How to Threaten Your Child

I’ve been told that I’m shameless – appallingly so, sometimes. Maybe you’ll agree when you’ve read to the end of this anecdote:

I was in high school. We’d been given a week to write a paper towards our History evaluation. Sometimes, I would be so excited about a topic that I’d research the hell out of it and present a college-level paper. This was one such occasion. I resolved to do a great job.

Unfortunately, I picked up some wonderful books from the library later that afternoon, and all my good intentions fell by the wayside. In fact, when it came time to submit the paper the next week, I found I had forgotten all about it!

The teacher couldn’t believe I was one of the defaulters. (I was considered a ‘good’ student, one who submitted reasonably good work on time…) “I’ll give you another week. By then, you must submit your assignment,” he yelled at the few of us who hadn’t done our work.

Good intentions renewed, I decided I would present a paper that would impress my teacher. Alas! More books happened, and for the second Wednesday in a row, I hadn’t done my work.

“I am amazed, shocked, grieved by you, Vinita,” his eyebrows waggled in emphasis. “Next week, you will definitely write out your homework and give it to me, or I’ll give you a ‘zero’ (we were marked out of a maximum of 10 marks). Got it? If you don’t give me your assignment next week, you’ll get a zero!” he thundered.

I nodded my understanding and sat down.

I’m sure you can guess what happened next. The next Wednesday came, by which time even the good intentions were beginning to bore me, and I decided I’d settle for the zero.

At the beginning of the History period, the teacher called my name. “Stand up, Vinita. Where is your assignment? You are the only one who hasn’t submitted it yet.”

“I’m sorry, Sir. I haven’t done it,” I replied.

He couldn’t take it in. “Not done it? Not done it? But I told you last week that I’ll give you a zero if you don’t give me your homework, didn’t I? Don’t you remember? Tell me, what should I do?”

I was sure this was a rhetorical question, so I held my peace.

But he kept on at me. “Tell me, what do you want me to do?”

It didn’t look like he would let go of the topic, so I told him calmly and truthfully, “Give me a zero, Sir.”

The man turned purple, his eyes bulged out, the veins stood out on his forehead, and he exploded, “You shameless girl! You stand there and tell me to give you a zero! I can’t believe it! You – you of all people…”

I’m sure he said stuff beyond this, but I had switched off by then.

I was thinking, “Here’s this teacher who tells me I have to make a choice. Either I submit the paper or I get a zero. Well, he’s asked me, and I’ve told him. I’m choosing the zero. What is there to get so excited about?”

By the time my mind came back to the classroom, he was raving in earnest.

I have an often inconvenient sense of humor, and it chose that moment to surface. I found the entire situation so utterly hilarious that I burst out laughing. You can just imagine what that classroom looked like! 🙂  

The teacher almost on the verge of a stroke, and me laughing so hard I was bent double and guffawing. My classmates must have been frozen. The next thing I knew I felt a tug on my skirt. The girl next to me said through clenched teeth, “Shut up and sit down.”

But I couldn’t because I was laughing uncontrollably. Besides, the teacher had asked me to stand, and I wouldn’t sit down unless he gave me permission to do so – anything else would have been a breach of etiquette.

So there we were – he screaming and I laughing fit to bust a gut.

By this time, much of the humor had left me, but I must have been having hysterics, because I simply couldn’t get myself to stop! 🙂

He shouted he couldn’t believe my audacity and my lack of manners, that he would take me to the Principal right away, and asked me to follow him. I did so, still unable to stop laughing. My classroom happened to be on the way, and he barged in, assaulting my classteacher’s eardrums with his complaints of my (mis)behavior. I was still walking – ten feet behind him, and still laughing.

My classteacher took in the situation at a glance. She invited him into her room and made him sit down. Then she came out, told me to get to a water cooler, drink as much water as I could, and make myself scarce till I was sure I wouldn’t laugh any more, no matter what the provocation. “And then come back here,” she instructed.

I ran away thankfully.

When I got back to her room, the History teacher’s volume was significantly lowered, but he was adamant about reporting me to the Principal immediately. He led me down to the Principal’s office, where we waited in an ante-room.

After 20 minutes, we were told that the Principal was too busy to meet us that day. All the way back to the classroom, he continued to give me a earful about how disappointed he was in me and so on and so forth.

I didn’t make any response.

At the end of the day, I was told by many classmates, “I was sure this was the end of you. First you didn’t do the assignment, then you told him to give you a zero, and then you started laughing! You’ve lost it – completely!”

More than 20 years later, here’s what I feel about the entire incident:

1. The teacher gave me a choice and I made my choice. He shouldn’t have given me a choice if he didn’t mean it. (“Don’t say things if you don’t mean them” is the rule. It’s also known as ‘telling the truth’ in many parts of the world.)

2. There was nothing wrong with my choosing a zero over submitting the assignment. The kind of excitement it generated, somebody would’ve thought I’d picked death over life on my wedding night!

