This may sound familiar to you. Your kid does something bad, you punish them. Then they do something again, but you’re tired. You take the easy way out. You make empty threats, and you think that’s end of it. The problem here is, it’s not.
Kids learn many things from their parents, especially from how they are disciplined. But they learn from your empty threats, too. Just not in a good way.
Threatening misbehaving children doesn’t teach them anything good and only sets them up for failure. Why? Because empty threats without any consequence teaches them to get away with whatever they want.
Getting away with empty threats
“Any empty threat teaches a child that they can get away with things,” said Dr. Nancy Darling, Oberlin College’s Chair of Psychology and author of Thinking About Kids on Psychology Today. “You’re drawing attention to the punishment and teaching them to be sneaky, lie and avoid punishment.”
According to Darling, the problem with empty threats is incomplete socialisation. Best-case scenario, a socialised child accepts and internalises the values that their parents hold in high regard.
Empty threats disrupt the internalisation of those values by implying that rules are inconsistent and they can be obeyed or not depending on the context of the situation.
“The most important thing for a kid in any relationship is predictability,” she said. “So the kid knows what the rules are and the kid knows what’s going to happen if they are disobeyed.”
Safety in predictability
Children rely on predictability and consistency in order to feel safe and comfortable. That’s why it’s important for parents to have “reasonable consequences for reasonable crimes” according to Darling.
It’s never enough to mete out punishment and just say “because I said so.” What children need to know is why they’re being punished. Parents need to explicitly tell them the reasons for these punishments.
The parents should punish according to the values that they espouse. These may be honesty, kindness, integrity, safety, and compassion. Eventually, kids must learn to internalise these values through the consequences they experience.
“If you have a child who sees rules done consistently, for reasons that are explained, with reasonable consequences that include an explanation, it helps set that internalisation,” Darling said.
But empty threats disconnect consequences from the values parents teach. This is because they merely attempt to intimidate (and are just a manifestation of a parent’s ego more than anything else) instead of inform.
Deception in empty threats
So what do the children learn? It just teaches them how to avoid punishment. If that’s their goal, then deception becomes a reasonable next course of action.
It teaches a child to comply not out of respect but out of fear of unreasonable consequences. Because of this inconsistency in enforcing consequence, their compliance will be inconsistent as well. This means they won’t comply when you’re not around, leading to more misbehaviour as they age.
“No one offers them a beer in front of you,” Darling said. “No one offers them an opportunity to bully someone when you’re right next to them.”
The three parenting styles
Darling then referred to a set of parenting styles detailed by psychologist Diana Baumrind in the 1960s. Baumrind sets out the three parenting styles thus:
The Permissive Parent pours out positive regard with little discipline.
The Authoritarian Parent creates an intense amount of strict rules with less positive regard.
The Authoritative Parent offers positive regard and enforces rules.
“The authoritative parent is the warmest and the strictest in that they are the most consistent about following through on rules,” said Darling.
Consistency over empty threats
Practice what you preach, parents! Reasonable and consistently enforced rules based on values that parents espouse help a child understand the value of their family’s togetherness.
This practice teaches them respect and trust and helps you form a stronger bond with them using compassion and reason. Furthermore, it shows them that everyone in the family is concerned about every family member.
YOU CAN ALSO READ: 7 Signs Your Kids Need More Discipline