Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

Mama to Mama logoSo tell me if this sounds familiar: You’re with your little buddy at a friend’s house for a play date. Four-year-old Andrew is all hopped up and driving everyone crazy. He’s throwing things, yelling and taking toys from the other kids. His mom sees it and every once in awhile shouts out, “Hey Andrew! If you don’t stop that, we’re leaving. I’m not kidding!”

And then she turns her head and goes back to chatting up the other moms who are beginning to look like they need a stiff drink and a full body massage. In the meantime, Andrew continues to happily wreak havoc on everything around him. You’ve been there. We all have. You might even have been Andrew’s mother….

But hey, we all get tired of being on the job all the time. We get worn down by the whining or distracted by something else and end up making a threat that we know in our heart of hearts we aren’t really going to keep. I can relate. Really.

Nobody wants to be the parent who has to leave the party because her youngster just won’t behave, despite being ordered to knock it off multiple times. Following through on a threat can be totally embarrassing, not to mention time consuming and inconvenient. But we throw that stern parental-sounding threat out out anyway, convinced that our small fry won’t know that it’s a fake.

But here’s the deal—in his heart of hearts, he knows we won’t make good on it. Kids are UNBELIEVABLY brilliant at figuring out when we mean business and when we’re just bluffing. If they worked for the F.B.I., they would nail us in our lie every time.

And as soon as they figure out that we’re all talk and no action, we’ve had it. You think you’re tired now? Honey! You have no idea what’s down the road if you don’t get clued in to what you’re setting up.

Before you know it, your cute little four-year-old will actually be bigger and stronger than you. And then when you say, “No, you can’t stay in bed, you have to go to school,” or, “Go to bed, it’s 3:00 in the morning,” he may say, “Yeah, right.” Then what will you do? Once your credibility is shot, it can take a long time and a lot of work to get it back. Empty threats are just that–empty. They have no value and seriously undermine your ability to have impact as a parent.

The truth is kids want to know from the time they are really young that mom and dad are in charge and mean what they say. They will test us repeatedly to find out whether we are willing to put our money where our mouth is. And don’t forget, they’ve been studying our every move since they arrived on the planet and can sense our hesitation or doubt in less time than it takes to pull out a wipe.

They talk a good game but at the end of the day, they know they aren’t capable of taking care of themselves. So when you make the rules and set the limits in a kind and consistent way, it actually makes them feel secure because they know what to expect from you and also what you expect from them. Your willingness to gently but firmly take control of an out-of-control child helps her learn how to eventually control herself. It’s actually a gift.

Once you decide to be that “in-charge” kind of gal, be sure to choose your battles wisely. If all your child ever hears is “Stop that,” or “No, no, no,” she’ll just start tuning you out which won’t help. So just make sure you know which behaviors are truly unacceptable to you and that your expectations are age appropriate.

Then start to work on mastering “the look” and the tone of voice that communicates immediately that you are serious and not in the mood to negotiate. Think back to the adults from your own childhood who were kind but firm and use them as role models. Maybe it was your sixth grade teacher or even your own mom–somebody who always let you know when enough was enough.

How did they do it? Most likely, they were calm, comfortable with the idea of being the boss, and had a clear set of rules that they consistently enforced. Remember how safe you felt when you were with them? How you could really cut loose and enjoy yourself because they always let you know when you were getting a little out of control and pulled you back before you got in trouble? That’s what you’re shooting for.

Once you’ve got all that down, you’re ready to take action next time your little one starts acting out. But before you say a word, assess the situation carefully and take the time to intervene in a different way first. Maybe he’s simply wiped out and needs a nap. Maybe he’s really frustrated and doesn’t know another way to handle the situation he’s in. Maybe he’s getting sick and isn’t himself. Check it out. But if you have done all that and decide to make the threat, pay attention to what happens next and follow through if he doesn’t change his behavior.

In the long run, you’ll thank yourself for being so smart. Just don’t forget the part about being kind and gentle. Nobody likes a bully or a tough guy and after all, you do want them to like and respect you. They will—if you are fair and always say what you mean and mean what you say.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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One response to “Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say”

  1. MILEO

    What you talked about in your article, “say what you mean, mean what you say,” is very true, and I can verify it as a mother of an 8-year-old girl here in Paris. And Madelene S. is a testimony to your parenting expertise. It’s so nice to know your daughter and I will be visiting your website regularly!

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