You are here

Stop -- or I'll Throw it Out!

We were all grumpy, stuck inside because of another snowstorm. So when Lily, 3, started throwing food, I growled, "If you don't stop, you're going to your room without any lunch." But then I immediately changed my mind. I wanted her to eat.

"Being a parent means you often get frustrated," says Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D., author of The Secret of Parenting and a dad of two. "You blurt out something stupid, then a few seconds later, you realize, 'I don't really want to do this.'"

So don't. Kids need to learn that parents are human and make mistakes -- like growling when they're grumpy -- and that they have the right to change their mind.

Next time you find yourself saying something to your kids that you regret, here's how to turn it around:

Betsy Rubiner is the author of Fun With the Family in Iowa and a mom of two.

Empty Promises

The blunder: A promise you don't want to keep

Kellye Crocker of Clive, Iowa, was in the checkout line when her restless son started misbehaving. "If you're good, I'll get you some candy," Crocker said.

How to get out: Just shift gears. Instead of setting a bad precedent by doling out the sweets, explain your change of heart, using the zany humor and silly melodrama preschoolers love. ("Did I really just say that? I know you don't need candy to be good!") Then, to prevent a meltdown, sing a song or whisper a story. Ask for help unloading the groceries -- and show your appreciation by suggesting an art or a cooking project you can do together.

If you find yourself about to break a promise, weigh several factors:

* Why was it made? Are you rewarding a one-time achievement (a stuffed animal for going to the potty) or coaxing cooperation (candy for behaving in the store)?

* Have you raised expectations? Does your child really expect you to follow through? Or has she forgotten all about it?

* How will your child react? If you decide to keep your word, you can still limit the damage. Say you choose to give your child that stuffed animal for going to the potty -- because she did something momentous, she's really expecting it, and she'll be heartbroken if she doesn't get it. Try recasting your original offer: Don't present the toy as a reward for doing what you wanted. Instead, declare it a one-time-only award to celebrate her accomplishment.

Older kids are more likely to get mad if you go back on your word. Acknowledge the anger ("I understand why you're mad at me") and explain your decision ("I was wrong to make a promise that isn't good for you in the long run").

Heat of the Moment

The blunder: A warning you don't want to carry out

"If you don't stop fighting, we won't go to the playgroup," Carey Moran of Shelton, Connecticut, warned her three sons, all under 5 at the time, and her older daughter. Seconds later, Moran realized she was also punishing herself.

How to get out: Go anyway. "Simply say, 'I don't like what I just said,'" says Adele Faber, author of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. If your kids continue to bicker, just leave them be. If things get physical, separate them and offer a choice: "You can figure out how to play the game together peacefully. Or you can look for something else to do together." This lets them know they're capable of solving the problem too.

"Once you make up your mind, of course, it's good to follow through," says Wolf -- but not if it's something that's said in the heat of the moment, is overly punitive, or deprives the child of a necessity. It's far worse to be a parent who does unreasonably harsh things than one who changes her mind occasionally.

Hollow Threats

The blunder: A hollow threat

Unable to coax her 2-year-old out of the house, Mary Breslin of Fairfax, Virginia, walked to the door and said the same annoying thing her parents relied on: "I'm going. You'll have to stay here all by yourself." Her toddler just looked up and said, "Bye, Mommy."

How to get out: You're obviously not going to do it, so if your child is calm, don't mention it again. But if he panics, be honest: Assure him you'd never leave him alone and that you regret what you said.

Kids often see through these types of statements anyway. When you threaten to stop the car and go back home, what your child often hears is "Oh, Mommy's mad." Instead of using empty threats, it's better to anticipate the problem and plan for it. If you know your toddler isn't good at leaving promptly, give him ample warning and brainstorm ways to make leaving easier -- for instance, make up a song you can sing together as you walk out the door.

Caving In

The blunder: A cave-in

At age 3, Anders Nilsen of Columbus, Ohio, got out of bed at 10 p.m. and walked downstairs wearing a plaintive look. "Okay, you can stay for a minute," said his dad. So Anders did, then went back upstairs. A few nights later, he did it again. And again.

How to get out: Nip this one in the bud. Say, "It's late -- it's time to get back to bed." The next evening, clarify that last night's concession was a one-time-only deal. Explain that he needs his sleep and Mom and Dad need time alone together. And if he still gets out of bed to visit you, be firm.

White Lies

The blunder: A not-so-little white lie

Struggling to get his 4-year-old son to listen to him, Paul Stein of the Bronx, New York, unplugged the computer game that was mesmerizing him, walked into the kitchen, hid it, and told his son he'd thrown it away.

How to get out: Fess up. The only way out of a lie is to tell the truth. Admit what you really did -- and why. You can say, "I was so frustrated that I pretended to throw it away. I didn't mean to upset you. Let's both calm down, and later we'll figure out how to keep this from happening again." This way, you acknowledge your mistake and the child's misbehavior.

An older kid will probably call you on your attempt to fib. It's okay to openly correct yourself, says Wolf. ("You're right. What I said was silly. But this is what the policy is going to be.") By doing this, you're also modeling good behavior and teaching an important lesson. Someday your child might regret lying and remember you taught her a way out: telling the truth.

So will you lose your credibility as an authority figure if you reverse yourself? No. In fact, you'll probably gain credibility by showing you're not rigid. Plus, you'll teach your child that second thoughts can sometimes be more valuable than first thoughts, and what's most important is getting your relationship back on track.