Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

How to avoid the 'empty threat,' an easy parenting pitfall

By James Dinan, CNN
updated 9:14 AM EDT, Thu August 8, 2013
Kids can spot an empty punishment threat a mile away. Experts say such threats are useless anyway.
Kids can spot an empty punishment threat a mile away. Experts say such threats are useless anyway.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Your kids know an empty threat when they hear one
  • Parents lose authority if they don't follow through with a punishment
  • The goal is to help your toddler to understand right from wrong

(CNN) -- It all started innocently enough.

My wife and I were holding a "mini-pizza party" with two neighbor families when our 22-month-old daughter started to grow tired of the dinner table. She put her pizza slice on the table, got out of her chair and went to the living room to go bounce on a sofa.

"If you keep jumping on the furniture," I bellowed to my daughter, "you won't get to have any dessert."

Daughter kept jumping, and my wife looked at me like I had nine heads.

"You know we're giving her dessert," she noted. "Why would you threaten her with a punishment she's not going to receive? Don't you remember 'the Walmart incident'?"

Yes, I do. I was waiting for my drink at a Starbucks a few years back when I noticed a father struggling to deal with his young son, who was banging his hands on the tables and playing with the food in the cooler.

"Son, if you don't (stop) acting up this minute," the man warned, "we will not be going to Walmart."

The man's toddler daughter, whom he was carrying, let out a proud "yay" after the "threat" was made. Meanwhile, the son went back to fiddling with the yogurt cups. No offense to the people at Walmart, but that dad's "threat" sounded more like a reward than punishment (perhaps the child would have shaped up if Dad mentioned Target?).

I also realized that I made an "empty threat" the night of the pizza party, and my daughter knew that as well. I wouldn't humiliate my daughter by withholding the same dessert that her friends and grownups were having, so why even make that threat? Maybe the punishment would have worked if it were just me, my wife and our daughter, but it definitely wouldn't have happened with six guests at home.

Dr. Hansa Bhargava, a pediatrician at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, says "empty threats" are common with parents, and their kids know it.

"Toddlers and preschoolers can easily pick up the difference between an 'empty threat' and actual punishment. We really love our children, and we want what's best for them, but it's really important to follow through (on punishment)."

Not following through, Bhargava warns, could result in the child never looking at the parent as an authority figure. And when bigger issues arrive as they get older, the children may go another direction to find answers.

As a first-time parent, it's tough for me to discipline my child. I want to believe that she can "do no wrong" but, in reality, mistakes will happen and, sometimes, she'll have to be put in "timeout." But Bhargava says that being focused with discipline will benefit in the long run.

"Consistency is key. If you are not consistent and don't follow through, they won't listen, and they won't be as welcome when you do follow through. Routine and consistency will be good for the parents."

For a child my daughter's age, an occasional "timeout" punishment works. For example, I will have her sit on a staircase step for a minute or two to let her calm down from a "terrible two" moment. I'll also have her try and "reverse" her negative moment and turn it into a positive. For instance, if she tosses a fork to the floor at the end of meal or snack time, I'll ask her to pick up the utensil once we're through eating. She enjoys helping out around the house, so picking up something to be cleaned or tossed makes her proud.

Also consider the circumstances leading up to the "empty threat" moment. When my daughter was jumping on the sofa, was she doing so over the excitement that her friends were visiting? Was she tired because she wasn't able to nap earlier in the day?

"It may be wise for parents to ignore the behavior for the time being," says Bhargava. "After the party, go back to your child and talk about happened. Before the next event, let the child know what you expect from them."

Positive reinforcement is also a key to helping your toddler or preschooler understand right from wrong. A few days after the "sofa incident," I asked my daughter to place some toys in her new toy chest, promising her that I'd read her a story if she got it done right away. She did, and we spent the next few minutes reading the latest "Curious George" book we got at the store.

But most of all, first-time parents must realize that Moms and Dads make mistakes too. No matter how many parenting books you read or family/friend advice you get, "oopsies" will happen.

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

"Parents are learning just as much as their children are," says Bhargava,

I haven't made an "empty threat" since the night of the pizza party, and I can only hope it stays that way.

Are you guilty of making "empty threats" to your kids? What are the strangest and funniest "empty threats" you've ever heard? Let us know below!

