I recently received an email from a concerned parent. It read as follows:
My friend threatened to leave her 8 year-old kid on the side of the road. He had been playing up something shocking and she felt like it was her only discipline option.
She followed thru but the kid ran home. She freaked because she didn’t know where he was, and spent 20 minutes driving around the neighbourhood looking for him.
Questions for you:
Is this a justifiable tactic to pull?
And what should a parent do when it backfires?
When I first read the email, in spite of my concern for the child, I felt immediate empathy for the parent. We’ve all been there – those times when we would much prefer to kick our kids out of the car and drive home without them! Whether they’re toddlers, teens, or somewhere in between, sometimes they can drive us absolutely spare.
But regardless of how tough it is for a parent in this situation, leaving your kids on the side of the road is unjustifiable. It’s wrong, and it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to work out why:
1. It’s not safe – especially at the age of 8. Obviously it depends on how close to home you are, the time of day, etc, etc, but ultimately it’s not safe.
2. Even if it were physically safe, you’re leaving your child in a terribly vulnerable emotional situation.
3. Renowned psychology researcher, Martin Hoffman, claimed that telling a child you might abandon them might be considered the “ultimate threat”, particularly when the child is young and vulnerable. Other researchers have indicated abandonment strategies can “leave the child in a state of emotional discomfort for longer periods” than other forms of punishment – including physical punishment.
To kick your child out of the car, or even threaten to leave them behind is the ultimate betrayal of parental power. It is unjustifiable, regardless of how the child is acting.
My friend’s second question was “What do parents do instead?” Dealing with challenging children requires that we remember a couple of very hard things:
First – ‘discipline’ means teaching good ways to act.
Second – our children need our love most when they deserve it least.
If our child needs disciplining, that means he needs teaching. If everyone is going nuts in the car, it’s probably not a good time for teaching. We don’t learn particularly well when we are emotional. Further, kicking out the kids teaches a lesson – but it’s probably not the lesson we might be hoping they’ll learn. Most likely, it will teach them mum or dad don’t care about them.
We will have our most effective teaching moments (that is, discipline moments) when we stop trying to ‘do things to’ our kids, and when we start to ‘work with’ them. To work with anyone, especially children, we need to be in control of our emotions.
The second point is particularly interesting. When our children are playing up, whether it’s screaming because they don’t want to sit in their car seat or whining because they didn’t want to leave their friends or the park, they are being generally hard to love. And our responses are typically (and understandably) unloving. We tell them to zip it, grow up, get over it, or stop being so silly.
These strategies rarely work. I’m yet to hear my daughters say:
“Gee, good point Dad. I think I do need to grow up a bit, and I’ll keep what you said in mind. In fact, I think I’ll stay quiet for you until I’m sufficiently mature to regulate my emotions on my own.”
Instead, a parent’s angry threats and punishments often exacerbate the child’s challenging behaviour because those threats increase the child’s fear that something bad will happen to them. This makes them more upset, and makes it harder for them to control themselves.
A left-field strategy
When our children are acting out (particularly in the car where the space is confined and our options are limited) I suggest an unexpected strategy – a strategy that can work equally well at home.
Some years ago I was running a parenting session when a rough-talking man with a shaved head, goatee, and multiple tattoos and piercings challenged me. He described a situation where his kids were fighting in the car. He said he pulled his car over, yelled at the kids, threatened them, and finally drove on. His children never said another world.
“So it worked” he argued.
“Worked to do what, though?” I countered. “Worked to shut them up? Yes. But what else happened?”
He admitted that there had been tears, and that his threats had left everyone feeling awful for some time after the incident.
I made a suggestion. “How about next time it happens – because there will be a next time – you pull the car over and ask them to get out of the car. Then kneel beside each one of them and tell them you love them. Hug them. And ask them to sit in the car together and treat each other nicely.”
There was some stunned silence.
Then he laughed out loud at my suggestion. There was some more silence. He laughed again, a little nervously. Then he said,
“Righto. I think I’ll try that.”
A few weeks later I heard from him. He’d tried it. And he couldn’t believe how it had worked!
Are hugs the answer?
I’m not suggesting that hugs are the answer to all of our disciplinary difficulties. However, I think that there is something in the approach that is valid.
When our hearts are peaceful toward our children, we tend to be more compassionate, more understanding, and more open. Rather than doing things to them, we can reason with them, listen to them, and work with them. Research has consistently shown that reasoning is the most effective way to both teach our children, and more importantly, to help get our values deep inside them so they are motivated to behave well even when we’re not around.
When the kids are going crazy, by all means stop the car and tell them to get out. But do it kindly and quietly. Hug them, and you’ll find that you’ll enjoy the rest of the drive.