“Mommy, stop your typing right now, or I’ll color on the table with this marker.”
“Sally!” I burst out, “I will not let you threaten me like that!”
And then I had a sudden realization and my annoyance evaporated. Sally, age four, had been issuing ultimatums like this with increasing frequency over the previous week, but it was only at this moment that I put two and two together and figured out where this was coming from. Sally had learned to issue threats to get her way from me.
Stop fussing and get in the car or we won’t go for ice cream!
Clean up your toys or we won’t make cookies later!
Stop fighting over that toy with your brother or I’ll take it away!
Stop coloring on that wall or I’ll take your markers away!
Stay close and stop wandering or I’ll put you in the cart!
Yes, some of these are completely defensible, and all are understandable. But to Sally, they sound little different from “stop your typing right now, or I’ll color on the table with this marker.” To Sally, these ultimatums sound like threats—and at their core, that is what they are. They’re about telling children that if they won’t do what you want them to do, you will do something to them that they will not like. It would be akin to your spouse saying that if you do not wash the dishes, he will refuse to let you have that glass of wine you usually have once the kids are in bed, or like you telling your spouse that if he does not clean the bathroom, he cannot leave the bathroom until he does it.
Of course, these sorts of ultimatums are also lazy parenting. I issue ultimatums when I’m stressed, annoyed, or at the end of my rope. When I’m in a good place and parenting more consciously, I head these things off before they happen, I am better at listening, and I am more creative in my solutions. For instance, each of the above ultimatums can be avoided as follows:
I can see you don’t want to get in the car. Can you tell me why not?
Your toys are getting in the way. Would you like help cleaning up?
Here, let’s give your brother this toy over here to play with instead.
How about you color on the whiteboard instead? I’ll get a chair.
Would you like to help pick out the yogurt? It’s this way!
It takes a little work, but taking a deep breath, offering a cogent explanation for why I’m doing what I’m doing, and actually listening to what my children are saying with their words and actions can make all the difference in the world.
Yes, children should have limits and consequences. After all, we’re raising our children to become adults, and in the adult world there are limits and consequences? If you steal something, you can go to jail for that. If you speed, you can lose your license. But limits and consequences are not the same thing as random ultimatums issued in a moment of stress. In the adult world, the consequences we face are usually natural consequences closely tied to the offending actions. If you have too many traffic violations, you lose your license because it is not safe to have you on the road. If you murder someone, you go to jail as a danger to society. Sure, there are areas where things are off kilter in our criminal justice system, but I’m pretty sure those areas are things we shouldn’t be working to emulate in our homes.
And besides, there is no reason a family needs to be run the same way that the criminal justice system is run. In fact, there are many reasons families should not be run like the criminal justice system. Families should be about love, acceptance, and cooperation, not about upholding the letter of the law come what may. Raising children is about preparing them for the adult world, yes, but that should be done through understanding, communication, and guidance as much as through limits, boundaries, and consequences. Indeed, good parenting should involve both both boundaries and understanding.
And honestly, it is more than possible to parent with boundaries and limits in a positive way that doesn’t involve issuing ultimatums or uttering threats. Here are some contrasts to illustrate this:
Not this: Stop fighting over that toy with your brother or I’ll take it away!
But this: Sally, I see that you and Bobby are fighting over this toy. We decided that if you and Bobby are fighting over a toy, we will put it away in the closet so that you can both have time to calm down, remember? I’m going to put the toy up now.
Not this: Clean up your toys or we won’t make cookies later!
But this: Sally, I know you want to make cookies, and I think that’s something we can do. But what did we decide we have to do to before we start a new activity? That’s right, we have to clean up our previous activity. How about you go clean up the toys that are out while I clear the counter so that we can make cookies?
As you can see, enforcing limits can be done in a way that centers on understanding, cooperation, and respect rather than involving exasperation or threats. But all of this takes time, and takes being conscious and purposeful. It is often much easier, in the moment, to look at fighting children or a mess that now covers the living room, feel annoyed and exasperated, and throw down an ultimatum that cannot but come across as a threat. In those moments, I need to take a deep breath, take a step back, and refocus, and then handle the situation in a way that is respectful and based on understanding but still firm about boundaries.
I’m glad Sally has begun to use threats to get what she wants, because otherwise I don’t think I would have seen just how problematic my own actions can sometimes be. Going forward, my plan is twofold. First, I will work to move away from issuing ultimatums that are de facto threats, even in moments of stress. The best way to keep Sally from learning from my bad example is to stop being a bad example. Second, I’m going to work harder to listen to Sally and respond to her desires or concerns when she first brings them. If I’ve put her off to the extent that she feels she must resort to threats to get me to listen, well, that’s something I need to change.
I’ll also talk to Sally about this, and hopefully we can step forward together.