I'm Telling You for the Last Time

Have you ever used the words, "I'm telling you for the last time?"; otherwise known as "This is your last chance!", "Don't make me tell you again!" and "I'm counting to 10!" You know, that famous stop gap string of words that seems to thrive in the domain of parent-child relationships?

Ok, so maybe you rarely use them in dealing with your child. Then again, maybe you're like me and you've used them far more than you would care to admit. Regardless, you're probably familiar with the following scene... 

You've asked your child to do something (which could be anything from "please put away your plate," to "stop playing barber with sissy's hair.") The child does not comply. Instead of taking corrective measures to ensure compliance, you use one of the phrases listed above which, to the child, is less of a warning and more of a bluff (unless this is the very first time the words, "This is your last chance," have come out of your mouth, at which point they're more than a little scary and quite effective. But let's be honest - this isn't the first time.) 

The funny thing is, the more of a pro you are at giving your child their "last chance" or showing them that you can, in fact, count to 10, the less likely you are to get the thing you were wanting in the first place - obedience. You've employed this tactic so many times that your children are on to you. They quickly learn that "This is your last chance," is secret parent code for "You've got a few more chances coming before I get really serious."

So let's be frank parents - we're basically bluffing. Ok, ok - so maybe we're partially bluffing. We DO have our limits. Maybe you reach yours upon walking by the dining room table for the fifth time only to see your child's plate STILL sitting there. Or maybe it's when half of sissy's hair is in a heap on the floor. The point is, eventually we all utter an honest to goodness "This is your last chance." Our trouble is eliminating the 3 or 4 that came before it.

“How many times do I have to tell you?!” I asked in exasperation. My 6 year old, without a moments hesitation, answered, “About 5 times.”

A few years back, I was lecturing my children for not obeying me. I had asked them over and over again to tidy up the living room but instead, they had gone about their business as if I hadn't said anything at all. In the midst of my annoyingly pedantic attempt at convincing them that their failure to clean the living room might result in undesirable future consequences - ("You know, one day you'll have a job! What do you think will happen if you don't do something that your boss asks you to do? That's right, he'll fire you!" Uh, yeah, I'm sure that caused my 8 year old a sleepless night) I asked a question that sits right across the aisle from "This is your last chance," in the parental deferment hall of fame. "How many times do I have to tell you?!" I asked in exasperation. My 6 year old, without a moments hesitation, answered, "About 5 times." Ouch. 

So why do we do it? Why do give our children multiple chances before they actually obey (if they obey at all)? Well, here are a few reasons. See if any of these don't ring home.

1. We either don't have the time or patience (or both) required to deal with our child's disobedience. We tell them, then we tell them again, and again, and again in the hopes that they'll simply obey and save us the trouble of having to lecture or carry out some consequence which will require even more of our time. This probably explains our penchant for answering that age old question- "But why do I have to?" - with, "Because I said so." What we're really saying to the child is, "Do you know how much time and trouble you'd save me if every time I asked you to do something you just did it simply because I said so?" Most of us would give our right arm for that kind of obedience! Well, maybe not; but you get the idea. : )

2. We've over threatened and under delivered. Often, in an attempt to curb misbehavior instantly, we'll employ what I like to call "shock and awe" parenting. We might be tired or tapped out or even embarrassed in front of friends and we just want the misbehavior to go away NOW. In order to do this, we cloud up and rain on the child. We threaten to spank them or ground them or bar them from spending the night at Grandma's house ever again (wow, that's really harsh) thinking that the child's shock at having to potentially face such a terrible consequence will jolt them into obedience.

There are more than a few problems with this. Number one: you're probably bluffing, and number two: you'd better hope you're bluffing because taking away sleepovers at Grandma's house just because your child ran outside to play instead of sweeping the floor is the very definition of severe. I don't expect you'd do that (or at least I hope you wouldn't) but in the heat of the moment you might threaten something just as shocking to stop your child cold in their tracks.

The good (?) news is, this tactic actually works on children. The bad news is, it only works one, maybe two times. Before you know it, you'll be counting to 10 and giving third, fourth, and fifth chances with the best of them. Why? Because you've over threatened and have little to no intention on delivering. Do you really want to ground them within an inch of their life for forgetting (or failing as the case may be) to take out the trash? Of course not. That's why you're telling them, and telling them again, and then telling them for the last time because you don't want to follow through on what you've threatened. It's simply unequal to what they've done. To make matters worse, your children will pick up on this quicker than you can say "Environmental adaptation." You might talk mean, but they know you're not THAT mean.

3. You're just too nice of a person. This one's closely related to number 2 in that you really don't want to have to punish the child and it's especially for those parents who haven't the slightest intention of threatening their child with any sort of consequence as a result of disobedience. You fear it might discourage them or breed some incurable resentment towards you that they'll recount sobbingly to their future spouse through bitter tears for the rest of their lives. So, you just ask and encourage, and ask again (gently, of course) and encourage some more.

The problem here is that you have no leverage - like none. If your child decided they don't want to do what you've asked of them, well, that's that. You're like a hot burner minus the heat. One touch and the child is on to you. And by the way, if you consistently withhold punishment from your children when they disobey, it doesn't mean you're a nice parent, it means you're a negligent one. Are there times you should show mercy? Absolutely, but if your default response to poor behavior is ignore it, you are doing your children a disservice.

So, the question is, do you want to stop bluffing? Do you want to stop yelling the words, "I'm telling you for the last time?!" I hope you do because over threatening and underdelivering is detrimental to your relationship with your child and can ultimately be very damaging to their character. The good news is you don't have to go on parenting this way. In my next post we'll look at some ways you can get the number of times you ask your child to do something down to one.