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Why Threats Don't Work: Parenting Effectively

Threatening kids is ALSO bad because it just doesn't work.

This piece is not about parents who are abusive, who threaten kids physically, or who are hostile. We know about those parents and why they harm children.

This piece is about loving parents who use threats to try to get their kids to behave and why that often backfires and makes kids behave worse instead of better.

It builds on what I think is one of my best pieces: How to Create A Juvenile Delinquent With Materials Easily Available At Home, and uses one example from Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Moms to illustrate why threatening kids can backfire and teach them to misbehave MORE, not less. (For a discussion of both the postive and negative aspects of Chua's parenting, read Flinching From the Tiger Mom.)

How To Create a Juvenile Delinquent starts with this absolutely true story:

The mom looked down, shocked, at her bare legs and worn underpants. She was standing at the edge of a crowded gym. Her 4 year old crowed triumphantly, holding the skirt he had just tugged to her ankles, his eyes on her face and ready to run.

She snatched up the skirt, snagged him by the waist, and strode from the room.

I never saw her again.

It goes on to discuss how a pattern of ineffective parenting - combining threats that are never carried out, erratic punishment, nasty, aversive parent-child interactions, and a child who doesn't back down easily - results in a cycle of interactions where kids essentially train their parents to back down and themselves to become delinquent. This carries over from home to school, where teachers give up on the child and kids who don't misbehave reject troublemakers as friends. It is built on an outstanding program of research and effective intervention carried out by Gerald Patterson, Tom Dishion, and Deborah Capaldi over the past three decades.

Now let's go to example from Amy Chua. Amy Chua's parenting is described in the media as very strict. In many ways it is, and I discuss the benefits of high, consistent standards in my Tiger Mom piece.

But Chua's parenting also involves a lot of threats, as well as insults. Pundits have focused on the psychological harm of insulting kids. I want to talk about something else: the self-described ineffectiveness of Chua's threats.

Bottom line: Laying out clear standards of behaviors is good parenting. Letting kids face the consequences of their actions and punishing them when they misbehave is a necessary part of teaching. Empty threats teach kids to misbehave.

From an NPR interview with Ms. Chua:

Ms. CHUA: This was amazing. I thought, oh, great, you know, it's just Lulu and me together. She's about 3. I can teach her to play the piano. And I sat her down on these comfortable pillows, and I said, look, Lulu, just play one note three times evenly.

And Lulu and I are so similar in personality. She's a fireball. She decided that, instead, she would smash at the piano with both open palms. And so, we had a little back and forth that she just wouldn't do it and then she was kicking and screaming and thrashing. And finally, I said, you know what? I am determined to raise an obedient "Chinese" child. I took her, you know, to the front door and I said - it was a very cold day - and I said, now, if you don't stop screaming and if you don't behave, I am going to put you outside in the cold.

She looked at me and she's 3 years old and she steps outside into the cold. And I start to panic, you know? The whole book is full of Lulu calling my bluff. I didn't think she would go out there. So I quickly said, okay, you're quiet now, come back in here. And she just shook her head and she wouldn't come in. I had to bribe her back in with hot chocolate and brownies . . .

Ms. Chua is not a parent who backs down easily: that's one of the points of her memoir. Lulu doesn't back down either. This is a great example of how NOT to threaten your child. Not only because of any emotional issues. The threat didn't work.

Although over the top, it's pretty typical of the kinds of threats used by parents who are either authoritarian or - SURPRISE! - permissive.

  • The threat is extreme.
  • It's not one the parent could carry out in good conscience.
  • The child knows the parent won't do it and calls their bluff.
  • The parent backs down.

This interaction will happen if

  • The parent speaks before thinking through their strategy
  • The child is strong enough to stand up to the parent. Some kids - apparently Chua's oldest - back down in the face of threats. Other children would become upset or withdraw. Different kids react differently. Willful, non-compliant children are most likely to get involved in this type of cycle because they're more difficult to start with and they just don't back down.
  • It happens more each time the parent backs down.

What is really sad about this cycle, is that the more often it HAS happened, the more likely it is to happen in the future.

Every single time a parent makes a threat, the child calls them on it, and the parent withdraws the demand, learning has occurred.

  • The child learns that non-compliance can pay off. If they are difficult enough, the parent won't ask them to do things they don't want to.
  • The parent learns not to make demands.

Recovering from a threat you can't carry through on.

If the parent is really smart, they will realize that they've made a mistake. Chua obviously did - she describes that sinking feeling of panic you get when you know your kid has you over a barrel. She bribes her child to come in with brownies and hot chocolate.

How do effective parents recover when they know they've blown it?

  • They will hit restart.
  • They will apologize to the child for going too far.
  • They will sit down with the child and re-establish a positive relationship so the child will listen.
  • They will stick to their guns, tell the child they STILL aren't happy with what the child is doing and try another way of getting the child to cooperate.
  • They'll figure out a more reasonable strategy for next time. There's always a next time. Thinking things through when you're calm increases the likelihood you'll do better the next time you just lose it.

All parents have bad interactions with our kids. Parenting is a tough, tough job and research shows that parents of young children try to correct them DOZENS of times every HOUR. You're not going to get that right every time.

When you make a mistake - we all get ourselves into situations where we've realized we just have - correct your course.

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

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