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Don’t Countdown If You Don’t Have a Plan for “Zero”

I’m not only the father of two girls, 12 and 16, but I’ve also been an elementary school teacher for the past nineteen years. Yesterday I was in the staff workroom making copies for next week’s lessons when I heard another teacher trying to get control of her classroom: “5…4…3…2…1…0”. The class hadn’t responded. So, immediately she repeated, “5…4…3…2…1…0”. Without skipping a beat, I heard another “5…4…3…2…1…0”. I’ve been there. I get it. You get frustrated.

I was unable to see her students, and really could barely hear them over the din of the copy machine, but I could definitely hear the teacher. Another countdown: “5…4…3…2…1…0”. Finally the students began lining up at the door ready to head off to lunch. And, as they did, as if unable to get a stuck song out of their heads, I hear a couple of them, not mockingly or disrespectfully, quietly repeating, “5…4…3…2…1…0…5…4…3…2…1…0”.

Tell them you’re serious

Years ago, I used to be neighbours with a veteran teacher who also used the countdown method, but unlike yesterday’s teacher, this vet would never reach “zero”: “5…4…3…2… Okay guys, I’m serious. You need to get back in your seats right now!” What this teacher realized that yesterday’s didn’t was that you’ve got to have something, anything, if you reach that “zero”. If you don’t, what’s the point of counting down, right?

Yesterday’s teacher hoped that if she started counting down, the students would realize she was “serious” and not want to know the wrath that lay awaiting at the end of her countdown. But, these kids had learned early on that her countdowns were nothing but bluffs (if we are doing a Poker comparison here). For the first part of the year, “zero” meant nothing. So, why would she suddenly be holding a full house today?

The veteran teacher also had nothing, and she knew it. And since her students had allowed her to reach “two” on several occasions, they too, must have been aware she was holding bupkis in her hand (for all of my Jewish Poker friends). So, instead of going all-in and praying that the next couple of numbers might change their behaviour, this vet teacher instead changed her tactics mid-countdown. Students not responding to the empty threat? Then, just tell them you’re serious, because all kids know that counting backward should be taken with a grain of salt.

Teachers are not the only adults that fall victims of the empty-threat-syndrome. I hate to admit it, but this epidemic first started with us parents, and we are still just as guilty of using it today.

I know first-hand what happens, because every teacher, every coach, every nanny, and every parent has been there. The kids are just wearing on your last nerve and you’ve got nothing left, but you don’t want them to know it. You want them to think you know precisely what you are doing, so you throw out an empty threat: “I’ll turn this car right around,” “Do you want to take that phone away from you for the next month?” ““5…4…3…”

There are ALWAYS consequences

And, if they call our bluffs, what are supposed to do? My oldest daughter, Riley, was three. It was the Saturday before Easter in 2003. I don’t recall exactly what she was doing, but she was disobeying, pushing my buttons, and being a bit of a stinker. So, I did my version of “the countdown”: “If you don’t start behaving, the Easter Bunny won’t leave you any goodies tonight.” There it was; my bluff was on the table. Guess I showed her, but instead she could easily read my tells, because Riley continued acting up all the way until bedtime. Once she was asleep, my wife, Mary, said, “Let’s go hide the eggs.” And, I just stood there shaking my dopey head. “What do you mean, no?” Mary asked.

“We can’t put out the eggs. The Easter Bunny can’t come this year,” I responded not making eye contact with my wife, who was losing patience with me. “I told Riley the Easter Bunny wouldn’t come if she didn’t behave. So, we need to follow through.”

After some major eye-rolling, head-shaking and hands on her hips, my wife eventually left Easter to me, and when my little girl awoke she found a note from The Easter Bunny alongside an empty basket: “Dear Riley, I couldn’t leave any eggs for you last night because of the way you behaved, but if you can act appropriately this morning, maybe I’ll come during your nap and leave you some Easter goodies.”

To this day that was one of the most difficult parenting choices I ever had to make. I know following through was not a mistake. My mistake, though, was making a threat I didn’t think I would have to follow through on.

Turned out, when we went to church that Easter morning, there was someone wearing a bunny costume. Riley ran up to the giant rodent and asked, “Am I being good?” Having no idea what this little girl was talking about, the rabbit nodded “yes”, and Riley couldn’t wait to get back home for her nap.

When she awoke, there were eggs hidden in our backyard and a basket of treats on the patio table. Riley learned that there are consequences for her actions. More importantly, though, I learned to take my time and think before I jump the gun and make threats I’m not willing to follow-through on.

If we don’t identify our bottom lines and follow-through when we reach “zero”, we’re nothing more than the NASA guy who counts down a rocket launch for a rocket that never lifts off. And, there’s nothing worse than playing poker with that guy.

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