Dear Kid Whisperer,
What do I do when my 4-year-old threatens to do something? Yesterday, we were painting and she took a small jar of oil paint, tipped it so that it was about to spill all over the floor, looked at me, and smiled. I told her that she better not spill the paint, and that she would be in a lot of trouble if she spilled the paint. I counted to three. As I started to say “three”, she poured it all over the floor. She does this kind of thing all the time. I’ve tried calmly telling her how that hurts my feelings. I’ve tried yelling, and I’ve tried spanking. Nothing works. What’s left? — Brianna, Miamisburg, Ohio
Your kid likes to threaten you with poor behavior for exactly the same reason I like to turn on my television.
To be entertained.
It is fun to watch an adult get angry, scream, lecture and threaten, or perform a melodrama called “You Have Hurt Me So”. Your kid will only stop this kidbrinksmanship once you are no longer providing entertainment when she does so and once you provide a consequence for the kid causing problems and threatening to cause problems. Here’s how I would handle your kid threatening me with Paintmaggedon. Notice that I never threaten or waste one breath with warnings.
Kid threatens by tipping the can into a precarious position and smiling.
Kid Whisperer (Not looking up from his painting and working furiously): What should you do now?
Kid Whisperer counts to one in his head, calmly gets up, moves away from the child, slyly circles back behind the child and takes the paint jar out from her hand. Hint: I put one hand on the jar and one hand on the wrist and slowly pry the little fingers off the can in order to avoid splattering.
Kid Whisperer (calmly, almost whispering, as he is extracting the jar from Kid’s clutches): Oh, drat. Looks like painting is over.
Kid: BWAHH! I am going to express anger now! BWAHH!
Kid Whisperer: Oh, drat. I will be doing something about this later.
Kid Whisperer: Oh, drat. Yesterday when you tipped the paint jar over, and I asked you what you should do, you didn’t put the paint jar back on the table. You just kept tipping the jar and smiling at me. That made me sad. It made me realize that you don’t know how to use paint jars the right way. Since we both like to paint, knowing how to use paint jars is important in this house. So, before you get to play, or do anything, you are going to have to get really good at using paint jars correctly.
Kid: This is stupid.
Kid Whisperer: Yep. Here’s a paint jar. Notice that it has no paint in it since I can’t trust you not to dump paint right now. How long do you need to sit and practice not tipping the jar, 15 minutes or 30 minutes?
Kid: I can’t emphasize enough how stupid this is.
Kid Whisperer: OK, 30 minutes it is.
Kid’s life comes to a screeching halt until she sits in front of the jar for 30 minutes without tipping it. When done, Kid is asked if she has become an expert at using paint jars correctly. If the answer is “yes”, Kid gets a big hug and she goes about living her life. A “no” gets her 30 more minutes of practice time. Finally, notice that this same consequence can be used if the kid actually dumps the paint, but in this case we double the practice time. A boring parent giving boring consequences can go a long way toward having a well-behaved kid.
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