“Mommy, what does jail look like?” my sweet but sassy three-year-old daughter asked me from the back seat of the car the other day. I explained (based on nothing but clichés from bad movies) that it’s grey and cold, with bars on the windows, metal toilets, very little privacy and nothing but white bread and water on the menu. She asked because I’d told her in passing a few days earlier that if she didn’t let me strap her into her car seat, I would go to jail. I’m not sure what freaked her out more, the toilet in the middle of my hypothetical cell or a constant diet of white bread (which I’d previously preached is basically poison) – but let’s just say that it was enough to scare her straight. She now lets me buckle her without dissent.
Speaking of lies I tell to incite better behavior: The sugar bugs that invade their entire mouths when they eat too much candy will eventually devour all of their teeth, leaving them with gaping, gummy holes where their molars once were, and causing an eventual diet of nothing but soup and apple sauce.
Oh and let’s not forget this beauty: Santa has the house wired with a full closed-circuit-tv setup, microphones and cameras hiding in each pot light, and literally sees and hears everything – at least in November and December, peak time when it resonates.
Before you judge me for my misleading hyperbole (fine, fraud), remember that this is not a new phenomenon. My parents used the very same logic on me and their “stories” were just terrifying enough to keep me in line. I lived with a baseline fear of my eyes turning into squares if I watched too much tv or straight-up breaking down if I didn’t eat my carrots. And don’t even get me started on what would happen if I so much as glanced at a stranger or wandered away in a grocery store or shopping mall. And they weren’t bluffing either. My mom’s threat from the scare tactic hall of fame, the old “wash your mouth out with soap” trick was both traumatizing and effective. Let’s just say, she didn’t hear “fuck” from me again until I was well into my thirties. And even then, we both flinched.
A friend just sent me a video of her four-year-old son apologizing to the grocery store manager for stealing a $2 Kinder Egg. He was literally shaking, his lip quivering as he confessed. The video was a little blurry because the mom taking it was laughing so hard, as did I when I watched it 17 times. When I regained my composure, I showed the video to my kids as proof that we parents are not messing around.
Why is it that just telling a kid something doesn’t put the fear of God into him? Why do we have to attach a menacing consequence to get our point across? I guess it depends on the kid. My son is a little more tentative and thoughtful about risking his life – but he still tempts fate (climbs way too high in trees, gorges on Halloween candy, sneaks the iPad into his room after I put him to bed) – but he knows it’s wrong and usually comes clean long before he gets caught. My daughter, on the other hand, almost always laughs in the face of rules. Literally stares me down from across the room/ playground/ grocery store while doing exactly what I told her not to. So, for now at least, she lives in a world where everything dangerous or impolite has dire consequences. I promise I won’t actually be squeezing Palmolive into her mouth anytime soon, but she doesn’t need to know that…