Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Grapes of Wrath... for Parents

I read a blog yesterday that praised a parent for what I consider a terrible response to their teen's bad choices. In short, a 16 year old who was caught driving ridiculously fast was made (by his mother) to stand at a busy intersection for a month wearing a sandwich-board that said "I am stupid, I was speeding and could have gotten myself and my friends killed." Meanwhile, he awaits his court date for official punishment.

Do you think I am advocating leniency for this teen's irresponsible behaviour? Certainly not. But what has this mother accomplished? She has embarrassed her son, that's for sure. And probably alienated him with her childish put-down. She will have a reputation as the woman who publicly humiliated her son for a whole month. Are any of these results desirable?

If I may now be allowed to philosophize on the fine art of child-rearing, let me give a short lecture on the difference between discipline and punishment. Believe me, there is a difference. (If someone objects that I am only the parent of two children under the age of two, let me state my qualifications. I parent a toddler. I was a child myself less than two decades ago. I was a teen even more recently. I have a sister 13 years younger, to whom I sometimes have acted like a parent. I have worked with children and teens in various authoritative capacities in education and in the community.)

Discipline, by definition, is training by means of rules, guidelines and consequences. Punishment, on the other hand, is retaliation (often in anger) against someone or something that doesn't conform to your expectations. By nature the first is productive, the latter destructive.

As parents, our job is to raise mature, responsible children with good character and moral values. Unfortunately, children don't learn as much from what we tell them as they do from what we model for them. If we want them to be respectful people, we must demonstrate respect. If we want them to be responsible, we must take responsibility for our own actions. We do need to set reasonable boundaries for them, and allow them to experience the consequences of transgressing those boundaries. In the case of the speeding teen, appropriate consequences might include taking away the privilege of using the family car, making him pay the fine himself (or work to pay you back), and not advocating on his behalf in court. If the family's insurance is affected, he should have to pay the difference.

The reality is that young children need their parents to make many decisions for them, and have to a degree less responsibility for their own actions. As they mature, however, they should be allowed more freedom to make their own choices, and be given responsibility for their choices. This is how they incrementally become adults. Sadly, many people today have grown up either having choices without responsibility, or having all their choices made for them, resulting in a lot of grown-ups who do not act like adults.

IMHO, the moral of the story is this. Discipline yourself first. Then, discipline your children, and they will love you. Punish them, and they will hate you. These are the grapes of wrath.

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