What happens when good intentions lead to half empty threats?

“When I get to three you’d better be done/or stop (fill in naughty activity/behavior of choosing). ¬†That’s onnnnnnnnnnne, that’s twwwwwwwoo, (extra-long almost minute pause), and that’s threeeeeeeeeeeeee….Eeee?… Eeeeee? Three?”

Counting has become one of the fundamentals of our discipline methodology. Somehow it has outlasted several of our seemingly more complex tactics. I’m not certain how or why but there is persuasive power in counting. Something in the intonation or short span for rectification that influences my darlings to respond. Maybe the structure and clarity of what’s expected. Maybe it’s the urgency or fear of the unknown, somehow my darlings just sense that getting to three is not going to work out in their favor. Mind you, they have numerous times made it to three, and beyond, and while it wasn’t the loveliest, we all survived. I hold on dearly to counting because sometimes that’s all I’ve got. It seems that my little ladies have been calling my bluff for a while now.

The earliest evidence I can recall was when my now almost four year-old darling was about a year and a half and when I informed her it was time to come inside the house, that we were done playing for the day, she looked at me sternly, said “NO”, picked up her wagon handle and headed down the street. As I muffled through my brief shock and headed after her it was clear that she had little to no concern for my warnings or impending consequences. I knew in that moment that we had entered a whole new world, where it was no longer because I said so. Quite frankly, I was scared.

Consequences are tricky. We all know that we don’t say that which we can’t back up and we certainly don’t want to scare or guilt our children into doing things (although I recall those two characteristics as driving motivators in my own childhood). However, there are at times in which urgent matters leave little room for negotiation or compromise. An example in our house has long standing been the difficult task of taking medication. After having gone to extreme measures, often in the style of peace treaty discussions, only to remain on opposite sides of the fence, we have wandered into convoluted territory where dramatic references had been made regarding possible outcomes. In one particular exchange my husband and I, as a united front, explained that if the fever reducer was not consumed we would head over to the hospital where necessary means would not be as pleasant as mommy and daddy pleading and the promised smorgasbord¬†of sweets. Before we could finish what we thought was an adequate and convincing scare tactic, my then two year-old was on the stairs putting her shoes on and reaching for her coat. Something had gone terribly wrong in the translation of how this scenario played in our minds versus the reality we were faced with. As my husband and I exchanged perplexed mutters minimally moving our lips, we realized we had to make good on our once empty threat. As we piled into the car in silence, and stared blankly ahead, we privately surveyed the details of our failure. Looking in the backseat we could see the sweet, carefree, baby face which we now knew with certainty was in charge of us. Although she promptly fell asleep and we dodged our dilemma that night, we knew that it was just the beginning.

And so it was, because as it turns out, the more our kids know the more empowered they feel in making their own decisions despite rational explanation. And second kids, forget it, they follow their fearless leaders, just to be clear that’s not us parents, it’s their older siblings. My darling almost two year-old, will happily and often prematurely march herself to the naughty seat, only to sit and giggle and clearly have no idea about the meaning of what she was doing.

As it always seems to, it comes back to that space where we hope we have taught our darlings well enough to do what’s best for themselves. Even at a young age they have begun to understand the fundamentals of living. Sure some coaxing and bribing can sometimes help but overall they will decide on their own what they feel is right. I recently heard someone say something that I appreciate greatly and find to be true…that we treat our children in a way we want them to treat themselves and yet our children end up treating themselves how we treat ourselves. Important wisdom to hold dear as a reminder that we always have a very easily influenced audience watching.