5 ways to avoid an empty threat


I was standing in a very long and very slow queue (during load shedding) at the pharmacy earlier this week. A very bored and frustrated five year old boy launched into one of those tantrums that make any parent want to disappear under the concrete floor, never to return. In the child’s defense, he had been in the queue for almost twenty minutes, with grumpy, impatient people standing still and silent, in front of him and behind him. I too wanted to tantrum. None of us wanted to be there.

Read more:The discipline issue

How South African parents discipline

At first the mother ignored him while he pulled at his mother’s arm, telling her he wanted to go home. This went on for all of ten minutes until his voice got louder and louder and eventually reached breaking-point. Being the unlucky person right behind them in the queue, I can tell you that this child’s scream hit parts of my eardrum that I do not wish to feel again.

“Mommy, I want to go NOW!!! RIGHT NOOOOOOOOOWWWWW!!!”

Thanks, Eskom. I blame you.

Jokes aside, myself and other victims of the evil beast that lay on the floor kicking and screaming, had to go on listening to the performance for another few minutes before the mother said, “If you scream again, I’m getting in the car and leaving you here.”

Unless the mother was willing to give her child up for adoption, I couldn’t understand how in her mind leaving her child there was a smart thing to do. I highly doubted that she’d really do that and I think the child knew it too.

There was silence for all of one minute before the tantrum resumed, however the person in front of them willingly offered to switch places with the badly-behaved duo, leaving the mother and child at the front of the queue. By this time, the child had calmed down and the peace and quiet that is load shedding was back.

The mother didn’t leave the child there like she had threatened to. Instead, she bought him an Energade from behind the counter before getting in the car to go home. Sigh.

Here are some helpful tips to help you avoid making empty threats and to avoid your child playing you.

Don't make unrealistic threats.

(Unless you really intend to stick to the consequences)

In general, threats don't work: we shouldn't be threatening our children.

Let's first accept that overly harsh punishments can cause your child to harbour resentment towards you. If you tell your child that you'll pull the car over and leave them on the side of the road if they don't stop kicking your chair, they're not going to believe you, because you would never do that...right? (I sincerely hope you'd never do that).

Grounding your child for a month seems extreme, and what will happen if they repeat the same behaviour to a further extent the next time? Will you ground them for two months, and then three and so on? You're bound to buckle at some point during the house-arrest and you'll then lose your credibility.

"Help me, help you, help me, help you"

When the offense, tantrum and general upset is over, talk to your child calmly about what they have done and why it warrants a consequence. If a child needs disciplining, they need teaching. Threats don't teach lessons, they only serve to intimidate and teach fear. Saying, "Because I say so and what I say goes", gives no real explanation. You can do better than that. Explain why you're reprimanding them and why, but make sure it's at the right moment.

Match the consequence with the behaviour

Connecting the punishment with the offense is more likely to prevent your child from making the same mistake again. If you confiscated a toy that they'd left lying around after asking them a number of times to pack it away,  they'll associate that same consequence for similar bad habits in the future, if you're consistent about it.

When I was au pairing, part of my job often involved taking the kids to the shops with me, which is something I'd never been particularly fond of. Kids have a habit of playing up in public spaces, especially in shops and like the mother in the queue at the pharmacy, parents and caregivers seem to back down and give-in far more easily than if they were at home. 

When one of the kids I had taken with me to the shops started playing up, I warned him that if he didn't stop, we would get in the car and drive home and he wouldn't be allowed to come with me to the shop again. I'd given him three, very clear warnings before he lost all control and proceeded to throw various grocery items out of the trolley onto the floor. Without question, I picked him up, walked away from the trolley, put him in the car and we drove home.

He wasn't allowed to come back to that particular shop with me again. He was allowed to come to other shops yes, but not that one. I never had a repeat performance of that behaviour in a shop again.

Be timely

Don't cancel an event that's two weeks away as a punishment. Your child may have gotten over whatever it was that caused the bad behaviour ages ago, and to be reminded a few weeks later that they can't go to their best friend's birthday party for something they did way back then will probably spark another tantrum, or leave them pretty confused especially if they're very young. 

Stick to consequences that will likely take immediate effect and have the child understand and be aware of this so that you don't buckle (or forget) in the interim. 

Be fair, consistent and set realistic goals

Behaviour management plans are a great way to encourage kids to stay in check. For younger kids, star-charts help to set goals where good behaviour, tidy rooms, manners etc are the focus-points. 

Don't give in! Kids know your weak points and if you're going to set a punishment, stick to it and don't let it slide the next time it happens. The same goes for siblings. Don't punish one child for something that you let the sibling get away with. Be consistent about this, even if you have to explain the same thing to them over and over. If you stick to your guns, your kids will know not to repeat the same mistake again, simply because they understand why it's wrong in the first place.

Make sure that everyone's on the same page and that goes for caregivers, grannies and both parents.

Do you sometimes make threats that you don't follow through with? What punishments have you given your children that made them never repeat the same behaviour?


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