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“Don’t Make Me Start Counting!”
Five Ideas to Use Verbal Warnings Effectively
By Ron Huxley, LMFT

If by the count of three, you don’t have your get your shoes on for school, there is not going to be any television for the rest of the day!” This was an all too common refrain in my home when my children were growing up. I would warn them and warn them and warn them but still they dragged their feet in the mornings before school.

Do you warn your child to behave and yet they continue to do what they please? Verbal warnings can be an effective tool in disciplining children but they are often used incorrectly, frustrating parents and children. Here are some  points to consider to help parents use verbal warnings effectively:

1. Verbal warnings are simply that: Warnings! They are not directives or threats although many parents use them as if they were. A directive or command would be: “Go to your room, take out the trash, or turn off the television.” Verbal warnings are to be used AFTER a directive or command, to remind and motivate a child. Parents also use verbal warnings as threats of punishment. Again, this just confuses the situation. Say what you mean or don’t say it all. You will get better results that way.

2. Verbal warnings allow children time to follow a task or make an adjustment to a parental request. It is not designed to allow a child to wait until the last second before complying with a parent. I knew I had a problem with my children when I would count to three to get them going in the mornings for school and they would just sit in front of the television, lifeless and still, until I said “two” or “three.” At the sound of that number, they would spring to life and run to get their shoes on or get in the car. If they could get up and run at two or three, why couldn’t they move at one? That’s when I stopped counting and they started getting to school on time.

3. Verbal warnings must have a consequence if it is to be effective. I have heard parents stretch a three count out to ten or more beats by saying “two and a half, two and three quarters, etc.” This teaches the child that parents are not to be taken seriously and that they have no real consequences to deliver. The consequences should be clearly stated up front BEFORE you give a warning. And, it should be firmly enforced after the warnings have been given. A few minutes in the time-out chair or an extra chore should do the trick to show you mean business.

4. Verbal warnings require that parents also provide verbal praise for positive behaviors. What incentive does a child have to follow parent’s directions if all he or she has are warnings of consequences? True behavioral change occurs when there is a balance between punishments and rewards. Parents should give verbal praise for any behavior other than the one they are warning against. Simply state: “Great job,” “Thank you,” or “I appreciate your help” for each and every effort at positive behavior. If done enough, parents might even find they don’t need to give a warning.

5. Verbal warnings can be given without any words at all. Parent’s warnings can be visual as well as verbal. Three methods that use visual as well as verbal formats are Check Marks, Colors, and Numbers.

The Check Mark Method uses checks marks after a child's name to warn them they are getting close to a serious consequence. Parents can place these check marks in a highly visible place to incorporate peer pressure when siblings are around or just serve as a visual reminder. Start with writing the child's name on a sheet of paper or memo board for the child's first mistake. This is followed by two or three check marks next to the child's name with consequences listed for each check mark. The more check marks the more severe the consequence.

Parents can also use the Color Method by cutting out colored shapes or using colored stickers or markers after a child’s name. The colored stickers and markers operate in the same manner as the Check Mark Method above. Each sticker or colored line represents a more serious consequence. Colored shapes are used to visually remind a child how serious their behavior is to the parent. Using the American traffic signal system, parents can cut out a green circle, yellow circle, and red circle. For a first offense or reminder, put up the green circle. This signals that the child’s privileges are still a “go.” If a child’s misbehaves or refuses to follow a parent’s direction, the yellow circle is put up in place of the green one. This indicates that the child is on “thin ice” and needs to slow down or be careful not to lose a privilege. If the child doesn’t heed the green and yellow warnings, then he or she is given a red circle, stopping all privileges from that point on. This reversal of taking privileges away versus warning of punishment is an effective strategy for some children who don’t pay attention to the parents “traffic” signals.

The Number Method can also follow the Check Mark Method by placing numbers after a child’s name for consequences or parents can use plain 3 x 5 cards with large numbers written on the front and a consequence listed on the back. When a child does not follow a parent’s direction, he or she must pull a card and complete the consequence written on the back of it. Some parents use multiple number 1, 2, and 3 cards with various consequences written on the back and allow the child to choose their own consequence, one for each level. After the child has gotten a number 1 card for the day, they will pick a number 2 card for the next undesirable behavior during that same day and so forth. Each card has a consequence that must be completed. Perhaps it is a ten-minute time-out or missing out on a privilege. A new day means having a clean slate with the child starting at number 1 again. This method reminds the child of their responsibilities by making them the enforcer of their own consequences.

Verbal warnings help parents discipline their children by increasing their compliance with parental directions. The primary goal is to teach children how to be self-responsible. In addition, it allows parents to balance there parenting styles by giving the permissive parent a concrete tool to set limits with and the authoritarian parent a way to delegate responsibility back on the child. Like most tools, verbal warnings have their weaknesses and their strengths. Use this tool wisely and you will find it makes the parenting chore a little easier. If you don’t...well, let’s just say I warned you!

Ron Huxley is the author of the book "Love & Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting." Visit his website at http://parentingtoolbox.com and get expert advice on anger management, mental health, and parenting issues.

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