This Is a Promise, not a Threat

It was only the first hole, but already the bickering on the mini golf course was intense. My son, exhibiting the hypercompetitive nature that wins games but annoys other people, took on the responsibility to coach his younger sister on her putting technique.

“That's not how you do it,” he said impatiently.

“I can do it any way I want,” she argued.

“You're doing it wrong,” he said.

“Who made you the golf police?” she countered.

This exchange was going nowhere, not to mention they both held putters in hand, ready to employ as weapons at any moment. “Enough!” I shouted. “If I hear one more fight between the two of you, you're toast.”

What it means to be “toast” isn't entirely clear, but they eased up a bit. They know me well enough to assume I'll come up with some miserable consequence, like sending them ahead to play the last few holes together — alone — where the rest of the family doesn't have to hear them fight. “Toast” is vague enough to keep me from having to act, which makes it an all-purpose worst outcome.

The problem with making threats to children while in a fit of parental frustration is that you have to remember what you said you would do, and then later, when your children don't live up to your standards of behavior, you have to follow through and do it.

I've learned a lot about making threats in my 15 years as a parent. First, I've learned that there are just two kinds of threats — the kind you'll never carry out and the kind you must. For example, when I find mountains of shoes piled on the landing by the back door instead of stored in the baskets where they belong, I threaten to burn all the shoes in our possession and force my children into a barefoot existence.

When they leave toys all over the house, I say I'm going to donate their stuff to charity and force them to play with lint from the dryer.

When they waste food, I threaten to serve cereal for every meal.

They don't really expect to be shoeless, toyless cereal eaters. What they expect, instead, is to endure a lengthy lecture laced with horrible punishments that sound unenforceable and unlikely.

On the other hand, I also have learned there are some threats you absolutely must make good on or risk losing any semblance of parental authority. These are the kind I really hate because, invariably, following through is more difficult for me than for my children.

Case in point: the girls' bedroom. My two older daughters — both teens — share a room that resembles a landfill. The clothes we spend hours choosing at the mall become wrinkled balls of fabric in the corners. Those would be the clean clothes. Inexplicably, the dirty clothes often are hung — askew — on hangers in the closet.

Towels are single-use items, stored after each shower in wet piles where they ferment into mildewed stench bombs.

Their bathroom sink stores everything they need to be beautiful: hairbrushes, makeup, razors, dental floss (used), blobs of toothpaste, tops of empty shampoo bottles, bowls from yesterday's ice cream, someone's English homework, a hammer (a hammer?!).

Not long ago, on a rare visit to this condemned corner of our abode, I took a stand. “Let's get one thing straight: This is not your house. This house belongs to Dad and me, and you only live here out of our benevolent generosity. When you own a house, you may choose to live like slobs, but as long as you live under our roof …” — blah, blah, blah. If you're a parent, you can fill in the rest.

In the midst of my tirade, I made a new threat. I said they had the remainder of the school year to prove they understood the house rules about clean bedrooms. If I didn't see an improvement, I'd switch their room with their younger sister's — a much smaller space not really suited for two teenage girls.

“It would be cramped and cluttered, but at least I'd have a smaller mess to endure when I walk past your door.”

I don't really want to spend a weekend moving furniture, nor do I want to force my younger daughter to relinquish the only pink space in the house.

Every time I stick my head into the teenagers' room and see an unmade bed or a pile of clean laundry that didn't make it into a dresser, I wish I hadn't threatened the bedroom switch, because it looks as if I'm going to have to actually do it. Worse yet, changing rooms probably won't cause my teens to adopt an organized lifestyle anyway.

Fortunately, at the end of my monologue on housekeeping, I remembered to throw in this little maternal gem: “And another thing — I reserve the right to change this punishment at any time if I decide some other consequence would be more effective — like moving you both to the garage.”

It's the threat they know I won't fulfill — the empty promise — that gives them another chance to improve their behavior.

Then again, one night in the garage can't hurt them. I could throw some sleeping bags out there between the van and the bicycles and tuck them in with a reminder not to trip over the basketballs if they come in during the night to use the bathroom.

Lucky for my girls, the last time I visited their bedroom, it was spotless.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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