Stop Saying ‘OK, Bye! I'm Leaving!’ to Rush Your Kids Along, Say Experts

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It’s the mother of all empty threats. Your child refuses to get off the monkey bars and leave the playground, and you shout, “OK, bye! I'm leaving!” and start hustling towards the exit. Do we all do it? Yes. Does it work? Not really. Should you keep doing it? No, says Kristene Geering, director of education for Parent Lab, since it can actually do more harm than good.

Here's why: It’s fear-based.

“Many adults likely experienced similar moments with their parents when they were kids, not because their parents thought it was a fabulous idea to frighten their children, but because it’s a tactic they knew from their own upbringing—so they used it,” Geering explains.

But the part they didn’t know is how critical safety is for children. Per Geering, when kids experience feelings of safety and security, the working model they have is that the world is a safe place, which allows them the freedom to explore, learn and grow. If they start to lose that feeling, their brains do the opposite. “They will literally start to wire in a way that makes them more reactive, which can translate into having more anxiety, being more clingy and in extreme cases, negatively impacting their overall development.”

Add to that the fact that time is still very much an abstract concept for preschoolers. Another skillset that develops really slowly for kids is their impulse control. “In other words, if something is really fun, there’s just no way they can easily inhibit that desire to keep having fun so they can do something boring and un-fun like get in the car to go to the grocery store,” Geering explains.

But back to your empty threat. Your goal is to get your child to move faster, but those words may actually counter your efforts in both the short- and long-term. In the short-term, you’re removing feelings of safety and security. In the long-term, you’re inhibiting the development of the core skills they need to comprehend the concept of rushing along.

A better approach? Prioritize empathy. “If a parent can put themselves in their kid’s shoes for a minute, that can really help to reset your next steps,” Geering adds. There are also other ways to help a child anticipate a transition: “Instead of, ‘I’m leaving!’ or ‘5 more minutes!’, try finding other ways to represent time. Say, ‘What are the last three things you want to do before we go?’ or ‘You can swing until I finish this song,’ then sing a little song they’re familiar with. If possible, some kind of visual timer can also help. ‘You can play until the blue color goes away.’”

Finally, try to remember that it’s totally natural for kids to be upset when it’s time leave. If that’s the case, acknowledge their feelings…but also, it’s still time to go. “Those two actions themselves increase your child’s sense of safety and security,” Geering says. “You’re acknowledging their feelings, which helps build skills like empathy and emotional regulation, but you’re also holding a boundary in a loving manner. Boundaries are what help kids feel safe and secure.”

For slightly older kids, holding that boundary becomes even more critical—especially as they test you more and more to see if you’ll stick to it. That said, for kids older than preschool age, you may need to adjust your tactics. “As kids get older, it’s always good to share some of your process—in this case, the reasoning behind why it’s time to go or hurry along. Discipline or holding a line is ultimately all about learning and you want your kid to know how to set and hold their own boundaries as they move toward adulthood.”

By the way, if you have used the phrase, ‘Bye, I’m leaving!”, you haven’t ruined your kid’s life forever. But a modified approach can help set them—and you—up for better success the next time you’re in a hurry.

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