Why Good Parenting Calls For Cheap Scare Tactics

Becky Blades, a Grown and Flown friend, writes: “Dirty clothes shouldn’t be scary,” said a person who has not opened the door to a 17-year-old’s bedroom room or shared a car with an open gym bag. Or a person who has not sent a laundry-challenged 18-year-old out into the world.

Becky Blades, Laundry or Die

Releasing my daughter into society without being sure she would actually do her laundry was a terrifying moment in my empty nesting transition, and I met it the way I meet most scary parenting encounters – with frantic, jerking shrieks of foreboding and emotional threats: “Your life will be out of control! No one will live with you! No one will love you!…Did I not make myself clear? No wire hangars!”

Being afraid my daughter did not know how to take care of herself and her things turned me into Mommy Dearest; I displaced aggression and spent way too much time passing judgment on her closet. But in the end, though it wasn’t pretty, sending her to college was therapeutic for me. It was the crescendo of a decade and a half of using fear as a parenting tool, and it was the leg of my mom journey that sent me into serious self-analysis.

One morning sitting at my journal, I wondered to myself if my two daughters, then 17 and 15, knew the difference between a mother’s warnings and real risk. Like generations of mothers before me, I had used predictions and exaggerations to make points, I had inflated and fabricated scenarios and lorded threats just to make sure I was heard. I always felt these tactics were cop-outs, that a better mom than I would not need to resort to such things.

As I journaled for days, through years of memories, I realized that stirring up a little fear was a big part of my job description. I remembered, for example, that my children had grown up in a much safer neighborhood than I had. They didn’t need to be afraid to walk to school, or to hang out at the neighborhood shopping center. But living in that safe, shiny “bubble” we had worked so hard to create for them had created its own risks. They were dangerously trusting, and truth be told, they didn’t know what door locks were actually for.

“Don’t talk to strangers” were not serious words in suburban la la land.  In fact, the phrase “stranger danger” would set our humor-seeking household doubling over in laughter when properly placed in a conversation.

That’s the funny thing about fear. It’s funny. Until it’s not.

And it’s a parent’s job to clarify the difference. It was my job to make sure my eight-year-old got to enjoy life with enough security to laugh at paranoid clichés like “stranger danger” and also to assure those same words will send a chill down her spine at age 18 when a middle-aged man gets a little too friendly on a deserted subway platform.

That’s why my daughter’s last year at home was so frightful for me. I scrutinized my work and wondered if I’d covered the right material. She was terrified of making a low SAT score but undaunted by the prospect of running out of clean underwear. She did not know that having a laundry routine would save her from the free-floating overwhelm that would endanger her very peace of mind and turn already busy days into frantic clothing searches.

After a year of self-inflicted note making, I bid adieu to my daughter with an e-mail. Subject line: Do your laundry or you’ll die alone. Attached were 200+ tidbits of laundry advice, financial lectures and life lessons that I was afraid she might not know.

It got her attention. She read it all. Not because she was afraid of dying alone, but because she was afraid of the parental financial repercussions if she ignored me. (Those threats have not been veiled in the least.)

Come to find out, the things I’m afraid of for my daughter are things she is afraid of, too. As she got to know other young women at college, she reported that I am by no means the most dramatic or fear-wielding mom alive. Other moms fret and stalk and agonize and warn their daughters with much more flair than I.

I should have remembered this comforting fact from my own coming of age: as we step out on our own, women parent one another with the lessons they learned at home. The ones that make it through the noise are the lessons that are most repeated in mom’s most intense voice.

So . . . sorry, not sorry.

If my two daughters aren’t a little bit afraid of the sound of my ring tone between the ages of 15 and 18, shame on me. If my 18-year-old isn’t wary walking through campus after dark, I didn’t do my job. If my 21-year-old isn’t a little freaked out when a guy on a second date won’t take her home when she asks, I’ve missed a conversation.

Parents of sons likely have an entirely different list of fears and parenting imperatives. I hope that in addition to worrying about their sons’ safety, they are terrified of their sons being cavalier with girls’ hearts and bodies. I can think of no stronger deterrent for a well-raised young man than the look on his mother’s face when she learns of her son’s shoddy behavior.

The only thing we have to fear is NOT fear itself – it is losing fear as a parenting tool. But I’m not afraid. I’m betting that just like the laundry, creatively applied scare tactics will always be part of the job that never ends.

