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Empty promises, hollow threats, big trouble



How to stop yourself from promising and threatening

How to stop yourself from promising and threatening


As a youngster gets more adept at language, using words to influence their behavior becomes ever more consequential. Simply put, if you offer them a reward for behaving because you know they’ll trust you, and they behave, but then you don’t deliver, they will not only cease to trust you, they will have a hard time trusting anyone. And if you threaten, and then, when the behavior crisis passes, you don’t follow through, their trust will erode.

Yet we’ve all done this – made empty promises and hollow threats. We do it because in the heat of the moment, we’re desperate. And desperate times call for desperate measures. 

I had a childhood friend whose mother was the queen of the dramatic empty threat, like “you will never watch TV again!” and “I will send you to military school!” Both were empty threats, and while they were funny to us then, in time, I saw how this tactic diminished my friend’s mother in his eyes, and he couldn’t trust her – and then anyone – even on the smallest thing.

Writing for Fatherly, Jillian Mock sympathizes, and offers some helpful hints on how to keep from making empty promises and hollow threats. 

Almost all of her examples fall in the “prevention” category. Noting that “kids predictably misbehave in four situations: when they are hungry, bored, tired, or in need of attention,” she advises anticipating those needs to avoid an outburst, and practicing an action you will want from them ahead of time. Then she gives an example: prior to a family gathering, if you suspect your child will react with ingratitude to a sweater given to him by an elder, act out the scene at home, in a scene of calm, and coach the child on how to be more respectful.

READ MORE: The art of setting consequences

As for in-the-moment advice, Mock advises mindfulness, and describes situations with the knowledge you may need to navigate some rocky terrain, and you have to be ready to “zoom out” during bad behavior. 

Mock suggests seeing the big picture and be mindful of how what you say and do in the moment could affect the future. Depending on the misbehavior, it can be a challenge.

Finally, the transition from parenting a nonverbal infant to parenting a small child who understands what you’re saying can be tricky. At the point where they can follow words, we need to adjust to those words having ever more weight. They matter, probably sooner than you think they will. And even if a child cannot articulate feelings, that doesn’t mean they’re not processing them. So if at all possible, do what you say you’ll do, and mean what you say.



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