Mock Threats: Turning Real Frustration into Playful Parenting

September 13th, 2011 by Dionna | 36 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Carnival of Natural Parenting, Consensual Living, Gentle/Positive Discipline, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, My Family, natural parenting, Use Nurturing Touch

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Welcome to the September Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting Through Play

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared how play can defuse situations that call for discipline. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


I love the concept of playful parenting, and I think I was pretty darn good at it – when Kieran was two years old. It’s not that parenting playfully is necessarily harder with a three year old, it’s just that three year olds are so much more assertive – challenges feel more like power struggles than they did with a toddler. And for me personally, I get this deep-rooted urge to “assert my authority” instead of to communicate nonviolently.

Instead of pushing away that frustration, it is often helpful to recognize it, take a breath, and rechannel it into a more positive response.

One technique that works well in our house is right out of Cohen’s Playful Parenting book – it’s called “making mock threats.” Tom is particularly good at this technique. When tensions start running high, usually when Kieran is doing something that he shouldn’t and has ignored gentle requests to stop, Tom makes a mock threat.

For example, the other night Kieran had a long rhythm stick that he was swinging around the dining room. It was a small space, and he was dangerously close to hitting a person or a wall. Tom asked him twice to stop, but Kieran studiously ignored him – if anything, he swung with more fervor.

It would have been easy in that situation to give Kieran an ultimatum: “stop swinging or I will take the stick.” Instead, Tom turned his frustration into a game. In an obviously false “threatening” voice, he said “if I see you swing that stick one more time, The Claw is going to come and get you!” Kieran, sensing the change in tone, gave one last half-hearted swipe with the stick, then took off for the living room – The Claw following closely behind. Giggles, not tears, abounded.

On other nights – nights when neither Tom nor I had the sense to parent playfully – that scene could have easily ended in tears and a stick placed high on a shelf.

So which one is better? Asserting our authority by declaring an ultimatum (likely ending in tears), or diffusing the situation through play?

Cohen likes this technique, because mock threats release frustration for both parent and child. Once frustration is gone, cooperation is more likely. Real threats or ultimatums tell a child “I’m mad at you, it’s your fault, and you had better shape up. The predictable result is defensiveness and conflict.” And if we’re being honest, we usually aren’t modeling our best parenting skills when we’re angry, “so we may as well lighten up.”1

Do you ever use mock threats in moments of frustration? Share some examples in the comments!


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • On being a more playful parent — Isil at Smiling like Sunshine shares how the Playful Parenting book impacted her.
  • Parenting a toddler through play — Alicia at I Found My Feet lists some examples of how she uses play to parent through everyday tasks and challenges.
  • Splashing in Puddles — Abbie at Farmer’s Daughter shares how she learned to get dirty and have fun with her little boy.
  • Say Please — Cassie at There’s a Pickle in My Life explains how they taught their son manners by “play,” showing that actions speak louder than words.
  • No Nanny Needed — Laura at Our Messy Messy Life wishes parenting through play was her only responsibility during the day.
  • I’ll Run Away With Gypsies — Nikalee at Spotted Pandemonium maneuvers physical and emotional obstacles while spinning playful tales, jumping through hoops, and inspiring the kids to clean the living room.
  • A Promise To My Daughter — Lindsey at An Unschooling Adventure writes a poem for her daughter promising to use play instead of anger when facing difficult situations.
  • Parenting Through Play — Not Always Easy But Always Rewarding — Amy at Peace4Parents discusses how play hasn’t always come easily to her, the power of appreciative observation, and how her family learns together through play.
  • Imagination Plays a Role in Our Parenting — Tree at Mom Grooves shares how parents can use play to set the foundation for communication and understanding.
  • A Box of Crayons — Jenn at Monkey Butt Junction talks about how a simple box of crayons has become a wonderful parenting and teaching tool.
  • The Essential Art of Play — Ana at Pandamoly shares some of her favorite lessons available for young ones through play.
  • The Art of Distraction — Amanda at Let’s Take the Metro shares a list of distracting alternatives to harsh punishments in tough parenting situations.
  • Grace and Courtesy Games at Home or School — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now has ideas for grace and courtesy games that help you encourage courteous behavior without reprimanding your child.
  • I am woman, hear me roar! — Mrs Green from Little Green Blog shares how one simple sound can diffuse an argument in an instant.
  • Getting Cooperation Through Play — Amyables at Toddler In Tow talks about respecting the worldview of a preschooler by using play to encourage connection and cooperation.
  • Playful Parenting = Extra Energy??Momma Jorje didn’t think she had the energy for playful parenting. See what she was surprised to learn…
  • Dance Party Parenting — Laura from A Pug in the Kitchen learned how to be the parent her children need through play.
  • Wrestling Saved My Life — Wrestling is as vital to her son’s well-being as babywearing once was, finds Hannah at Wild Parenting.
  • Parenting through play — By playing with her children, Tara from MUMmedia is given amazing opportunites to teach, train and equip her children for life.
  • Parenting Through Play Starts in Infancy — In a guest post at Natural Parents Network, Issa from LoveLiveGrow shares that though she only has a 3-month-old, playful parenting has already started.
  • Play Before Sleep — Adrienne at Mommying My Way writes about how playing and singing with her son before he falls asleep helps calm her frustrations that tend to arise at night.

