next day, you’ve lost. And he’s learned that you don’t really mean it.

Let’s face it, kids are pretty simple creatures. It’s not a criticism – their little brains lack the hardware and experience to follow complex arguments and reasoning. But make no mistake, they learn very early on when, where, and how they can exploit loopholes, push the boundaries. Consistency is vital, and by consistency I mean that you follow through, every time without exception, on your threat.  I’ll give you two examples.

When our oldest son was around two, my wife wanted him to try a new food – I don’t even recall what it was. He refused, and much cajoling ensued, but his lips remained resolutely shut. Then my wife gave the ultimatum. “You’re not coming out of your chair until you eat this little piece.”

I groaned inwardly. Because you never groan outwardly, because your kids understand that you don’t agree, that you’re on their side. And here let me digress. Although I knew that my wife’s line in the sand would be the beginning of a protracted battle, one perhaps not worth fighting, I was behind her all the way. I believe that when it comes to your kids, never, ever, undermine your spouse’s authority. And never court favor by leaning in close and saying with conspiratorial bonhomie, “Well, I’d let you, but you know your mom….” It’s weasely, your wife will be pissed at you (as she should be, and as you would be were the situation reversed), and it undermines not only her credibility but your own.

So, back to my story. Two and half hours. That’s how long our son sat in his chair, refusing to try that microgram of whatever the hell it was. He cried, he wailed, he even slept, then woke and cried and wailed some more. But in the end he swallowed both his pride and the morsel. Needless to say, the nutritional value contained in that bite of food made no difference to his health and wellbeing. But the ultimatum had been made, and it had to be followed through. Was he more amenable the next time he was asked to try something new? Somewhat. But it’s a process.

My other example is from my brother’s experience. He, his wife, and their seven year-old daughter were planning to spend the night at a friend’s house. Their daughter was misbehaving, and had been reprimanded. The behavior continued, and the dreaded First Conditional was brought to bear: “If you don’t stop that, we’re going to go home.” She didn’t stop, so they began to pack it up. Their friends were flabbergasted. Why are you leaving? they cried. Just because you said you would doesn’t mean you have to. My brother’s daughter developed into a thoughtful, polite, and well-behaved child. His friends’ three kids turned out to be out-of-control punks while their parents threw their hands in the air and wailed, Why are they like this?

The fact is, threats can be highly effective if used:

Judiciously – Don’t be hanging threats over your kids all the time. It isn’t nice, and it’s counterproductive. But a promise of unpleasant consequences for unwanted behavior blended with positive reinforcement of good behavior – “Hey, thanks for cleaning up your Legos, here’s a cookie” – makes a tasty cocktail.

Realistically – “If you don’t get off your laptop right now and do your homework I’m going to throw it out the goddamn window.” In heated moments of exasperation it’s easy to let comments like this slip, but little Jimmy knows you’re not going to huck his $1000 computer out onto the driveway, so it’s not really much of a threat. How about, “If you don’t get off our laptop right now and do your homework, I’m going to take it away for 24 hours.”? He knows that you would do that, and since older kids start to twitch like a junkie in rehab if they don’t have access to their social network, chances are the homework’s going to get done.

Consistency – Alas, little Jimmy only knows that you’d really deprive him of his computer if you’ve unfailingly put him through the same or similar torments before. Don’t let it slide. Follow through. You’ll be doing yourself, your spouse, his teachers, and ultimately little Jimmy a huge favor.

7 thoughts on ““If you don’t…, I’m going to…” Does Threatening Your Kids Really Work?

  1. Pingback: Upscale Dining with Kids: Delicious or Disastrous? | Field Notes From Fatherhood

  2. excellent stuff, Matt! the $1000-worth threat – that’s me 🙂 – been there, done that…learned the lesson hard way. looking forward to reading some more…


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