What A Child Learns When You Make Empty Threats
When a parent makes grand threats they know they’ll never follow up on, a kid stops being socialized and starts getting sneaky.
Discipline often feels like a lesson in escalation. Child breaks rule. Parent punishes. Child breaks same rule. Parent punishes more. Child breaks rule. Parent punishes even more and threatens much worse. And then the wheels come off the wagon. Why? Because children learn just as much from empty threats as they do from fair, evenly applied consequences — and none of it’s good. By threatening misbehaving children, parents set themselves up to fail and to confirm the child’s suspicion that they can get away with whatever they want.
“Any empty threat teaches a child that they can get away with things,” explains Nancy Darling, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Oberlin College. “You’re drawing attention to the punishment and teaching them to be sneaky, lie, and avoid punishment.”
The problem with empty threats, according to Darling, is one of incomplete socialization. In the best-case scenario, a child who is socialized accepts the values a parent holds dear. But more importantly, they internalize those values. What empty threats do, in a sense, is disrupt the process of internalization by suggesting that inconsistently applied rules can be obeyed or not obeyed depending on the context of the situation.
There are a couple of reasons this is the case, explains Darling. “The most important thing for a kid in any relationship is predictability,” she explains. “So the kid knows what the rules are and the kid knows what’s going to happen if they are disobeyed.”
There is a deep sense of safety in predictability and consistency for a child, as long as a parent levels “reasonable consequences for reasonable crimes,” Darling explains — in other words, offering reasons for consequences beyond the simple compliance of “because I said so.” Ideally, the reasons for consequences should be explicit and related to the values a parent hopes their child will internalize: honesty, kindness, integrity, and safety (that sort of thing).
“If you have a child who sees rules done consistently, for reasons that are explained, with reasonable consequences that include an explanation, it helps set that internalization,” explains Darling.
On the other hand, empty threats decouple consequence from values, because they’re made in an attempt to intimidate rather than inform. What this does is focus the child on the punishment itself. The value that the child develops is in avoiding the punishment. And if that’s the endgame, then deception is totally reasonable.
When a child does comply because they’re frightened of an unreasonable consequence, it doesn’t mean that they’ll comply when they’re away from the parent. It merely means that they’re afraid of their parent. That’s a horrible and predictable result that’s likely to lead to more misbehavior as children age.
Darling suggests all of this points to the existence of a parenting Goldilocks-zone that was laid out by psychologist Diana Baumrind in the 1960s. Baumrind came up a set of parenting styles that include the permissive parent who pours out positive regard but little discipline, the authoritarian parent who creates an intense amount of rules with less positive regard, and the authoritative parent who offers both positive regard and rules.
“The authoritative parent is the warmest and the strictest in that they are the most consistent about following through on rules,” explains Darling. Because reasonable, consistently enforced rules based on values helps a child understand that the family is in this together, and everyone should have everyone else’s best interests at heart.
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