Once again, a request to parents

I am highly suspicious that I have already covered this in an earlier post.  If so, I apologize for repeating myself.  But if Andrew Sullivan can go on and on about [random obsession] for weeks on end, surely I can be forgiven for returning to a subject of particular personal concern.

Are you a parent?  Do you take your kids to the doctor?  I certainly hope so.  And I understand that it can be a frustrating and irritating experience.  Sometimes we run behind.  The exam rooms are small, and the entertainment options are thin on the ground.  Your kid can get antsy and your temper can run short.  I understand all of this.

Please, please, please do not tell you children that I will give them a shot if they don’t behave.  Please.  No matter how frayed your nerves or rambunctious your kids, that is an abjectly terrible idea.

First of all, it’s a blatant lie.  Frankly, I happen to think baldly lying to your children is wrong on its face, and needs no further explanation.  But that is a particularly stupid lie, easily falsified by a savvy and/or persistently disobedient child.  If there is no medical indication for a shot, a shot isn’t coming.  And if your threat doesn’t actually come to pass, whose credibility has just been undermined?  Not mine.

But let’s say vaccines are actually coming that day.  By saying what you have, you have just made my job so much harder.  You have implied that good behavior will make them go away.  You have indicated that administration of shots is capricious and arbitrary, and have rendered null my assurances that they are given only to help the child stay healthy.  You have contributed to your child’s belief that I am someone to be feared, rather than trusted.

I am not your disciplinary agent or your contract torturer.  Please don’t tell your child otherwise.

Parts of my job involve painful or uncomfortable procedures.  Your child needs vaccines, occasional blood tests, sometimes a throat swab or some other unpleasantness.  Obviously, I have to do these things to be an effective pediatrician.  But I hate to do them.  They are easily one of my least favorite parts of my work.  And it makes me incredibly angry to hear you tell your kids that I am doing them because I want to punish them.  It is insulting to me when you give your children the idea that I am hurting them for its own sake.  It erodes my respect for you.

Also, by increasing your child’s anxiety about the visit you have made it harder for me to deliver the care you are paying for.  A frightened child who fights my exam is much harder to treat.  If your child is kicking and screaming, it’s that much more difficult to see in her ears or throat, hear her lungs or feel her abdomen.  I can’t guarantee that she would have been at ease and cooperative without your threat, but it sure didn’t help.  Her fear increases the guesswork in my diagnosis, and who wants that?

Finally, by saying what you have you have introduced an unnecessary source of contention in my relationship with you.  Because I am going to contradict you.  I’ll do it briefly and politely, but I’m going to correct the record.  “Oh no, I only give shots to keep people healthy” usually suffices.  Perhaps you don’t like to be second-guessed in front of your child, but we wouldn’t be in that situation without your lie.

Going to see the doctor is scary enough for some kids as it is.  The brief pain of shots is often far outweighed by the anxiety kids feel about them.  I can’t imagine you really want your child to be frightened, and I understand you’re nerve-wracked and just want him to behave.  But please come up with some other strategy.  We’ll all be happier for it.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. “Billy, unless you sit down right now, the doctor’s going to yell the bs-word at you again.”

  2. Who the hell torments their child with, “If you don’t behave, you’re getting a shot?”

    That’s just cruel.

    Mine get, “If you don’t behave, you’re going to regret it!”

    Much nicer.

    • Parents do that so often that it is almost a rite of passage. Hell, I think my parents have done it to me and they’re doctors.

        • I said almost. The range of outlandish threats ranges from injections to cops. Do these really make doctors and cops the enemy? I personally never remembered thinking of them as such. Sometimes for injections, the more nuanced version is that if the kid is naughty, the doctor will use this huge needle rather thn that smaller, much nicer one over there.

          • I respectfully object to instilling any kind of deliberate fear against doctors (or cops, for that matter) as a means of cowing one’s child.

    • Hard to say. Every 2-3 weeks, maybe?

      I mentioned this beef to my colleagues the other day. Some of them said they’d really never noticed parents doing it, while others nodded sympathetically. Obviously not the world’s most pressing parental misdeed, but it drives me absolutely up the wall when I witness it.

      • I think it’s horrible for about 17 different reasons.

  3. If you don’t behave I’m taking you to see the DENTIST!! Bwah-ha-ha

    • That would have worked for me.

      I feared the dentist when I was a kid, and nothing has changed since I matured.

  4. What kid in today’s world is cowed by the threat of a shot?

    “You’ll clean this room, young man, or you’ll wake up in a bathtub in a Mexican slum to discover Dr. Saunders has harvested your liver!” gets far better results, we have found.

    • My kid was petrified of needles until, oh, sixth grade maybe? He also had an unreasonable fear of Gollum. Or perhaps perfectly reasonable.

      Depends on the kid. He broke his wrist and mostly dozed through waiting for the x-rays and the cast, but you wanted to prick his fingertip for a drop of blood and it was a life-and-death struggle to get a finger.

      OTOH, he also had an allergy test — so he was capable of enduring it if he had to. The trick was simply not telling him until it was too late. He’d get more worked up thinking about it than it actually was.

      He was seriously honked off about that allergy test though. Angriest little six year old EVER. We hated to do it to him, but we kinda needed to know what was causing the nasty hives and breathing problems. (Soy and ‘all grasses, including some thought extinct’ apparently).

        • He was a very thorough doctor. The best part of the whole thing? She talked him through the arm part (the back part was a total surprise to him) by telling him he could come when she took her test the next week.

          She said she’d never seen such a look of total, sadistic satisifaction on his face then when they were performing the test on her. 🙂

          • From time to time I have siblings scheduled for well checks, during which both receive immunizations.

            The terror one experiences as the shot looms is generally exceeded by the pleasure of knowing that the other is going to get one, too.

  5. My mom used to tell me that if I were bad, the doctor would amputate my leg…

  6. For the record, I’ve never even fantasized about doing this. When we have too wait too long I calm my children down by promising that they’ll get to give the doctor a shot.

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