  1. Larry Cohen, Playful Parenting at 83-84.

36 Responses to:
"Mock Threats: Turning Real Frustration into Playful Parenting"

  1. Yes! Thank you so much for this. I read the Playful Parenting book but forgot that part. We’ve noticed lately that we’re having far more battles than necessary. It’s become something of a pattern, probably left over from our own childhoods, but this is a perfect alternate technique I’m going to use today. Along with Hobo Mama’s brilliant exageration ideas… and Mrs Green’s ROAR – a great timely Carnival.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I think all of the ideas in this Carnival make it my favorite one so far – I need these reminders. Daily. ;)

  2. Lauren @ Hobo Mama   Hobo_Mama

    I love mock threats! Thanks for the reminder to use that one. It’s definitely a way of defusing tension, because I’m able to get my own frustration voiced (like, “Oh, you’re so going to get it!” but said funny), and Mikko gets the dangerous thrill of taunting me back but feeling safe. I like also that you acknowledge that we’re not always able to parent this way — but that things usually go better when we can pull it off.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Totally agree with the dangerous thrill that the kids feel – such a great point – it also illustrates Cohen’s technique of letting kids be in control of things. When they taunt back, that’s just them playing with some authority, also a great way to keep things on an even keel!

  3. Charise@I Thought I Knew Mama   ithoughtiknewma

    Oh, I like this mock threat concept! I’m adding it to my arsenal of playful parenting techniques. Thanks!

    And of course, thanks for hosting yet another wonderful carnival!

  4. I SO need to remember this idea. I have a bad tendency to pull the ultimatum card when my 3-year old ignores gentle requests to stop inappropriate or dangerous behavior, which I can see results in resentment and bad feelings (and, of course, therefore more undesirable behavior). The key for me is mindfullness. When I am mindfull, I can pull this off. For example last night my 3-year old didn’t want to stop playing to go upstairs for bathtime and the bedtime routine. I ‘threatened’ to throw him over my shoulder and carry him upside down like a sack of potatoes, which turned it into a game so the crisis was avoided for the moment. In less mindfull moments? bleach.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I resort to those exact playful threats all the time too – esp. when Kieran doesn’t want to get in the car, and I say “I’m going to carry you upside down to the car if you don’t go right now!” Of course he wants to be carried upside down to the car – crisis averted :)

  5. Alicia C.   amccrenshaw

    Oh, I love the Mock Threat! This is perfect for my little guy. He’s one of those kids (almost three, you know!) who will purposely do the exact opposite of what you ask him to do. “Don’t touch that!” immediately makes his little index finger point and head toward whatever “that” might be. I’m going to try this out because he loves these kinds of games and I have a great feeling that it will help us out. Thanks!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I’m so glad this gave you an idea, Alicia – I hope you get several more in this Carnival!

  6. Mock threats are a favourite around here. As a child, my dad always threatened to “hang us from the ceiling by your toenails!” if we didn’t shape up; I’ve adopted that particular gem for my own boys, which always gets a good squeal out of them. Threatening to eat them, toss them outside, or lock them in their room forever are other typical mock threats here, usually met with a giggle and an “oooh, will you REALLY?” The older one likes to join in with his own threats now, turning it into a contest to see who can come up with the most outlandish threat in the end. It’s a great way to diffuse a tense situation!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Ha! I heard that one too as a kid! And I love that the kids are joining you in the game – very fun.

  7. Amy   anktangle

    I love this idea! It’s such a gentle and wonderfully playful way to redirect a dangerous/forbidden activity. I’ve got to get that book, ASAP!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      You can borrow my copy while you’re here, if you need some reading to occupy your down time at night ;)

  8. Mrs Green @   littlegreenblog

    that sounds like a really fun and empowering way to diffuse challenging situations; thanks for sharing. I don’t think I ever used that one – another one to clock up in my ‘book of parenting wisdom’!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Thank you mama – and thanks for sharing your own wisdom today – your roaring is along the same lines!

  9. Annicles   IamAnnicles

    I use it at school, although I have to make sure that all the children know me and my sense of humour before using it. I threatened to flush a child down the toilet if he didn’t get on with his work. Worked like a charm and kept him giggling too!

