Discipline vs. Natural Consequences

Each of us has a unique relationship we experienced with our parents during our childhood. For me, this included a solid bond with both my mom and my dad for about the first 8 years of my life and then, slowly, it involved my dad pulling away from me because I went through some bouts of anxiety in fourth grade that he didn’t understand and didn’t know how to deal with. Shortly thereafter, by 7th or 8th grade, my dad relegated himself to the exclusive role of being my disciplinarian. We really didn’t have much of a relationship outside of his asking about my grades, asking me to put on something “more appropriate,” or telling me I was grounded because I (once again) missed curfew. The tension in our relationship culminated in his asking me to move out at age 18 just as I gave birth to my eldest son.

As an adult, I look back and understand my dad really didn’t have any idea about how to relate to a teenage girl and his way of showing me he loved me during those years was to try and protect me from (myself) and the harm and consequences of making unhealthy choices. It’s too bad my dad wasn’t able to learn how to stay connected with me during those uncertain years, I sure could have used his unconditional love and non-judgmental guidance as I navigated my newly developed interest in boys and dating, in friendships that seemed to ride like roller coasters, and an ability to believe in myself when my grades continued to fall apart.  

I am happy to say we worked through our differences years ago and enjoy a healthy, loving, mutually respectful relationship today.

Many of us were parented over during our childhoods. (Remember the term dominant parenting from Module 2?) We didn’t question our parents, we spoke to them with respect, we cooperated even when we didn’t want to because no one really thought it was acceptable to NOT do as they were told, or because we were afraid of what the consequences might be if we didn’t obey.  

This approach to parenting might work for some kids today…maybe even for their entire childhood and teen years, but the end result in adulthood usually means a strained, unhappy relationship between adult child and parent. 

Conversely, some parents decide (or had modeled for them) a “no rules/structure” approach to parenting and this too can cause problems for kids while going through adolescence.  

Kids need guidance during this phase of many changes!

Shifting the way we approach parenting during adolescence to one where we work with our kids gives us the best chance to guide them into who they are meant to become. We aren’t coaching them into who we need them to become because we understand it’s our role to set up basic boundaries around their physical/emotional/spiritual habits and then to allow them to use their judgment and explore different avenues along the path to independent adulthood.  

In a nutshell, parenting teenagers is about finding the balance between putting in safeguards and giving our kids the chance to make as many choices (which sometimes involves mistakes or wrong turns) in their lives as possible. As was stated, it’s in the challenges where we grow, right? Take a moment to think about how that last statement could be applied to your own life.

Let me share an example of setting boundaries.  

Let’s say your son or daughter comes home from school and tells you they’ve got homework. You ask how much time they think it will take them, they respond they have about an hours worth of work to do. You remind them they have a piano lesson at 7 p.m. then you allow them to choose when they want to complete their work. You’ve checked in with them then you allow them to step up and do the work that’s needed. They have the choice to do it right away or to wait until after dinner, or even to get up early the next morning and do their work before leaving for school. They understand it needs doing, the consequences of their not doing it will be their grade suffering, so allow them to be responsible for how it looks.

I understand it’s not always easy. We think because we’ve lived through adolescence already we should be able to help our kids sidestep some of the landmines we hit when young. We love, and want to protect our kids from failure, or anything else that might hurt them. But it’s truly a disservice to their maturity process and learning about the real world when we step in too far or too often.  

What we all want is to raise capable, accountable, responsible children, right?  

As the teen years progress, we need to be willing to let go of some of the reins so they can learn to trust and rely on themselves.

Learning from our challenges is helpful in creating a growth mindset as well. When we focus our energy and conversation on how they’ve grown, what they’ve learned in the process of making a poor choice that’s the key!

Let’s look at a possible real-life scenario and then two different approaches to how a parent could respond to the situation.

Here is the situation: 

Katie, 16, recently got her license and asks to drive the car with her girlfriend to the football game Friday night. She’s shown herself to be a responsible driver, you know the friend well, you give Katie a curfew and the car keys with your blessing.

Saturday afternoon you get in the car to go to the grocery store, you immediately notice something doesn’t smell “right”. It’s a bad smell, but you can’t put your finger on what it is. You ask Katie about it when you get home and she (avoiding eye contact) says she doesn’t know why the car would smell “weird.” She came in on time the night before, you had a conversation with her before she went up to bed…you think something’s amiss but just can’t put your finger on it.

A few days later you run into the mother of the friend your daughter drove to the game the other night. She begins to tell you that Susie, her daughter, came home from the game and ended up with a sick stomach all night long. 

Hmmm, you think…could the weird smell in your car somehow be related to Susie’s illness? Without mentioning this to the mom you decide to have a talk with Katie after she gets home from school.

Parent response #1:

Katie walks in the door, you’ve had a few hours to think more about what Susie’s mom said and the way the car smelled Saturday. You suspect the girls may have been drinking and Susie got sick in the car sometime during the evening. You are angry because you trusted your daughter with the car and she’s proven not to be trustworthy. If she was drinking and driving she seriously endangered not only her own life, but that of her friend, and the hundreds of other people on the road with her. Because you’ve allowed this scenario to brew in your mind, you accuse Katie of your suspicions, when she tries to explain what happened you wave your hand and tell her you don’t want to hear any more lies. You immediately punish her for being irresponsible, for underage drinking, for leaving your car smelling awful. On top of grounding her for a month, you tell Katie she’ll spend the weekend detailing the inside of the car. You finish up by saying it will take “a long time, if ever until you can trust her again!”

Parent response #2:

You’ve had a few hours to think about the conversation you had with Susie’s mom, rather than jump the gun you decide you are going to ask Katie to tell you if there’s anything she’d like to share with you about being out at the football game last Friday evening.

Katie comes in after school, you are sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of iced tea. You ask about her day and then you share with her that you ran into Susie’s mom at the post office that morning. You ask Katie if there’s anything she’d like to talk about with regard to their football game outing. At first, Katie says no…then she says, “Mom, I didn’t know how to tell you, because I didn’t want you to be mad or to never let me have the car again, but when I picked up Susie she’d had a few beers because she was worried about talking to this boy at the game and she thought the beer would help calm her down. At first, I thought she was just being silly but then I could tell something wasn’t right. Before I knew it she threw up in the front seat. I freaked out and went to the gas station to try and clean it up with some paper towels from the restroom. Mom, I’m sorry. Please don’t hate Susie and please don’t take the car away from me. We never made it to the game because Susie got sick in the parking lot at school and I just had to wait it out with her so I didn’t even get to see the game. She seemed okay by the time it was curfew so I dropped her off at home. Apparently, she was sick most of the night, though her mom thought it was the flu and not because of drinking beer. She swears she’d never do that again, I believe her Mom. Who would ever do that to themselves again?”

You tell Katie you appreciate that she just shared the situation and you understand she was trying to be a good friend and take care of Susie. But that doesn’t make (a) the fact that she lied about the car smell okay and (b) the fact that she didn’t call for help or at least tell her mom when she got home, okay. You ask Katie to look back and what she wishes she would have done that night. You talk about the risk of teenage drinking, drinking and driving, and what to do if a situation like that ever presents itself again. You ask Katie to trust you enough to call you if she’s ever in a situation where she or a friend is in trouble. You are there to help guide her through this challenging stage of her life.  

 Katie asks if you are going to punish her. You tell her you’d like her to get the green machine out and go over the carpet in the car, but that you are leaving it at that and trusting she will make different choices next time. You believe in her ability to be responsible and there are some bumps to be expected during these years.

Which response is more likely to come from your mouth if this was your daughter? Our kids are going to make mistakes and poor choices at times during these years. This is an opportunity to learn, to build mutual trust and respect, and to show them you believe they can do better.  

I am not excusing the reckless or irresponsible behavior, I am asking you to partner with your child as they navigate the changes that come along with adolescence.

The next time you have a challenging situation with your son or daughter, try this 3-step process:

First, don’t feel you have to “rush” toward an outcome. If you can afford to take a night to think through the situation and your response, then do that. For example, my eldest got caught smoking cigars on his sixteenth birthday with friends in a park. The police officer called me after he let the boys go with a lecture and no ticket. My first experience with a teen and the law, I was understandably upset. But, when he came in the door with his friends a few minutes later, I calmly told the boys to call their parents for a ride home, then I told my son we’d discuss the situation the next day. He wasn’t expecting that time period to think about what I might know or what I might do in response to the fact that he’d been caught smoking. It was okay that he had some time to think about what had gone on. And it gave me the chance to think through (and talk with my husband) about an appropriate response.

When you do sit down to discuss the situation, ask your child to identify where things went wrong. You want to know that your child understands where the move from the situation is okay, to going awry really took place. Then you want to identify if it was their not seeing (or being able to predict) the consequences of their words/actions, was your child acting impulsively? Are they seeking attention through their negative behavior?  

Second, ask your child what he/she can learn (or has learned) through this experience. Can they identify the lesson? Conversely, what have you learned from the situation? Be honest, be vulnerable. Let them know, calmly, what the experience has brought up for you. Don’t use this step to lecture, lay guilt, or put an additional emotional burden on them. Use it as a way for them to understand their actions impact others, but keep it in perspective.

Third, together come up with a plan to fix (as much as possible) what’s happened and then work on a plan for what should happen if this scenario (or a similar scenario) happens in the future. Focus on a solution, not on punishment. Remembering you want to use mistakes or poor choices as a way to learn and to grow.

Let’s finish off this unit with an exercise to test what you’ve learned in this module!

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