Is it OK to use threats as a legitimate form of parenting?

Is using threats with your kids poor parenting—or a legitimate tool in the parenting toolkit?

I sometimes use threats with my daughter Eloise, who’s nearly five, in my attempts to get her to behave how I’d like her to. It’s not the only tool I use to try and shape her behaviour, but it’s definitely one tool in my parenting toolkit that I draw on from time to time. Well, more often than I’d like to admit, if I’m honest.

For whatever reason, I feel somewhat guilty whenever I do use a threat. Is that because it’s bad and I shouldn’t ever use threats, or because I feel pressure to only use more positive means to get Eloise to act in a way that I’d like her to? I’m not sure.

Let me give you an example of one threat I use. Sometimes Eloise can be a right little tinker when going to sleep. She’ll go through the whole bedtime routine of story, teeth, wee, and prayers, and then I’ll say goodnight and leave the room. But she’ll keep calling me back. ‘I’m not tired.’ ‘I’m thirsty.’ ‘I can’t find [name of one of her (many) teddy bears].’ And so on.

I quickly discovered that saying, ‘Oh just go to sleep, Eloise,’ didn’t work. I know: shock, horror. After many failed and drawn out attempts to get Eloise to settle quickly and quietly—and not wake her baby sister—I stumbled into making a threat. I said that if she made me come back upstairs again, I’d take one of her teddy’s away. ‘No!’ she howled. ‘Well go to sleep,’ I said, leaving the room.

And I didn’t have to go back. Truth be told, every time Eloise has been troublesome at bedtime and I’ve used this threat, it has worked. Every single time. She always stops with her excuses and within five to ten minutes is typically fast asleep.

But am I being a bad parent using this technique? Should I only be finding positive means of encouraging and enforcing good behaviour? Honestly, I’m undecided. I do think that if threats are the only way in which good behaviour is fostered, that would be a bad and unhealthy approach. But if it is used sparingly and in harmony with more positive techniques, I’m inclined to think that, at the very least, it’s not the end of the world.

I should also add that, when it comes to threats, they’re only useful if you follow through. And I’ve learnt that I should only ever make a threat that can be followed through on. I have sometimes found myself saying things like, ‘I’ll leave you at home if you don’t get dressed nicely.’ But I instantly regret it; I can’t leave her at home—much as I might like to some days! So despite some slip-ups, I do try and make threats that I can keep—and, when I have to, I do keep them. Kids very quickly cotton onto whether or not the threats are empty or not.

I’ve realised that, as a parent, we so often end up veering towards what works over and above what the books or experts tell us. But I actually think this is pretty normal. We’re too tired to spend our whole lives doing idealistic parenting. It’s good to learn from the pros, but I think we need to cut ourselves some slack too. So maybe there are better ways to handle situations and encourage good behaviour, but sometimes we’re going to get things wrong in the heat of the moment. I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up about this too much.

I do think it’s important to be able to reflect on how we’re doing with our parenting from time to time though. This is where a spouse can really help if you’re both comfortable being honest with each other. There have been times when my wife, Rachel, has pointed out occasions when maybe I was too harsh with Eloise or Imogen or should have handled a situation differently. It grates at the time, but she’s usually right and it’s helpful to see it from someone else’s perspective. The key for the spouse doing the ‘correcting’ is to do this at a good time—typically not mid-battle!—and in a way that is loving, sensitive, and not judgemental.

Ultimately, we’re all going to get some things right and some things wrong when it comes to parenting. But if we provide our kids with a true sense of security and an environment of unconditional love, I don’t think we’re going to mess our kids up too much. Here’s hoping, at least!

What do you think though? Is the use of threats a legitimate tool in the parenting toolkit, or should it be avoided?

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