  10. Hillary   hillaryboucher

    We totally do this! It really works because when we go to slip into that authoritarian mode we just make a ridiculous threat and it really helps switch the energy. Once we’ve all had a laugh it’s easier to talk about what happened, too.

  11. Wow! Thanks for the idea! You won’t believe it but there’s a Wooden dowel that my son plays with at dinner time. Ug it’s so annoying when he swings it all around and usually we end up like the other scenario you talked about. But now j have a great way to make the situation better!! I really need to read that book. It’s been mentioned on several blogs today. It must be really good!
    Thanks for the post, this was really relevant to me at this point in time of my parenting!!

  12. teresa   momgrooves

    this is a great one and one I’ve never tried!! Go bigger. I get it. In my most exhausted moments, I find myself wanting to say “wrong” things, like, you’re driving me crazy, or I need to go away for a while. (I don’t say those thigs…) but this seems like it’s also a way for me (and daddy) to satisfy our own big feelings as well.
    By the way, the photo of you with your comments is just beautiful.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Thank you Teresa :) And sometimes when I want to say the wrong things, saying them in a funny voice (as long as they’re not hurtful) can take some of the tension away!

  13. Oh we definitely use mock threats when we’re at our wit’s end… but ours don’t sound so fun! This is such a great idea! I think it can be too easy to think that we don’t have time to play and need things to go OUR WAY immediately, but in reality playing for just a few minutes could save a lot of time!

    And isn’t playing for 5 minutes infinitely better than battling for 5 minutes followed by at least 5 more minutes of tantrum or tears? Great suggestion, Dionna! I have seen so many great ones today. I hope I can keep them all in mind until they become more of a habit!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Jorje – EXACTLY my point on the play v. tantrums/tears – except in our house, it usually drags on for much more than 5 minutes :/

  14. Alicia   aliciafagan

    I love this technique! I really need to check Cohen’s book out. Thanks for sharing :)

  15. Erica @ ChildOrganics   ChildOrganics

    Great reminders! I remember one time I was telling myself to take a situation with my dd to a playful level and to try out the mock threats technique. However, when I gave it a try I was so frustrated that I couldn’t think of anything silly enough to turn things around.:-( It is helpful to have a few silly threats already in your arsenal. Ah well, I live and learn!

  16. Evin   evinschmevin

    I do this all the time! I actually get yelled at by my mother for it – “He knows you’re never going to follow through!” … that’s the point! My favorite one is to set things on fire. I don’t know how it came about but my son cracks up every time. “If you slam that door one more time, I’m going to pull it off the hinges and set it on fire.” He knows I’m not going to set it on fire, but he also knows that I mean bidness about the door. A new one, too, is “I’m going to turn it into homework!” .. as in “Please finish your supper or I’ll turn it into homework!” :) The more creative and dramatic and silly I get, the better he reacts!

  17. Ana @ Pandamoly   pandamoly

    I really like this concept. I’m always threatening Niko with being tickled, not that he quite understands yet, but he certainly loves being tickled (and it generally gives me a moment to redirect his attention from tantrum to… not-tantrum). I guess it’s not threatening if I follow through… Haha

  18. mamapoekie   mamapoekie

    we do this too, nice to see that it’s actually a technique. We say things like: careful now, we’re going to come and get you/I’m going to eat you/I’m going to give you lots of kisses
    Te cool thing about this technique is that you can actually use it as the threatening comes out on its own, because generally we tend to warn, then threaten, so you notice the warning and you turn the threat around.
    Yes, three year olds are challenging!!

  19. kelly @kellynaturally   kellynaturally

    What a great real-life example of playful parenting! I also found age three to be particularly challenging (not sure why people call 2’s “terrible”). Thanks for the reminder to lighten up! :)

  20. Holly N.

    Thanks for sharing. I have that book and apparently need to MAKE the time to read it. I so needed this technique last night when it was just me and my daugther who is acting out what her tshirt said (“Wild Girl”) while I was trying to fix dinner. I hope to react in a better and more playful way next time. :)

  21. Amy   Amy_willa

    I had no idea that this was a healthy parenting tool. . . we’ll have to try it because Abbey is driving both me and the hubs crazy lately!

  22. Deb @ Living Montessori Now   DebChitwood

    Great technique, Dionna! I think children often just need permission and an excuse to change their mood – and the mock threat supplies that. Love “The Claw” technique and video! :)

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Honestly, I think *I* need an excuse to change the mood, because I was raised to behave differently as a parent! What a good way to put it, Deb.

  23. Jen   growwithgraces

    I love this. I don’t think I’ve ever done it. And we have frequent battles with the almost 5yo. Maybe this could work with him.

    Sounds like I should get this book too.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I’m sure it would! I mean – it sometimes works on my husband ;) And Playful Parenting is an amazing book, I highly recommend it.

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