When choices are disguised threats

I’m not threatening you, but you better give your children real choices. Or else.

March 30, 2014 21:10
4 minute read.
Communicating with your children

Communicating with your children. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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Which of the following are real choices?

1. Clean your room right now or give up using your computer for two nights, the choice is yours.

2. Have at least one bite of your vegetables or you get no desert. It’s up to you.

3. Stop taking your sister’s clothes or I’ll take away some of yours. You decide.

4. Either share your toys with your brother or I’ll take them away from both of you. Think about it.

It has become an accepted practice since the 1990s for parents to give their children choices instead of making demands. While not every parent gives choices, most understand that demands, backed by threats, have many negative results. Children, like every living creature, have a built in flight/fight response to threat. Because threats by parents are psychological in nature, they produce psychological flight/fight; withdrawal, passive aggressive behavior or defiance.

Threats give control to parents by scaring the child with undesirable and hurtful punishments if the child refuses to do what the parent wants.

Children may initially respond positively to threats in the short term out of fear, but over time, negative effects eventually appear.

Choices empower children to feel in control, avoiding difficult pushback and escalation. Choices build trust between parents and children. They resolve issues positively most of the time.

Parents often confuse choices with threats because they are trying to follow the advice of the “experts” and give some control to their children, while still maintaining control for themselves. Since these are opposite goals, one solution is to use threats, but disguise them as choices. Most parents don’t even realize they are creating this conflict of goals. They believe that they are truly sharing control, being good parents, that their choices are real, and are genuinely surprised when their child responds negatively. “But I gave you a choice,” they say, “Why are you being so uncooperative?” Let’s figure out the difference between choice and threat.

If I stuck a gun to your head and said, “Your money or your life,” you might say, “I don’t have any money.”

Some might add, “I’m not even sure if I have a life.” Is “your money or your life” a threat or choice? Most parents know it is a threat, but when I ask why, they say, “Because the choices are both negative.” This sounds good, but it is a wrong answer. It is not about negativity; it’s about control.

For example, consider a doctor telling a patient who had been in a serious car accident, “I can save your life by amputating your leg, or I can try to save your leg, but there is a chance you might die.” Both of these choices are negative, but the control is with the patient, not the doctor.

There are two distinct ways to tell if you are offering a choice or a threat to your child: 1. Are any of the alternatives punishments? If so, then it is always a threat.

2. Do you already know which option you would rather your child chose, and are you leading your child in that direction? If so, it is a threat.

Using these criteria it becomes clear that the choices offered at the beginning of this article are all threats.

All contain punishments and in every case you would prefer that your child choose the other option. It doesn’t matter that words like, “the choice is yours,” are added. They are still classic threats and are best avoided.

The following are examples of some real choices.

Notice that the parent has no preference and no option is designed to hurt. I have included choices for children of various ages. And since this is a limited set of examples, further consequences are not included, but may be necessary.

1. Sidney, hitting is not allowed in this home. You can apologize to Arvin if you are sincerely sorry, do something helpful for him, or do something to help the girl downstairs if you are still too angry to help Arvin.

2. You can’t have pizza for lunch today because I don’t have the time. You can have a salad of your choice, a sandwich with chips, or noodles.

3. That outfit is best worn after school. Here are three choices that are all perfect for school. Which do you choose? 4. If you don’t like doing your homework when you get right home from school, you can do it before dinner, after dinner before going online, or an hour before bedtime.

I’m not threatening you, but you better give your children real choices. Or else.

The writer is the author of Discipline With Dignity and is the director of the master’s program of behavior disorder at David Yellin College in Jerusalem.

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