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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.

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"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!

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