Dr Justin Coulson is the co-host of Channel 9’s Parental Guidance, a three-time bestselling author, a TEDx speaker, and one of Australia's most popular parenting experts. In this article he looks at nine ways to stop using threats with your children.
A pufferfish is a fairly poor swimmer (for a fish) and is therefore an easy target for predators. But the pufferfish has a superpower. When threatened, it ingests huge amounts of water (and sometimes air) into its very elastic stomach, suddenly appearing several times its original size.
There’s a parenting practice that I call “pufferfish parenting”. At times we can be fairly poor parents (no judgment here, just the reality of life), and we can therefore seem like an easy “target” for a toddler or preschooler. Our response when our position of authority in the family hierarchy is threatened is often like that of the pufferfish. We make ourselves appear much larger and more threatening than we really are. We puff ourselves up. We put on our angry face. We use our loud voices. And we threaten our children with destruction and oblivion - or at least something that feels like that to them - so they will comply with our instruction. (And in our case it would be unhelpful to consider this a superpower.)
“If you don’t get back into the car right now we are never… NEVER… coming to the park again.”
“Stop fighting back there or I’ll turn the car around and the holiday is cancelled.”
“If you can’t do the simple things I ask you to do, I can’t take you to your friend’s party.”
“If you keep being naughty, Santa Claus won’t bring you any presents.”
I’m not really suggesting that we’re poor parents, or that our children “target” us. Rather, I’m pointing out that we all have our moments with our children and when we have those moments we often blow up - or blow things up - disproportionately, sometimes causing harm in the process.
Draw a picture of a house
When I deliver presentations to parents I have a favourite activity. I ask everyone to draw a picture of a house. Everyone does the same thing. We laugh together as I ask why we are all still drawing the same house we drew when we were six. The answers come quickly and easily.
- It’s simple
- It’s quick
- It’s how I was shown
- It’s not very good but it’s a representation of what a house looks like
- I don’t have the skill to draw something better
Now for a hard truth. Most parents in Australia discipline the way they draw houses.
And the reason for it is pretty simple. According to research, the average parents’ discipline strategies (which, for our toddlers, consist of lots of threats and time-outs) are quick and simple. They’re consistent with how we were shown discipline as children. They’re not very good, but we think they represent what discipline might look like. And the reality is that we often don’t have the skills to discipline any better.
The real reason we rely so heavily on threatening our children is because we’ve lost control and we don’t know what to do. So we become pufferfish parents. Our authority is threatened and the only way we can retain control is to make ourselves big and scary. As parents, we rely too heavily on control via punitive disciplinary methods. Threats are at the top of the list.
Threats don’t require much of us though. Threats don’t demand any perspective or empathy. Threats don’t ask us to be compassionate. Threats don’t encourage creativity or kindness. They don’t make us try to be better. They simply call for compliance.
Authoritarian parents use threats a lot. That’s no surprise. Implicit in the “my way or the highway” approach is threat. An interesting research finding, however, is that permissive parents are also highly likely to use threats. It’s just that they don’t carry them out.
And here’s the thing. That threat? It doesn’t really work. Sure you might get short-term compliance. But it comes with baggage.