When a 16-year-old violated her curfew recently, her parents disciplined her by taking out a newspaper advertisement offering 30 hours of free baby-sitting. That discipline technique got everyone talking. In fact, the local story quickly became national news, appearing in newspapers and magazines across the country—and even on national TV news.
As a parent, I found the story unsettling. To me, discipline is about teaching. What were the parents trying to teach their 16-year-old? What did the daughter actually learn?
I know the parents didn’t intend for this incident to make national news, but it did. What this 16-year-old learned is that she could break curfew and get on CBS news. I also know that I wouldn’t trust a free baby-sitting offer by parents trying to discipline their teenager. I would be unsure how much the teenager really wanted to baby-sit. And then I would wonder: If the 16-year-old got into trouble for violating her curfew, couldn’t she sneak out during a baby-sitting job? How responsible was she really?
It’s not easy to discipline our kids in ways that encourage them to change their behavior. Yet, we need to be strategic about how we discipline. If our child isn’t changing behavior, we need to change ours. We also need to check in and listen to what our kids are actually learning from our discipline methods. I remember very clearly when one of my kids told me that what he was learning was that he needed to get smarter about not getting caught.
That’s not what I wanted to teach my child, but that’s what was happening. Why? Because no one likes to get into trouble. Instead, I needed to teach my child more about why I thought the behavior was unacceptable. We started talking more about positive values (instead of punishment) and gradually my child began to buy into my perspective of having him act in a certain way.
The difficulty with this approach is that it takes time—and it also requires working through difficult emotions to get to the point where both the parent and the child can truly listen to each other and work through the situation. I remember being surprised how slowly it can take for kids to change their behavior. I really wanted to have one magical punishment that taught my kids immediately and changed their behavior for good.
But parenting doesn’t work that way.
If we want to raise successful, empowered kids, it means that they’ll question our rules. They’ll have their own view of a situation. This is the truth about discipline: It’s a two-way street. As parents, we know how we want our kids to act. We set expectations and rules. When our kids violate those rules, we discipline them. But our kids also have a say in the matter. We need to listen to their side of the story, and we need to hear what’s happening in their lives that may be driving them to act in ways that we don’t value. We need to be firm—yet we also need to be open and flexible so that our discipline methods can truly be effective.
What are your views on discipline?
Associated Press, “Parents Advertise Free Babysitting from Southlake Teen Who Broke Curfew,” Associated Press, August 20, 2010.
CBS, “Parents Sentence Texas Teen to—Babysitting,” CBS, August 23, 2010.
Nelson, Jane, Positive Discipline, revised edition (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996).