THREAT "If you ask to watch TV one more time, I'm tossing it out the window."
Problem There are many. For starters, what the hell am I going to do without a television? Also, I live in a nice community, and throwing things out the window would result in extreme social ostracism by my neighbors.
Revision "If you ask to watch TV one more time, I'll wander into the kitchen and stand there eating all the brownies until I figure out if I'm willing to distract you from the television by enthusiastically suggesting that we play a nice round of Zingo!"
THREAT "Brush your teeth, or they'll turn green and fall out of your mouth."
Problem Kids really don't care at all about what happens in the future unless by "the future" you mean the next eight seconds.
Revision "If you don't brush your teeth, they'll get this weird orange film on them. Look at your little brother's teeth. See that stuff on them? He has that because he's 2 years old and insane and screams if we try to put a toothbrush in his mouth. Also, if you don't brush, you'll have to go to the dentist, and even though I've said his office is awesome and super fun and a place that gives you stickers, it actually kind of sucks, and you want to avoid it at all costs."
THREAT "Either you get dressed right now, or you're never getting dressed again."
Problem Not letting your child wear clothes is a red flag to child services. It also breaks your heart when after ten days they start begging you to let them get dressed.
Revision "If you don't get dressed, I'm going to become very still and stare out the window until you ask me if I'm okay."
THREAT "If you don't let me cut your fingernails, they're going to slice your face open."
Problem Now my 4-year-old thinks his hands are weapons. He's destined to develop some kind of Edward Scissorhands complex.
Revision "I want to cut your fingernails because I bite mine incessantly -- to the point where there's nothing left to bite -- and every time I see your beautiful, young, creamy, long fingernails, I fantasize about waiting until you're asleep and chewing them off. I'm not proud of that, and I know it's not okay, but luckily there's an easy fix."
THREAT "If you don't stop crying, I'm going to cry too."
Problem I can't cry on cue, so in the unlikely event that he calls my bluff, I'll be stuck staring at him, mired in the quicksand of my lie or, even worse, trying to fake-cry. The only thing more disconcerting to a child than seeing his father weep is realizing what a terrible actor he is. "Daddy, is that really how you cry? You look silly." Me: "This is totally how I cry. Does it look unnatural?"
Revision "If you don't stop crying, I'll ask you over and over again why you're crying, even though you can't catch your breath long enough to answer me. I'll hold you in my arms and say things like, 'It's going to be okay, sweet boy,' but I'll be rolling my eyes, since it's completely ridiculous to cry for 15 minutes because the cat stepped on your foot."
THREAT "Going to bed with dirty feet attracts monsters." (Pretty hacky, but I said it. Creativity tends to waver after 7 p.m.)
Problem He's 4, and monsters are still very real. Now I fear that he'll obsessively start washing his feet like he's at the Ganges River cleansing for an afternoon prayer.
Revision "Going to bed with dirty feet will ... actually, you know what? It doesn't matter at all. Fact is, I just feel like I'm not very helpful around here sometimes, and one of the only things I can do to contribute is to keep you clean. So, when you go to bed, I don't feel like I've been a good father if your feet ... wait, are you still awake?"
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.