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All Parents Offer Empty Promises and Hollow Threats. But Do They Do Harm?

When a child acts out, it is all too easy to make a promise or threat a parent has no intention or ability to keep. But that could hurt your relationship in the long run.

The hollow threat or empty promise is a near-unavoidable tool of parents. It’s not a good tool — most parents understand this — but it’s one that sometimes feels necessary. Say you’re in a restaurant trying to get to the end of the meal, or you’re late and simply have to get out the door. It might seem like the only way to move forward is to incentivize (or dis-incentivize) your kids: “If you don’t stop acting up, I’m going to take away your Pokemon cards.” Conversely, “If you are good for just 15 more minutes, you’ll get a prize at home.” So you’re not going to take away their precious Pokemon cards, and that “prize”, if not forgotten, will end up being some piece of candy you find lying around. No harm, right? 

Not so. Research shows these statements have consequences, eroding the trust between parent and child. “Once you open your mouth, you need to follow through,” says Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “Because kids are very smart and they have radar detectors and they will find out if it’s a false promise.” 

Research shows that young children keep their promises and they expect others to do the same. They also take cues from adult behavior. A 2012 update of the classic marshmallow test conducted at Rochester University showed that having reliable interactions with adults influenced what children did later. Kids who interacted with adults who followed through on what they said they would do waited far longer on average before nibbling a marshmallow than children who interacted with adults who didn’t do what they said. The children seemed to be making a decision about how likely that promised future reward actually was, wrote the researchers in a post about the experiment.   

When parents break their promises, it can also teach a child that this kind of behavior is acceptable, says Borba. “If you want your child to be trustworthy, then you’ve got to be trustworthy.”

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Hollow threats, on the other hand, can have even deeper consequences. When parent use empty threats all the time, they undermine a kid’s understanding of rules and consequences by suggesting that “rules” are actually can be obeyed or not obeyed depending on the context of the situation. Furthermore, on the surface they stress a child out, making it even more difficult for them to have the self-control required for good behavior.

Instead of leaning on empty promises and hollow threats, there are many other strategies parents can deploy to deal with misbehaving kids, especially if you’re worried about an outburst at the family holiday party.

The first strategy is to take steps to minimize outbursts from the get-go. Kids misbehave four times predictably, says Borba, when they are hungry, bored, tired, or in need of attention. Taking steps to anticipate those needs can help avoid an outburst altogether, she says. It also helps to reduce your own stress around the holidays, because children will mirror what they see in their parents, which could also cause them to act out.

Also, if you have a specific way you want your child to act in a given situation, like acting excited to get a sweater from grandma, for example, Borba recommends practicing that action with them ahead of time. This will allow the child to meet your expectations and head off a potentially negative interaction.

If your child’s behavior does start to escalate, it can be challenging for a parent to slow down and think about their response. But it’s important. “Trust is really easy to snap and really hard to reconstruct,” says Robert Zietlin, a positive psychologist and author of the book Laugh More, Yell Less: A Guide to Raising Kick-Ass Kids. In these moments, he says it can help to “zoom in” to empathize with how your child is feeling in this moment, or to “zoom out” to focus on the big picture rather than how angry you feel right then and there.

To encourage good behavior, Borba recommends praising your child after they do something good as a reinforcement, rather than promising something you can’t possibly deliver. During the holidays, to give an example of a time brimming with empty promises and hollow threats, instead of promising more presents from Santa, say something about how Santa is probably watching because he loves kindness and is really proud. This kind of praise can be very effective, because in the end kids really want to please their parents. And you thought the myth of Santa was nothing but trouble.