By Alik Segal, Esq, MA
One of the biggest challenges in parenting teens is discipline. Although teens want more autonomy, they are not necessarily ready for it and need a lot of direction and coaching. Punishment and authority are just two of many tools parents have and these particular tools lose potency they had in the early childhood and pre-teen years. This is not a tragedy. This means that your teen is growing up and becoming his or her own person. A better approach is to frame the conversation in terms of collaboration and accountability, presenting these as signs of your teen’s personal power and maturity.
As a teacher, I had never asked students in my classroom to be quiet or to stop talking. That would be a way of confronting them, a risky approach with teenagers. Instead, I had framed my request in the language of collaboration by asking to help me create a productive classroom environment. I had never had anyone refuse to help, and they always liked the fact that their help was needed. The same principle applies to household chores, which can also be framed as a collaborative project where the leader (parent) invites the help of team members (kids).
Kids are smart and articulate, and from time to time a student in my class would say, “You are saying you want our help to create a productive classroom environment, but you are really asking us to stop talking. Like a good politician, I stayed on my message, “I need your help. I can’t create a productive classroom environment by myself. I need your help for that.” They knew what I was doing, but they could not say no to this positively-framed respectful request.
The theme of accountability as a sign of maturity is also very effective with teens. For example, if kids break a neighbor’s window, the parent can help them see this accident and the need to accept responsibility for their own actions as an unfortunate sign of growing up. For example, little kids are not allowed to do things that could result in damage to neighbor’s property. As kids grow up and develop mature thinking, they have more freedom and begin to do more stuff that can result in an injury to participants or bystanders. Another sign of growing up is taking responsibility for one’s mistakes and accidents one causes or for whatever happens when one engages in an inherently risky play. In our example, this means making an effort to make the neighbor whole (compensate the neighbor for the damage).
After all, when babies make a mess, someone else cleans up after them. Adults clean up after themselves. Kids who are working and saving their paychecks for college can dip into the college fund for the cost of repair. Kids who aren’t working can make their contribution by washing the neighbor’s car or mowing the neighbor’s lawn.
Accepting the responsibility for one’s past or future actions has the added benefit of teaching one to be careful. Parents can lay the foundation for this approach by talking about accountability before the child anything goes wrong. This includes talking about what can go wrong and how the children would “clean up” after themselves. This kind of conversation is much more effective at making kids think about safety than just a reminder to “be careful.”
Talking about potential problems and how the damage will be repaired can help the parent make sure that the situation is repairable. John’s father let John drive an old car. When John crashed it, his father was very upset. John was a senior in high school, working, and wanted to pay for repairs. Unfortunately, John was not earning money fast enough to make a dent in the cost of repairs, and there was no insurance. In the meantime, the car was not drivable and was sitting on the street. If John’s father had purchased insurance, John could have paid the premiums together with other costs of car maintenance. A conversation about the source of the money to repair the car in case of an accident would have been a signal for John’s father that insurance is needed, and the conflict over the car accident would have been avoided.
In the aftermath of things going wrong, parents might be anxious clean up the mess. As the conversation about dealing with the consequences unfolds, parents usually know the obvious-to-adults solution to repair the situation. Parents might be tempted to just tell the kids what needs to be done. Even if you know the solution right away, let the child struggle as the two of you together explore the positives and negatives of his proposal and search for a better alternative. People don’t like to be told what to do, neither adults nor kids. But people love to implement their own ideas. It is far better to develop the teaching moment by letting kids brainstorm for the best, most comprehensive, and most efficient solution.
A wise parent will let the child think that he was the first to come up with this solution and praise him for mature, big-picture thinking. Feel free to compliment your child for finding a good solution. A compliment that is specific and connected to actual achievement will not go your child’s head.
Parenting your teen is hard and dealing with problems—discipline—is the hardest part of it. But parents can make the conversation go smoother by framing it in terms of collaboration and accountability. Talking about accountability before anything goes wrong is an effective advertisement for prevention. And after something goes wrong, brainstorming the solution is a great teaching moment.