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Looking for ways to get into the best school for you, cut tuition costs or study smarter? Here are 10 tips for improving the college experience.
updated 9:58 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Lisa Respers France
CNN's Lisa France opens up about her lifelong struggle with weight, its physical and mental toll, and what she's doing to lighten the burden.
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Bridget Cutler was still adjusting to being a new mom when she read a magazine article that changed her life.
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Hundreds of students staged a walkout in Denver, accusing the school board of trying to censor what they're taught about U.S. history.
updated 5:06 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
People who identify as asexual feel little or no sexual attraction to other people. And as far as they're concerned, that's A-OK.
updated 1:36 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Actress Emma Watson joins a cadre of celebrities who have used their star power to bring attention to gender issues.
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
Clemson University suspends mandatory online course that asked questions about sex lives, drinking and drug use.
updated 5:13 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Does the word "virginity" evoke discussions of sexuality or religious belief? That's the question residents in Fayetteville, Arkansas, are asking after a junior high student was asked to change out of a T-shirt that read "Virginity Rocks."
updated 10:38 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Not knowing exactly where her ancestors come from has always bothered Kelly Wallace, but she's heartened to learn about some of the famous cousins she never knew she had.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Many superstar athletes from Michael Vick to Tiger Woods were ultimately forgiven by fans and the public. Could Ray Rice also get a second chance?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
The indictment of NFL star Adrian Peterson on child abuse charges has revealed sharp differences in cultural, regional and generational attitudes toward using physical force to discipline kids.
updated 9:24 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
cara reedy
The world often treats little people like Cara Reedy as less than human. She's learned to stand up for herself and shout back.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
The unheard voices of domestic abuse spoke up on CNN iReport when Rihanna's story of abuse came to light. In light of the Ray Rice controversy, we decided to bring back these stories that are still just as powerful as the day they were told.
updated 10:10 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
More than 3 million children witness domestic violence every year, and the damage can last a lifetime.
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
As media outlets Monday circulated video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator, many wondered why the woman -- now his wife -- could remain with him.
updated 12:52 PM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
The ways mother-daughter book clubs can help empower girls are the focus of a new book, "Her Next Chapter."
updated 5:40 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Colleges are working to prevent sexual assault by educating students on affirmative consent, or only "yes means yes."
updated 10:43 AM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
A mom questions if she wants her daughters seeing a "sado-masochistic relationship, dressed up as a Hollywood love fantasy?"
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
In 2014, why is society still so incredibly uncomfortable with public breastfeeding? Kelly Wallace gets to the root of the controversy.
updated 10:42 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Seven years ago, Barbara Theodosiou, then a successful entrepreneur, stopped going to meetings, leaving the house and taking care of herself. She grew increasingly distraught -- her two children were addicts.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, throws America's problem with talking about race into sharp relief.
updated 10:25 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Mo'ne Davis is the first girl to throw a shutout in the Little League World Series. She's an inspiration, but will she change the face of the sport?
updated 8:36 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
There is a reason why when people post pictures of themselves during their middle school years on Facebook for "Throw Back Thursday," we all stop and take notice.
It could cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise your child -- and that's not even including college costs, according to new government estimates.
updated 12:09 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
From parent to son, uncle to nephew, there's a raw, private conversation being revived in America in the wake of violence in Ferguson, Missouri.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Children sometimes get left out of our conversations about mental illness. The truth is, they suffer too.
updated 5:14 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
CNN's Kat Kinsman says that talking freely about personal mental health and suicidal thoughts can help others.
updated 1:26 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
morning person
Easy tips on how to improve everything from your dinner order to the song in your head to your career.
updated 1:33 PM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
The case of an Arizona mom who left her kids in a car during a job interview highlights the fluid line between bad parenting and criminal behavior.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
A children's book about gun rights has benefited from an unexpected boost in sales after it became the subject of a mocking segment on a talk show.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
Some campers and counselors keep the campfire flames burning with summer flings that become lifetime commitments.
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
After letting her 7-year-old son walk from their home to a park to play, a Florida mother faces up to five years in jail for child neglect.
updated 3:16 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
Lindsey Rogers-Seitz, who lost her son in a hot car, hopes mandatory technology in cars and car seats will stop child death from heatstroke in cars.
updated 10:42 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Not to mention your jeans, bras and pillows? Here's a definitive guide to keeping all your quarters clean.
Imagination Playgrounds have snaking tunnels, platforms and springy mats just like any other playground. But they're different in one fundamental way -- they're built by kids.
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Grammy Award-winning singer Sarah McLachlan, a 46-year-old divorced mom of two girls, talks about parenting, sex and whether women can have it all.
updated 7:54 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Researchers say physical punishment actually alters the brain.
Post your personal essays and original photos, and tell us how it really is.
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT