Arnold Schwarzenegger, 76, has filled many roles in his life — bodybuilder, actor, politician — and people have scrutinised his performance in these very different realms. Schwarzenegger is also a father of five, and he’s recently been opening up about some unconventional parenting tactics he used when raising his children.
Schwarzenegger shares Katherine, 33, Christina, 31, Patrick, 30, and Christopher, 26, with ex-wife Maria Shriver. He disclosed in 2011 that he fathered a son, Joseph Baena (now 26), with the family’s housekeeper.
In an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on Monday to promote his upcoming book, “Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life,” Schwarzenegger explained, “For the way I grew up, I was lenient, but I think for American standards I was probably strict.” He demanded that all of his children “make their own bed, scrub their own showers, they have to clean their own toilet and they have to wash their own clothes.”
One day, in response to his son repeatedly letting the nanny make the bed, Schwarzenegger said, “I opened up the doors, grabbed the mattress and threw it out the balcony down into the swimming pool.” Patrick then had to retrieve the mattress and pillows, which his dad had also tossed out the window.
The former Republican governor of California also reported that he threw his daughter’s shoes into the fireplace and burned them after she failed several times to put the shoes away properly.
He also said he taught his son to turn off the lights when he left his bedroom to conserve electricity by unscrewing one lightbulb each time he forgot — until his son was left in the dark.
“He was 5 years old, and he was freaking out going alone into his room at night when it was dark,” Schwarzenegger said. “I put the lightbulbs back, [and] from that point on he always turned off the lights.”
Though these incidents are unusual, every frustrated parent has had the thought, “Someone needs to teach that kid a lesson!”
Even if they’re effective, are shock parenting tactics a good idea? HuffPost asked child therapists to weigh in on the pros and cons of this approach to managing kids’ behaviour.
The Potential Effect Of Shock Tactics
Schwarzenegger related these incidents with pride, triumphant that they had been effective.
There are some advantages to an outsized reaction. “Shock tactics can get your child’s attention for sure. And it can be useful in breaking habits,” psychologist Jen Hartstein told HuffPost.
But there are a number of potential downsides, including damaging your child’s trust, increasing their anxiety and depression, and harming your relationship with them.
Though Schwarzenegger explained that he told his daughter he would burn the shoes if she left them in the wrong place again and then followed through on this promise, such a drastic move — particularly when unplanned and executed in the heat of the moment — might cause anxiety or lead a kid to conclude that a parent is unsafe.
A child might wonder, “If I do this, how’s my dad going to react?” said Jennifer Kelman, a licensed clinical social worker who is a mental health expert on JustAnswer. If your reactions are sometimes extreme, “that child learns to walk on eggshells,” she told HuffPost.
Hartstein pointed out that these kinds of tactics often rely on evoking shame in your child. “If your child becomes afraid of you or worried that they will be shamed for making mistakes, it will negatively impact trust,” she explained, which is “the basis of a child/parent relationship.
“It can also cause young people to have an increase in anxiety or depression due to being invalidated and taught through fear, not reinforcement and support.”
Alternative Ways To Encourage Kids To Change Their Behavior
A shock tactic might achieved its desired result: your kid changing their behaviour. But there are other ways to accomplish this that won’t involve risks to your relationship — or destruction of property, for that matter.
Kelman offered the example of explaining to your kid that if they leave their shoes out again, they will have to do some volunteer work with a community organisation. It’s a consequence but a less punitive and frightening one.
In the example of making the bed, Kelman suggested stripping the sheets from the bed and making the child wash them and remake the bed. This tactic would hopefully deter a child from failing to make their bed again and doesn’t pose any physical or psychological danger.
It’s important for parents to set boundaries, Kelman explained. These will be different for every family, but whatever boundary is set should be consistently enforced.
“There needs to be a consequence when time and time again, your child is crossing that boundary and not respecting it,” Kelman said.
“Setting your boundary, being clear on what the consequences are, if it’s not met, and then sticking to it without being harmful,” she continued, is a healthy way for parents to respond to kids’ behaviour.
However, it’s important to spend more time focusing on what your child is doing right rather than what they are doing wrong.
“Research suggests that punishment does not teach new behaviours,” Hartstein explained. Punishment can be important, but positive reinforcement is more effective in getting your child to change their ways.
“If you want to teach new behaviours or want your children to change behaviours, you have to reinforce the things you want while ignoring the things you don’t want,” Hartstein said, adding that children want attention and will try to get it any way they can, even when that attention is negative.
Positive reinforcement is the basis of systems like sticker charts, but it can also be as simple as consistent praise (“Great job putting your shoes on the shoe rack! Thank you!”)
Of Course, You Will Snap At Some Point — It’s What You Do After That Matters
Although few of us will pitch a mattress out the window, almost all of us will have an outsized reaction to our child’s behaviour. When our requests or reminders are repeatedly ignored, we eventually lose it — sometimes in a unique way but predominantly just by yelling.
“All of us are humans, whether we’re parents or children, and we do lose our minds. We do get our buttons pushed, and we may not always react well,” Kelman said.
In addition to scaring our children, yelling definitely qualifies as negative attention. It’s not the kind of positive reinforcement that is more likely to change their behaviour. It can also scare your child.
Such moments, however, actually offer you a chance to connect with your child and strengthen your relationship.
Kelman explained: “This is your opportunity to go back to child and say, ‘You know what? I was reflective on how Mommy handled it. I didn’t love how I handled it. I lost my mind. I’m so sorry if you were scared. I’m so sorry, and I want to do it better next time.’”
Doing this shows your child that you, too, are a fallible human. It also models for them “that you can go back and apologise and be expressive about your feelings” and teaches them “that you’re safe and that they can come to you when they lose their mind,” Kelman said.
“We should never just beat ourselves up” when we explode like that, she said. “We have to go back and be open and vulnerable. You’re teaching so much to your child. … We want them to be able to feel safe enough to come to us.”