Threat-based parenting: Dos and Don’ts

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scolding mother

Update: This is now a top post on Medium. Read the full discussion there.

The push towards attachment-based parenting and “natural consequences” has led modern moms and dads away from one of the most powerful tools in the parenting arsenal: the threat. As in any profession that requires people to work closely with their natural adversaries (e.g. hostage negotiation, lion taming, software development), parenting is an occupation in which threats can and should be a core part of your management style.

And thanks to the rise of screens, there’s never been a better time for threat-based parenting. Screen time offers us both a compelling reason for threats (“turn off that goddamn screen or I’ll throw the computer out the window”) and a whole new set of threats for us to leverage (“brush your teeth right now or I’m taking away your new Xbox game”). As an expert in the management of paediatric screen time, and a long-time practitioner of threat-based parenting, I offer my best tips on how to make the most of this under-used parenting approach:

  • DO base screen-related threats on apps, devices or websites. Time-based threats are either too inconsequential (“no screens for an hour”) or too catastrophic for a parent who needs some end-of-day downtime (“no screens for the rest of the day”). Instead, focus your threats on the permanent elimination of entire categories of activities: “do your homework or I’m deleting Angry Birds” or “eat your dinner or I’m giving away the Xbox”.
  • DON’T confuse threats with bribes. “The first child who goes to sleep gets the last chocolate croissant for breakfast” is a bribe. “The last child who is still awake has to eat plain yogurt for breakfast” is a threat. Since children (like adults) are more risk-averse than benefit-seeking, the threat of plain yogurt will almost certainly be the more powerful motivation (especially when paired with the prospect of watching a sibling eat a chocolate croissant). As this example suggests, parents of siblings may find that threats and bribery can work synergistically — for more on this, read our upcoming post on bribery-based parenting.
  • DO incorporate profanity into your threats.  Once threats become a routine part of your parenting style, your child may be tempted to disregard casual threats like “hang up your coat or you’ll have to go out in the rain tomorrow without one”. A little well-chosen profanity, coupled with a ferocious tone of voice, will restore their interest. Try a phrase like “hang up your FUCKING coat or I swear to God, you’re going out in the rain tomorrow without one.”
  • DON’T be constrained by feasibility. Many advocates of “natural consequences” will tell you that you should never threaten a consequence that you can’t deliver, lest you weaken your credibility. In my experience, that is excessively limiting. You may know that it’s impossible to deliver on a threat like “…or I’ll turn off all the kids’ programming on Netflix” — but does your kid know that’s not technically possible? If not, you’re golden.
  • DO embrace the power of embarrassment. Not all threats need to focus on withdrawing screens, sugar or other desired goods. Particularly when it comes to threatening tweens and teens, the most powerful threat is the threat of public humiliation. That’s why I’m increasingly fond of threats like “brush your hair or I’m going to get out of the car and kiss you goodbye in front of all your friends”, or “stop arguing or I’m going to sing the complete score of A Chorus Line right here in the middle of the restaurant”.
  • DON’T slip from embarrassment to shaming. Social media has tempted many parents off the golden path of threatening embarrassment and into the dark territory of delivering shaming. Threatening to embarrass your child in an off-line context (for example, in front of school friends) is an appropriate and effective use of parental authority that can frequently elicit the desired behaviour. Actually shaming your child through incriminating Instagram photos or Facebook posts is not only inappropriate, but ineffective: once you have created a permanent record of your child’s misdeeds, you will be hard-pressed to come up with an immediate threat of embarrassment that is worse than what you’ve already done to them online.
  • DO identify threat levers even more powerful than screen time. Most of the time, you’ll use screen time as the lever for controlling other aspects of your child’s behaviour — for example, threatening to banish Minecraft if your child continues to resist after-school math tutoring. Sometimes, however, it is the screen time itself that you will need to control: this poses a huge challenge, since it is hard to threaten a child into turning off gaming console when there is almost nothing that is worse than having to turn off a video game. That’s why you need to plan for your threats proactively, ideally by identifying your child’s greatest vulnerabilities. Even a child who is obsessed with video games may see the prospect of a week without candy as worse than turning off a video game; even a tween who depends on her mobile phone for all social interactions may see the threat of missing next weekend’s class party as even worse than putting away her phone for an hour.