3. My getting hysterics was unfortunate, but lots of unfortunate things happen in life. I didn’t mean anything by it, and as an adult, the teacher might have taken the whole thing less personally.

4. I was perfectly willing to present my case to the Principal as well, and take whatever ‘punishment’ would have come my way.

And that brings me to how to threaten your child. 🙂  How to do it effectively, I mean.

1. Don’t threaten all the time – Nobody likes to feel like they are the puppet at the end of a string. “Chew each morsel 15 times or else…” “Put your books away or else…” “Stop watching now or else…” “Do as I say or else…”

I’m sure your child feels like saying, “I wish I were the dog – I’d have more freedom and get my way more often!”

It would work much better if you threaten for only one or two things – I don’t mean every day, but I mean generally, for one or two NOs which your child is going against.

2. Make specific threats – “Finish your homework or Mom will have something to say about it when she gets back” won’t work for long.

Look at it from your child’s point of view: “Mom always has things to say about everything! And she goes on saying them – day in and day out! 🙂  (And it doesn’t bother me any longer, because I’ve gotten good at tuning her out… 🙂 )”

Much better to threaten: “If you don’t finish your homework today, I won’t take you for the movie we were planning to watch this weekend.”

“If you miss the bus, I won’t take you to school.”

Again, choose only a couple of issues, and keep the same threat for the same issue each time.

3. Beware of exceptions – “Okay, your cousin came in to visit, so this once, it’s okay if you didn’t do your homework” has a funny way of becoming the line you repeat every day. If at all there are exceptions, make sure that they are exceptions.

4. Follow through on your threats – Be uncompromising about this.

Once, when my daughter was about 7 or 8, she was reading like a glutton. She has always been (and still is) a voracious reader, but those few months scared me. Any time I turned around, she was sitting surrounded by piles of books. She’d pick 40 or so books out of her bookshelf (even then she had well over 2000 books – our one indulgence –, and she loves re-reading her books, so –), and would sit unmoving till she had read through the entire pile. It might take hours, but she wouldn’t move till she’d read every last one. The only exceptions were if she had to go to the toilet, or if she fell asleep while reading. Then she’d replace the pile neatly and pull out a few dozen more books!

After a few months of this, I warned her that she had to stop being the way she was (being), else I’d lock away all her books. I told her I’d remind her 3 more times, after which one morning she’d wake up to find all the books locked away in the loft.

That is what happened.

It is the only time in my life that she stopped speaking to me. It was like I didn’t exist any longer – at least, not for her. It lasted 3 full days, during which she didn’t even make eye contact with me.

On the 4th day, I was pleading, “What is the matter? Why won’t you talk to me? Say something. Tell me what’s bothering you. What have I done wrong?” She finally looked into my eyes and then looked meaningfully at the loft doors. I was a little slow.

“I locked up your books?” I asked in disbelief. “That’s why you stopped talking to me? But I told you I’d do that! I told you clearly, and you said you understood!”

Still not a word from her. Her eyes filled with tears.

I couldn’t take it; I started bawling. I put my arms around her and we both cried as we held each other. “I’m sorry,” I gasped, “but I’d told you you couldn’t go on reading like that. You had to develop some control over yourself.”

She hiccoughed, “How would you feel if someone locked away your family and didn’t let you meet them? How would you feel if someone locked me away and didn’t let you meet me? They are my family. Don’t ever lock them away again.”

We renegotiated. Some books came down. She got a grip on herself. More books came down. All the books came back to the bookshelves. Peace was restored.


That’s how I threaten my child.

I’m waiting to hear how you do it! 🙂


6 Responses to How to Threaten Your Child

  1. Venu January 17, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    Okay, I get your point and I am trying really hard not to say NO so much and also there are so many adults at home that someone or the other is saying No to her for something or the other- not my happiest situation and I am trying to change it. Currently my daughter is testing what we will disapprove and to what level she can take it. So she has started throwing tantrums – the worst kind- lying down on the floor and kicking variety- she does not get what she wants and is ignored and while it takes time she does come around to talking calmly about what she wants and listening to reason. We have three rules – Mama and Nethra: Rule I. If she cries and throws a tantrum we can have no conversation Rule 2. If Nethra will try and listen to mama – mama will try and not get angry Rule 3. When I say I am serious now- we have to stop all the fooling around and listen
    The first rule works best for her.
    But its really hard when your child has higher reserves of perseverance and patience than you do… my toughest challenge is being able to not talk to her- as that is my most used threat- for she can go without talking to me for longer. Also because there are others at home she can talk to at that time.
    just my two bits for now!! 🙂

    • Vinita Zutshi January 19, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

      You’re doing fine, Venu, but second-guessing oneself is just part of the parenting territory 😉 Keep writing – others are learning from you too! 🙂

  2. Preeti Hans January 18, 2012 at 7:57 pm #


    • Vinita Zutshi January 19, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

      I’m shameless – you agree? 😉

      • Preeti Hans January 19, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

        I do :D….
        By Wow, i meant wow post…. and wow approach towards parenting

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes