Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I have a 5-year-old son who spends a great deal of time pushing boundaries—and our buttons. The three of us were recently shopping at a giant hardware store and our son was tearing around, picking everything up and playing with it. We told him over and over to stop and he didn’t. Finally, super frustrated and trying to get his attention, I grabbed him by the arm and told him that if he didn’t calm down immediately, his father and I would go home and leave him in the store. I wasn’t serious, of course, but when we got home, by husband was really upset and said that we shouldn’t make threats that we have no intention of following through on. I disagree and think that harsh threats are sometimes all it takes to snap a kid back on track. Do you agree?
A: Nope. But I’m glad you asked, since this is a pretty common—and very important—issue.
As you’ve noticed, one of children’s main jobs is to test boundaries, turning every rule into a scientific experiment the way a research scientist would test a hypothesis. “Hmm,” he says. “Mom and Dad (also known as “the laws of physics”) say that if I don’t listen to them X, Y, or Z (fill in your favorite horrible consequence) will happen. Let’s see if they’re right.”
If the threatened consequences actually materialize, the boundaries you set will make your son feel safe. Plus, he’ll feel secure knowing that when you give him a warning or any kind of “if… then…,” he’d better listen up. Of course, he’ll still test your limits, as any good researcher would do; that’s his job. (But be careful: too many boundaries may make him feel so trapped that he could end up feeling that the only way out is to test/break as many as possible.)
If you’re not consistent in enforcing the rules, your threats may succeed in the short run (e.g. he’ll stop running around the store for a few minutes). But long term, he’ll learn that it’s okay to ignore you. How many times have you given a “last warning” and then followed it up with a “final warning” and maybe one or two “final-final warnings”?
Eventually, your child may come to see your warnings as suggestions, invitations, or even challenges. 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; don’t run with scissors because you’ll fall and stab yourself in the heart; 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 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 son knows perfectly well that you’re not going to abandon him in the store, that a tree won’t really grow in his stomach, that you really won’t take away his dessert for any more than a day or two; in fact, 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 him from doing sound that much more attractive.
Note that I’m not suggesting that you start following through on ridiculous threats. If you and your husband 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 he won’t stop running around the store, leave your shopping cart where it is and immediately go home. If he’s drawing on the walls with crayons, take away those crayons for a week. In other words, the consequence should make logical sense and, when possible, have something to do with the behavior you’re trying to stop.
This article first appeared on MrDad.com