  • DO choose threats for your own amusement. When threatening their children, many parents focus on threats that generate positive outcomes, like reducing the amount of time spent watching TV or eliminating the inappropriately short skirts from their daughters’ wardrobe. While it is all very well and good to choose threats that shepherd your children towards better choices, you will find threat-based parenting most sustainable if it rewards you, too. That’s why I try to choose threats that maximize my personal amusement, like “turn off the Playstation RIGHT NOW or I’m going to finish the level after you go to bed”,  “pack your lunch or your Dad and I are going to start making out”, or “get in our bed one more time and you’ll wake up with a Sharpie moustache”.
  • DON’T threaten the withdrawal of affection or love objects. Particularly in stressful situations, it can be tempting to threaten the withdrawal of your presence or affection (“get your shoes on right now or I’m leaving without you”) or to threaten your child’s love objects (“stop screaming right now, or I’m cutting up your Blankie”). The problem with these strategies is that threatening to leave your child may reveal that they truly do not give a shit, while threatening their love objects may cost you more in long-run child therapy than it saves you in short-term pain. Remember: always factor in likely therapy costs when assessing the long-run ROI (return on investment) of your threats.
  • DON’T make a threat that hurts you more than it hurts them. A threat like “clean up your room or I’m taking away Minecraft for the day” just commits you to spending your Saturday helping your whiny kid organize her art supplies. Instead, try something like “if I come upstairs in an hour and discover your room is still a mess, I’m going to give away your origami paper”. It’s a win-win: you get to play Threes on your iPhone while she cleans up, and if she doesn’t clean up, you get to eliminate the source of the tiny paper cranes currently littering every surface in your house.
  • DO calibrate your threats to the season.  While it’s easy to fall into a threat routine (“eat your vegetables or there’s no dessert”), threats are most effective when you keep them fresh. Calibrating your threats to the season is the best way to keep your kids on their toes: in November, you can threaten to take away their Halloween candy; in December, threaten to tell Santa they don’t deserve that new Lego set they’ve been eyeing; in spring, threaten to send them to summer school instead of summer camp. Consider setting aside some time in the next month to plan your threat calendar for 2016 so you’ll have a range of seasonal threats at the ready; you can use our Google threat calendar as a starting point.
  • DON’T tolerate reciprocal threats. Some parents eschew threats because they are worried about modelling threat-based behavior for their kids. These parents fail to recognize that threats offer the best possible way of managing that risk — as long as you’re not afraid to escalate. If your child responds to your “get in bed right now or I’m hiding half your Skylanders” with a “hide my Skylanders and I’m throwing out your favourite sweater”, it’s up to you to reply “throw out my sweater and I’m getting rid of all of your Skylanders for good”. A good rule of thumb when squashing reciprocal threats is to escalate your threats three times as quickly as your children escalate theirs.
  • DO collect regular performance indicators. At least once per quarter, I ask our children to rank the major adults in their life according to who they find most terrifying. If I’m not in the top position, I know it’s time to increase the severity and frequency of my threats.

Do you have threat-based parenting tips of your own? Share them in the comments, or tweet them to @awsamuel — or else.

Guest post coming soon: How to control your parents with extortion.

2 Comments on this site

  1. David

    This is fabulous! Looking forward to the guest post. Thanks Alex.

  2. Andreas Pardeike

    Excellent article. I moved from Germany to Sweden 15 years ago and have often a hard time to cope with the, in my opinion, extreme softness and conflict-emptiness of Swedish parenting.

    To me this article is the perfect opener to a discussion on healthy parenting because it sparks critical thinking in those who overdo the “modern” way of bringing up your children. We live in times of extremes and only an even more extreme can wake people up. The finer grains of explicit choice and involvement are hard and therefore unpopular.

    Have a fucking nice day,
    Andreas

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