Threatener Of The Absurd: A Parenting Technique So Silly It Just Might Work

If you’re a parent of young children, you are almost certainly familiar with the ongoing game of “or else”. Resorting to threats is part of getting through many of each day’s mundane tasks, like toothbrushing, bedtime, homework, vegetables, sibling combat.

As your children get used to the constant badgering, you find yourself on auto-pilot, spewing threats that are either so innocuous as to be ineffective, or so harsh as to have no resolve or reality behind them: “brush your teeth or you’ll get no dessert tomorrow when, as you well know, I will almost certainly have forgotten this moment”, or “if you do not do your homework, you will have to live in a flaming dumpster with a family of hyenas when you grow up”. The two pillars of parental threat, of course, involve dessert and TV deprivation.

Some families roll their threats up into a legally defined term, such as “privileges” or “consequences”. Over time, the implications of “losing privileges” or “getting consequences” become understood, and boil themselves right back down to synonyms for dessert and TV. But this idea of creating an “or else” vocabulary recently inspired another approach that might earn you some level of obedience for another couple months in the race toward the hopeless teen years.

Let’s call it Threatener of the Absurd“. It’s designed to give you an advantage in the perpetual game of “or else” without painting you into a corner of your own…painting. Plus, it’s fun.

See, the problem with parents and their disciplinary threats is that they fundamentally lack exactly that which kids appreciate – imagination. It’s the same old tired stuff. This technique uses children’s greatest asset to reign in what is typically their weakest: imagination trumps discipline.

To do this, all you must do is simply to work harder at your “or elses”. Stop being lazy – you must think of unique and completely befuddling threats on a fairly regular basis. The most effective of these will have the following 3 characteristics:

1) Head-Scratchers. You need 2-3 vocabulary words that you’re not sure you know the meaning of yourself, exactly, but that your kids will certainly not know for at least 6 grade levels into the future. This is because, as an adult, your imagination is so pathetically atrophied, your only hope of meeting kids on their wavelength is to simply use unfamiliar, vaguely menacing words that force your child to invoke their own imagination to pick up your slack.

2) Grounders. You need 1-2 words that ground the threat in something very familiar, such as action words like “locked” or image nouns like “teddy bear”. Be specific here, toss in a statistic, an adjective, or some kind of modifier that helps kids visualize something that probably doesn’t exist.

3) Cool Delivery. You need to affect a calm, casual tone that suggests you are imparting common knowledge, and offer little to no ensuing elaboration. If they ask questions, and they will, you can either pretend to disbelieve they don’t understand or just say “you’ll find out”.

What you’ll find is that you will drive them insane with curiosity about what it is you’ve just threatened to do. This in and of itself is not guaranteed to earn you compliance, but it does break a certain spell, gets them talking, and just plain entertains them. Plus, it can be good for their vocabulary.

Of course, I’m not at all an advocate for coming up with truly scary threats, or disavowing straightforward talk. This can’t be the basis for your entire relationship. But the fun part is replacing the tired exchanges with stuff that makes them ponder, but in fact is mostly too harmless, vague, or nonsensical to be worrisome. In truth, this is more about entertaining them into compliance than threatening. And, if you’re to be honest, most of your threats are mere entertainment for them as it is. If you don’t believe me, watch closely as their eyes widen the next time they say “or else…what?” If you’re a decent parent, they have no reason to be afraid. What’s happening in this new approach, ironically, is you’re communicating with them by making no sense.

After you lower the boom with a truly surreal threat, just as they’re regaining their equilibrium, put the toothbrush in their hand.

So then, here are some examples to get you started. It usually comes out better when you make them up on the spot, but this should give you the idea:

“Go to bed (brush your teeth, do your homework, stop pummeling your sister, etc.) or else…”

  • I will confiscate everything you hold dear, and even some of the things you no longer relish, and ship them back to Old Siam.
  • I will perform a mock bifurcation of your least coveted teddy bear using a serrated pizza knife.
  • You will find yourself locked into a sub-prime mortgage as a long term denizen of Sorrytown, USA.
  • Your carbohydrate intake will begin to lean much more heavily towards the complex and it will be 100% preservative-free.
  • I will come up with a litany of arcane and interconnected repercussions woven together so tightly it will form a latter day Gordian knot around your entire childhood consciousness.
  • A hefty and unreasonable tariff will be levied upon you and all of your stuffies, globally.
  • We will make you learn to do differential calculus at “check plus” level before you learn your multiplication tables at “check”
  • We will institute a Kafkan household bureaucracy so robust that it will require 2 weeks notice for a lavatory visit
  • I will have your favorite playground razed and replaced with a patented “kinder zone” that’s more eco-friendly and sustainable
  • I will have a licensed contractor remove the arachnid force field from around the perimeter of your room
  • I will sublet our family room to the cast of Where The Wild Things Are and YOU will be responsible for enforcing compliance with the terms of the rental agreement

That should get you started. But please feel free to invent (and send me, please) your own imaginative “or elses”. It is my great hope that this approach results in a net 15 minute reduction in daily bedtime and dinner time filibustering for you someday soon.

Do it now, or your children will emerge from their wonder years as simpering, entitled sycophants clinging to their own hackneyed survival meta-modalities.

~ by joshuakelly on February 3, 2010.

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