Do Your Laundry, Becky Blades

About Becky Blades

Becky Blades is author and illustrator of Do Your Laundry or You’ll Die Alone: Advice Your Mom Would Give if She Thought You Were Listening, a wise, witty collection of counsel for women of all ages.

She lives in Kansas City with her husband of 30 years and her Maytag front load washing machine.

Check out Becky’s web site, LaundryorDie, and her blog, startistry. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest at: LaundryorDie.com




  1. says

    I love it when I get reports that other mothers are crazier than me! :) So gratifying to finally be appreciated. Seriously though, I hope my kids hear my voice in their head and that they learn from the mom voices in the other kids’ heads, too. We say it for their good!

    • says

      Exactly! They don’t really listen when they’re with us. Our only hope is to create life-long voices in their heads.

  2. says

    So true… every time I say I’m going anywhere on the highway my mom tells me the story of how she hit a tree when she was coming home from college. She hydroplaned and by some miracle ended up okay enough to sob on the phone with my granddad without a scratch. I’ve heard that story a million times–and because of that I know not to brake when I hydroplane. Fear is a really excellent teaching tool.

  3. says

    “Don’t touch that stove: you’ll burn yourself!” is STILL good advice, even if it evokes a little fear.
    A little commonsense fear keeps us from being Darwin’s next casualty.

    • says

      Ooooh, yes, Carol. We must remember they won’t be with us forever. I’m sorry she’s not around to see what a digital success you are.

  4. says

    OK… as a mom of 27 year old, this one got me. “That’s the funny thing about fear. It’s funny. Until it’s not.” I let go, I really do…. But sometimes you just have to go a wing and pray, right?

    • says

      Right, Ruth. Sometimes I have to ZIP the lip and ride the wing and the prayer. Always a bumpy ride.

  5. says

    Fear always worked for me when raising my kids. When mine were teens I always gave them a spiel before they left the house. Don’t get in any car with a stranger NO Matter What he says, don’t drink, always be careful of surroundings etc…
    One night I was busy and didn’t spiel. My two oldest left and five minutes later they came back and were upset I didn’t tell them to be careful. I cried because they had actually been listening all alone.

    • says

      I actually teared up reading this. THEY ARE LISTENING, AREN’T THEY? And, no matter what they say, our words feel like love to them.

  6. says

    So good. And I’m so with you — my son once told me he always hears my voice in his head when he’s about to do something stupid like cross 5 lanes of traffic so he doesn’t miss his exit. He said it stops him from doing it, and I smiled, knowing I had done my job and will be haunting my kids forever :)

  7. says

    This was wonderful! As the mom of a fifteen year old I have been having some of the same fears, am I really preparing him for the real world. Thank you!!

    • says

      Yes, Kathy. That’s about the age I started really worrying. #driverslicense, right?

  8. says

    Mine are always sending me on road trips so I will leave them some peace and quiet! It’s nice to know that I’m in good company! Fun thoughts!

    • says

      It’s a double-sided blade, isn’t it, Kim? If we thought about anything too long, we’d never get out of bed.

  9. says

    This is just brilliant! I have two boys, and I love the part about not being cavalier with girls’ hearts and bodies. Something we taught our sons very early on!

  10. Taylor Kay says

    Hey mom… It’s me…
    Um… When are you coming to Chicago because I have 3 weeks worth of dirty clothes. Id do it myself but the laundry room scares me and I trying to honor my fear.

    • Anonymous says

      But you’ve only been there 2 weeks. See, this is why your sister can’t have nice things.

    • says

      I didn’t intend to post anonymously. This time, anyway.

      Do your laundry.
      Love, Mom

  11. says

    I only have one daughter, now 29. Leaving her standing at her dorm room pretty much ripped my senses into a new reality. Tough business letting go. We both survived and grew up, she more than me. I don’t think she fears me anymore. Maybe it’s a sign that she doesn’t have to. Here’s hoping.

    • says

      Sounds like you raised a wise woman. And judging from your blog post, you had fun doing it. Love your truth: “Life is rarely graceful. It is loud, messy, and emotional.”

  12. says

    I love this post for the laughing tears.. Plus the memory of moving our son to college, then clearing his closet only to find over 120 pairs of “lost” socks..

    • says

      Laughing tears?! Never heard that term — love it. And now you have launched me into sock monster conspiracy theories. It was bound to happen.

  13. Jeri says

    I’m about 4 weeks away from sending my daughter to college and handing her my list of things I think I’ve forgotten to teach her! Your article helped me realize I’m not the only one who thinks this way! I also appreciated feeling that the most important life lessons have made it through the noise. Thank you