How To Parent Without Ultimatums

October 11, 2012 at 6:17 am (Positive Discipline)

An ultimatum can take many forms. My son issued one to his friend the other day: “If you swing that scooter at me one more time, I am not coming over to your house ever agin!” I recently read about one mom who was so fed up with her children not contributing anything towards keeping the house tidy that she went on strike. She refused to do one bit of housework until her kids changed their ways. And how many parents have said to their kids at least once, “If you don’t stop [this inappropriate behavior], we’re leaving [this fun place] right now!”

An ultimatum is a drastic solution to a frustrating or ongoing (or both) problem. When something has been going on long enough with no solution in sight, we become desperate for change. Our desperation leads us to pare the situation down to 2 simple solutions. Though the “solution” becomes a choice of 2 extremes.

We’re so often recommended to give our kids choices, but ultimatums are really the Sophie’s Choice of parenting; a no-win situation. On one hand, if a child “chooses” to stop a certain behavior, he is stopping out of fear or intimidation. Not exactly how we want kids to make decisions in their lives and learn self control. On the other hand if he “chooses” the alternative, he is being punished–punished for something he most likely needs help managing in the first place. And either way, Mom or Dad has a headache and doesn’t feel like engaging with their child.

So how do we not let things get to this point in our parenting? What are the true solutions?

  • Find opportunities to teach. Every day, look for chances to involve your child in learning something new or contributing in a new way. Take a minute to say, “Here, let me show you how to do this.” When you take the time to model, instruct, and solve daily problems together, children grow up understanding how to behave in ways that meet everyone’s needs and contribute in meaningful ways.
  • Set realistic expectations and adjust them as kids grow. Understand your child’s limitations. A two-year old is not capable of the same kind of thought process and and self-control that a 10-year-old is. When your expectations of behavior are set reasonably, you’re much more able to stay calm and helpful in frustrating situations.
  • Connect, connect, connect. Let a strong relationship be your guide. When your kids feel emotionally connected to you (they know you “get” them and they really feel like they belong in your heart and in your family), they want to “do right” by you. You ask them to stop, they stop. You ask for help, they help. No ultimatums necessary.

What do you do when it’s too late–when a problem has been going on too long and you’ve already had all you can take? What to do instead of go for the ultimatum?

  • Declare your feelings. Tell kids, “I’m overwhelmed…I’m very frustrated…I’m angry…I’m really trying not to yell, but I am just so irritated right now.”  It is important to share your feelings in a nonviolent way, so tell your kids what you see and how you feel before you get to the point of yelling. “I see you guys arguing over and over again about bathroom stuff…taking turns with the toothpaste, sharing sink space, privacy on the toilet…and I’m so frustrated with it.”  They don’t want you to yell either, so when they hear how you feel, they’re likely to want to do something to change that.
  • Enlist help in finding a solution. “This is a big problem. It’s really important to me, and I’m sure you’d prefer not to go through this all the time, either. What should we do?”
  • Come to an agreement with everyone’s help and input. Spend some time discussing the issue (preferably at a time when it’s not currently an issue), and brainstorm solutions. Everyone should find at least one way they can help contribute to fixing the problem (including mom or dad).
  • Give choices..but not so extreme. Choices can be great at helping kids clearly see their options. But when you do give choices, make sure one of them is not an inflicted punishment (for not complying with the other choice). Choices should be equally weighted.

One day, JJ and I went to one of those inflatable jumping places. Every time he’d go up the slide, he’d end up shoving someone around him and yelling at them to “go away.” I was getting irritated seeing him do this every time he was around kids. This was one of those times when it would have been simple–and tempting–to tell him, “Stop acting like that or we’re leaving!” Instead, this is how the conversation went:

Me: This isn’t going well. You seem really angry and frustrated.

JJ: Yes I am!

Me: I’m thinking it might be better if we tried this another day.

JJ: No, I want to stay and play!

Me: But babe, you’re having such a hard time. It’s not very fun for you, me, or the kids around you. We can come back when we all feel better so we can enjoy the time here more. What would you like to do?

JJ: Stay.

Me: Do you understand what the problem is?

JJ: Yes.

Me: What?

JJ: Those kids are just making me mad because they keep bunching around me and pushing!

Me: And…you’re pushing them and saying hurtful things. That’s not OK.

JJ: Well they’re the ones who are bothering me!

Me: It’s very crowded in here. I didn’t know it would be so busy right now. We can stay as long as you can be safe–that means no pushing or yelling at kids–or we can go and come back another time when there are fewer kids here.

JJ: [sigh & groan] Stay because I really don’t want to go!

So we stayed, and JJ was able to muster up some patience for waiting in lines and going up the stairs slowly and with a lot of kids around him. Had we left, it would not have been as a punishment for his behavior, but because we both worked out that it was probably in everyone’s best interest right then. The choices had equal merit and were presented in a nonviolent way.

All this is not to say that you will never get to the point of frustration with your kids’ behavior…Times like that are a given. But hopefully you’ll be able to change the situation without going to extremes!


  1. How to Practice Unconditional Parenting in Real Life: Some Helpful Resources said,

    […] How To Parent Without Ultimatums – Parenting from Scratch […]

  2. Gemma said,

    Great post! I am guilty of threats- especially when under extra pressure/stress. This really hit some nerves with me. I have just found your blog and I just want to keep reading it all night! Thank you 😉

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