Empty Threats: The Importance of Following Through on Discipline

Family Matters on 05.09.11
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Last night, after a long and busy weekend my over-exhausted four year old son started testing me right after dinner with his request for dessert. I was not opposed to him having it, but the sorbet was rather hard and needed a few minutes to soften. What started as a simple request for him to put it on the counter turned into-and I'm not really sure how- him under the dining room table with the pint of sorbet in hand, my husband and I blocking either exit of the room, and me yelling at him to put the sorbet down or I was going to throw out every bit of ice cream, cookie, and candy we had in the house. Wondering how not to discipline your children? That's it. Right there. The empty threat.

Follow Through

I actually was angry enough that I started to march into the kitchen and pull out the trash can, but the fact is that even though I don't want to have the sweets in my house, I am much too frugal to throw out perfectly good food. I hadn't even bought it myself. It had arrived via various family members for a mother's day cookout at my house, but even though it wasn't my money being "wasted", I just don't throw things out that still have a use. A friend once told me that her pediatrician said that the worst thing you can do for your child is to not follow through with the punishment you threaten them with. If you say you are going to take away a toy, take it away. If you tell them they have to go to their rooms, send them to their rooms. If you don't, then they will always push you further and won't learn that there are consequences to their actions.

I should have known better than to threaten throwing out piles of food because that action is not in my nature, and I'm not likely to follow through with it. A better solution for me would have been to say no dessert for two days or "I'm going to go donate all those sweets to the food bank." Of course, knowing myself like I do I probably would've added, "Do you know how lucky you are to get dessert at all? There are lots of kids who don't even have enough food to eat."

But the point is that even though I knew as I was saying it that I shouldn't have said it, it is important that we choose ways to discipline or punish our children that we can stick to. It doesn't make sense for me to send my son to his room when I'm trying to get out the door and he won't put his shoes on because it's the opposite of the direction I want us to be moving in, and I'm probably going to tell him to come back downstairs as soon as he gets to his room and have not taught him anything. Instead it makes sense to say no television tomorrow morning if it means that we can't get out the door.

A friend of mine's father always told she and her brother that if they stepped even remotely out of line when they were in a restaurant that they would be leaving the restaurant, and sure enough, when her brother did so one day, her father marched everyone out of the restaurant mid meal. They knew he was serious, and it never happened again because they knew what was expected of their behavior when they were taken to a restaurant and what the consequence would be if they didn't follow the rules.

The Arsenault

You have to figure out what works for both you and your child when it comes to discipline. My son was never receptive to time outs, but my daughter handles them pretty well. For my son, taking toys away or losing television time is what matters to him and is the most effective. And it's easy for me to follow through with (most of the time). It's a good idea to have a few go to disciplinary actions up your sleeve so that you can choose the one that's most appropriate for the situation you're in. Just make sure it's something that you can follow through with. Sometimes in a moment of weakness, you'll find yourself like I did with empty threats spewing from my mouth that I knew I shouldn't be saying, but if you are well prepared, you'll be much more likely to find success with discipline.  Sometimes it feels good just to say the worst thing you can think of, but it doesn't help anyone if you don't follow through.

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