Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Empty Threats (Or Lies I've Told My Kids)

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I took my girls to our local zoo. We have one of those unlimited attraction memberships that allows us - at no additional cost - to feed giraffes and lorikeets, ride the ponies and the carousel, climb a rock wall, watch a 3D movie, and take a train ride - over and over and over again, world without end, amen. (What ever happened to just looking at the animals?!?) But eventually hunger won out over the allure of free pony rides, and since I hadn't had to shell out $2 for a handful of limp lettuce at the giraffe feeding platform, I agreed to spring for lunch. The girls, with all the enthusiasm of kids who are rarely allowed to eat fast food, opted for the Kenya Cafe.

Two orders of overpriced chicken tenders and greasy fries later, we were seated at a window booth overlooking the alligator enclosure. (Yeah, THAT'S the perfect place to eat chicken. Watching a hand-fed alligator whose main diet is - of course - chicken. Smart.) It was a drizzly day, and still fairly early, so there weren't that many diners in the cafe yet. But one family stood out, and not only because they were sitting right behind us. No, this particular family could be easily recognized by the incessant screaming of their three young children and the shrill response of the adults as "Parents Who Make Empty Threats that Everyone in a Three-Mile Radius Knows They Have No Intention of Carrying Out."

Now, usually Slacker Mom is all about the love. Do what works for you; don't judge other parents; no one knows what is really going on in another family. But seriously, these parents were just about the most annoying adults I've encountered in a long, long time. Two little boys, who looked to be about 3 and 5, sat at the table with their parents. A younger child sat in the stroller, flinging food out and screaming at the top of his lungs. Great, I thought, lunch AND a show. Ignoring the screaming and the politely curious looks of the other diners (this is the South, after all, and no one would be outright rude), Dad kept pushing the chicken on one kid ("One more bite! One more bite! Then you can have a chip!"); Mom was pushing a sandwich on the other ("Please? Please? For Mommy?"). As she got more and more frustrated, and the kids got more and more vocal about their feelings regarding lunch, Mom's speech went something like this: "You asked for the sandwich so you have to eat it. You promised you'd eat the sandwich after you had the cookies, so now you have to keep your word. If you don't keep your word, you can't have TV or dessert all week." Dad's was along the same lines, but with a "no one will ever trust you again if you don't keep your word" twist. Pretty harsh for preschoolers, but hey, who am I to judge? I've been guilty of over-explaining things a time or two myself.

But after approximately 47 versions of the same lecture, I wanted to turn around and say, "Geez! What, are you new at this? You gave them the cookies first. It's over. Call it a day, and next time, lunch first and dessert after!" But just as I was about to give in to the urge to at least turn around and glare meaningfully at the parents (hey, I'm not from here - I have no problem being rude now and then), I heard a little voice behind me say, "So, if I eat another bite, can I have some more cookies? And watch TV later?"

And of course, the parents agreed, as everyone around them knew they would. The family packed it up and left, discussing what movie the boys wanted to rent on the way home from the zoo.

And as much as I wanted to sit in judgement of their poor parenting skills, instead, I started thinking: am I guilty of the same thing? Do I threaten my kids with ridiculous punishments? Do I bribe them? Do I fail to enforce consequences for misbehavior or for poor choices?

The short answer to that question is yes. The long answer is yes, but only when I've realized that my original punishment is too harsh, or will punish me more than the guilty party, or will take away from our valuable family time, or when I'm really really mad and not thinking as clearly as I should - or when I forget what I said in the first place (one of the perils of being an older mom). But still - the answer is yes. And I want it to be no. I really, REALLY want it to be no. I want my kids to know that when I say something, that's the way it is. I want them to know that they can count on my word as being true and final and reliable. I once heard someone say that if you don't follow through with consequences, you've lied to your kids. Sounds kind of harsh, but I understand what he means. If I say no playtime until chores are done, I need to follow through and check to see that things are done properly BEFORE I let the kids off the hook, rather than going back and yelling at them later. If I say, "Clean your rooms before the movie," I need to get off my butt, go upstairs, and check under the beds and in the closets before handing over the remote. And when I dole out justice, whether it's a natural consequence or an actual punishment, I have to make sure - beforehand - that it's something I am willing to enforce. If the consequence is more unpleasant for me to enforce than it is for the child to endure, what's the point?

I once told my daughters that I would cancel Christmas if they kept fighting. Really? I LOVE Christmas, and I would NEVER do that. But I was at that breaking point where I just couldn't stand the bickering for one more second. A string of difficult mornings with kids who didn't want to get out of bed found me threatening to make them ride the school bus if they weren't ready to leave on time. (Now, before anyone gets upset and says that riding the bus is no punishment, let me say this: My kids aren't even up yet when the bus comes past my house at 6:36 each morning, because school starts at 7:40. We live 5 minutes from school. So yeah, it WOULD be a punishment.) But how would THAT solve anything? I'd be the one getting up even earlier! Yet another frustrated afternoon of jamming uncooperative little toes into ballet tights led to my empty promise to pull them out of the dance recital - after hundreds of dollars spent on lessons, shoes, costumes, and photos. Like I'd do that. All that time and money wasted, and for what? Because a 5-year-old had a hard time with the seam of her tights? How much better would it have been to make light of the situation, to say, "Tell your piggies to get inside those tights! Your ballet shoes are lonely!" and make her giggle rather than cry?

No, those empty threats and ridiculous comments say more about my frustrations as a parent, about my sleep deficit level, about my overall state of mind than they do about my kids' behavior. They're good kids, but they're kids. As my friend Jen says, you can't expect them to get in one day or one year what we've finally understood after 30-some years. They weren't born middle-aged, they were born brand-spanking new. They need time to figure out how to navigate the world. And let's face it, my mood determines the tone of the day, the mood in my home.

Slacker Mom Says... mean what you say and say what you mean. It's so easy to make empty threats, to give convoluted and unrealistic punishments that we know, as we say them, that we're never going to uphold. We all do it at some point, and we all know we do it. I'm vowing to stop right now. The next time I want to threaten to throw away all their toys because no one cleaned up the playroom, I'll remember that my agenda is just that: mine. Just because I want them to do something, it doesn't mean that they care at all about my timeline. A little patience and a sense of humor go a long way.

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