Toddler Discipline: Should Parents Use the Scare Tactic?

When I was a kid, I remember my parents often using the “scare tactic” to make me behave.  For instance, if I was naughty, they would threaten to call the police who would then come to take me away and lock me up.  Suffice to say, it worked.  I usually behaved after that, but only because I was scared of being taken away from my family and being locked up in jail.

As a parent, I’ve never liked using the “scare tactic”.  I have never concocted false stories to frighten Gavin into good behaviour.  For instance, my parents would never have called the police to take me away, but as a child, I didn’t know that.

The only times when I have frightened Gavin into good behaviour are the times when I have told him the realities.  One example was when he ran out of the restaurant and made me chase after him.  I’m sure he thought it was a fun game, but when I caught up with him, I reprimanded him severely and told him he could have gotten lost and he might never have been able to see me again.  It made him cry.  In today’s reality, that was a very real possibility.  With news of children getting kidnapped, one can never be too careful.

Recently an incident occurred which effectively resulted in the “scare tactic” being applied to Gavin.  We were at The Alpha Angle looking at the golf display in center court.  We were ready to go but Gavin kept loitering around and dallying on the putting green.  I called for him to come and even tried enticing him with the promise of a hot chocolate from Starbucks to no avail.

Nearby, a man who was manning the display area decided to “help” us get Gavin’s cooperation, so he said, “Don’t play with the golf clubs otherwise you have to stay here overnight with me.”  He wasn’t threatening in any way, but what he said was enough to send Gavin howling and running towards us as fast as his little legs could carry him.  It took us the rest of the night to reassure Gavin that he was safe from “uncle” and that “uncle” would never be able to take him away from Mummy and Daddy.

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t…

Earlier today, we were at the bookshop looking at Thomas books.  It was time for dinner but Gavin was refusing to leave.  I made the usual customary deal with him of “one more story and then we go” – to which he agreed.  After the story, he decided to break the deal.  I was bracing myself to haul him out of the bookshop kicking and screaming when hubby piped in, “Okay, you can stay here with the uncle then.”

That’s all it took.  One mention of “uncle” and Gavin quickly ran to take my hand and follow me out of the bookshop.

Since then, hubby has used the threat of “uncle” twice with immediate results.  Personally, I have never really believed in using the scare tactic, but I have to admit that it is very effective in producing results.

As a parent, what do you think?  Is it okay to use the “scare tactic” as a method of discipline?  Sometimes, occasionally, or not at all?  Perhaps only in certain circumstances when nothing else works?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

10 thoughts on “Toddler Discipline: Should Parents Use the Scare Tactic?

  1. I don’t think “Scare Tactic” is good to the children. I have saw several children are brought up by “scare tactic”…and turn out…terrible, afraid to go to toilet by themselves, insecurity, lack of self-confident too!!

    I wasn’t sure did I used it or not…when Emilie wanted to watching television programme, and it is rainning day, I will explained to her, we can’t watch Dora’s / Mickey at the moment, is rainning, thundering and lightening at the moment, a bit dangerous…now everytime rainning she will said no more TV. 😉


  2. guess scare tactics should only be used as a last resort & depending on the nature of the scare, to be used sparingly…

    & it is right that reality/facts should be explained to a child first to give him/her a chance to digest & understand…

    ideally, once explanation has been given & if the child still refuses to obey, then it warrants using scare tactics in my opinion…


  3. Many parents still use the scare tactic on their kids especially the “if you don’t listen/obey, the dentist will pull out all your teeth!!!” So no wonder those kids are so afraid of dentist…. even when they are adults.

    Anyway, I personally have tried using the scare tactic on Evan in desperate situations – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t…..


  4. Jo – I think if what we are telling our children are facts then I don’t consider it using the “scare tactic” because they need to know that what they are doing is dangerous. I think it is only a scare tactic if what you say isn’t true. For instance, “If you don’t behave yourself, the boogie man is going to come and get you!” That’s using scare tactics.

    Vivian – Fair enough tactic to employ. Can’t say I necessarily agreed with what my hubby did but we have agreed not to interfere when the other is disciplining. Any disagreements have to be discussed later, out of earshot of the child or it might seem like we’re undermining the authority of the other parent.

    Hui-Wearn – yes, that is so true. I used to wonder how children could be scared to see me when their parents tell me it is the first time they are seeing the dentist. I think the trick with scare tactics is that it has to be something they are already afraid of. In our case, Gavin was very scared of the “uncle” – it wasn’t something we created, it was a natural circumstance that happened beyond our control and hubby used it to his advantage. Can’t say I agree with it, but it worked. But I’m sure if it gets overused, it will lose its impact.


  5. thanks shen-li.

    Well, I do told my daughter – “If u don’t clean your tooth twice per day and after u taken sweet, I’m going to take you visit the dentist!” coz I’m not so keen to visit dentist myself…pretty pain!! 😉

    At first, I thought that after their 1st teeth should take them to visit dentist…but everyone said I’m mental…so I don’t take her to see dentist yet…now she is coming to 2, not fully growing the teeth yet…still have few to go.

    I remeber my nan used to said to me : “if you going outside to play, the indian men will come to catch you away!!” or “if you don’t eat this and this…the ghost at night will come and hunt you!!”


  6. Jo – If you follow paediatric dentistry guidelines, we are supposed to start taking baby to see the dentist as soon as the first tooth erupts. Some even say by 6 months. I delayed until Gavin was 2 years old but the dentist said, “No need to see me until he’s at least 3 unless there is a problem.”

    It is important to reinforce the brushing. Gavin, too, fights it. He doesn’t like me brushing for him and he never does a very good job himself.

    Yup, my parents used similar scare tactics on me, too!


  7. Hi Shen-Li,

    Actually Emilie isn’t that bad for cleaning her tooth, is just sometimes she have her mood to said “Don’t want”!! Well, it is “Don’t want” for everything…some actually mean — “want!!” haiz~ shall I said typical women!!! 😉

    I knew what u mean…they want to do it by themselves, but it will never had the properly…luckily I always said : “Can mommy help you to do it, then Emilie can do it herself?”…it work most of the time for me.

    Are you counting down for your 2nd baby?

    Take k & Good luck!


  8. Typical women? I thought it was typical toddler! LOL! Gavin’s like that, too!

    Unfortunately, Gavin is not so cooperative… 😦

    Yes! Counting down. Induction in two days!


  9. Well…have to said most toddlers won’t cooperative at this stage. I think they want to tell us, “I’m growing up…let me do it!!”…but sometimes they still need help and guide from us!!

    Sometimes I juz let Emilie try…sometimes I will tell her the consequences what would be happen…


  10. Yes indeed! And sometimes it’s just easier to let them do it.

    Today, I took off his seat belt in the car for him and he got so mad! Started throwing a tantrum until I put the belt back on and let him take it off himself. Then he lost it because Daddy locked the car door instead of letting him press all the locks down. He calmed down after I asked Daddy to open the doors again and let him lock them himself.

    With things like that I think it’s just easier to accommodate him rather than fight him. After he got to do it himself, he seemed happier and the fuss was over.


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