The Offending Statement
"If you don't behave, I'll make the doctor give you a shot!"
Here's a parental statement that's sure to drive your pediatrician crazy! I hear this—or slight variations on this very theme—every week in my office. "If you don't behave, I'm going to leave you here," is another one. This epitomizes very common mistakes that we all make as parents. When children are misbehaving in public, parents will often blurt out whatever they hope will put a quick stop to the embarrassing outburst, but painting your pediatrician in a negative light could be quite damaging to your child.
Why We Don't Want to Hear It
First, empty threats are precarious tools for discipline. If you don't follow through, your kids will eventually stop heeding your warnings. Even more damaging, however, is the implication that visits to the doctor are on par with punishment. Trips to the pediatrician can be scary (even without intimidation tactics), so your goal should be to encourage your kid toward comfort—not the opposite. Your child's relationship with her doctor should be based on trust, and that trust will never be built if you portray the pediatrician as someone to be feared.
The consequences of such behavior may have more resonance than you would think. First, it will be more difficult to get your son or daughter into the office the next time, but more importantly, your child is learning about her body and her health. If she is to have a future in which she properly takes of herself, she needs to feel safe and secure at the doc's.
What You Should Say
If the tantrum just won't stop, be prepared to offer a penalty you can follow through on and one that is unrelated to medical care. Try, "If you keep misbehaving, you are losing your television privileges today." This warning is concrete, definable, and completely appropriate. If your child continues to act out, I implore you to really take away that privilege. A child can sniff out an empty threat a mile away. Stall if you need time to think up a good penalty: "I'll tell you your penalty as soon as we get in the house." The suspense makes the penalty that much more dramatic and gives more time for your child to reflect on his behavior.
Helping Parents Deal
Parents view disciplinary threats as taking charge of an embarrassing situation, but it's best to seriously consider the influence your words have on your child rather than using any desperate attempt to get her to quiet down. The more empty threats we utter, the less effective our parenting, and instead of gaining control, we lose it because the behavior doesn't change.
Also, the image of a pediatrician as a hired shot-giver undermines an already tenuous relationship. Using a shot as a threat confuses the issue of why we give children shots in the first place. These are not disciplinary tools; these are important medications that protect against potentially dangerous illnesses, and children need to appreciate that not everything unpleasant is a punishment.
It's natural to try to persuade your child to behave in public, but make sure to use the right—and most effective—methods.