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|How To Discipline Older Children
(C) 2000, Don Mize
Many parents lose control with teenagers. Old methods of discipline no longer
work, and a power struggle develops.
Let’s take a fresh look at the problem and consider a different approach to
Clarifying the Issues
When children are small, we command: go to your room; pick up your toys;
go to bed. We expect to be obeyed, although even small children tend not to
Generally, physical force is used to enforce the commands. After all, the
parent is bigger, stronger, faster, and more mobile than the small child.
Moreover, the parent has the power to either inflict pain or to give pleasure.
Many parents reduce discipline to giving commands and punishing for
disobedience. The focus becomes causing pain by whippings, withdrawal of
privileges, or creating guilt. The only purpose of discipline is to produce
obedience to the parental command.
All this works with varying degrees of success, depending on the child. Of
course children need to learn to respect authority and to obey, but children
also need to be taught. Most parents, we hope, do some teaching rather than
merely issuing commands from afar and expecting unthinking obedience.
Let’s deal with basics
One thing is certain: every year a child becomes bigger, faster, smarter, and
more mobile. Physical force has limits. The older child may be bigger and
stronger than you are. Whereas you can force a five year old to sit in the
corner, a defiant fifteen-year-old is more difficult to handle. Whereas you may
know the location of your five year old, you lose touch with your teenager the
moment she backs the car out of the driveway.
A different approach to discipline is needed for the older child and the
teenager. Because many things cannot be explained to a younger child, we are
justified in expecting unthinking obedience. “Don’t go in the street” must
simply be accepted and obeyed when the child is three years of age. We
assume that understanding will develop. At fifteen a child who blindly refuses
to go into the street has a serious problem. The method of discipline must
move beyond mere commands and unthinking obedience to include developing
understanding and judgment.
The difference in power and authority
Many parents do not distinguish between power and authority, and they
assume that they have absolute power. In parenting, you have authority from
God and from the state, but you never have absolute power. If your whole
approach to discipline is based on physical force, you may find yourself
dismayed with a defiant teenager.
You do not have absolute power over the life of a teenager. If she decides to
defy you, what are you willing to do? Lock her in the closet? Many extreme
actions will land you in trouble for child abuse. Are you willing to call the
police? Would throwing him in jail solve anything even if you could make
some charge stick? You never want to reach the point where you are in a
If the teenager ever decides you are the enemy, control evaporates. Once you
become the enemy, you are the problem in the mind of the teenager. You may
be hounding your teen because you care, but the teen only perceives that
mother is on my back constantly. Thus, the real issue disappears as the
teenager concentrates on winning through defiance, lying, or evasiveness.
The value of natural consequences
You can avoid the power struggle by using natural consequences as a teaching
method. The younger the child, the more you intervene; the older the child, the
more you allow the natural consequences to occur. Of course you use
common sense. Allowing a child to fail in school would be a drastic measure,
used only as a last resort. Hopefully, we can avoid such drastic action. Daily
life gives many opportunities for natural consequences to prove that you are
not the enemy and that your instructions are for her good.
However, far too many parents will not allow the child to learn through natural
consequences. Ironically, parents intervene and preempt natural
consequences to avoid their own discomfort. For example, we don’t want our
child to fail because it will inconvenience us, cost us money, or embarrass us.
Children sense and resent such hypocrisy, for they grasp intuitively that our
rantings are really about us rather than a sincere concern for their well-being.
Sadly, parents often teach the falsehood that natural consequences do not
exist. I shoplifted, but my parents intervened and got me off. I lied to my
teacher, but my parents intervened and told another lie to cover me. I spent
money recklessly, but my parents intervened and paid my debts. I didn’t do
my homework, but my parents intervened and I passed anyway. Thus the
child concludes that actions do not bear consequences, a tragic lesson. Later,
we cannot understand why the older child or teen acts so irrationally.
However, the child is logically applying the carefully taught falsehood that
actions bear no consequences.
Sooner or later the parent will not be in a position to intervene. The man who
does not produce at work will be fired. The woman who overspends will find
herself hopelessly in debt. For the child’s sake, it is better to allow natural
consequences to occur at an early age. A fifth grader who fails may be sad,
but a senior in high school has more to lose. A high school student who is
allowed to face the consequences of a rebellious attitude is better off than a
man who learns the consequences of a rebellious attitude by losing his job.
The prediction trap
All too often by the time a child reaches the teen years, we have taught him not
to listen. Many of us predict consequences that never occur because we are
worriers. We predict disaster after disaster, and the child ignores us after a
while. After all, the sky never falls.
Some of us are carefully trying to teach, but we continue to fall into the
prediction trap. For example, we want our child to realize that homework is
important, so we predict failure. The teacher, however, decides not to take up
the homework, gives extra credit, gives the test over until everyone passes, or
even blatantly adds points to the final grade. Again, the sky didn’t fall.
Avoid the prediction trap. If you predict consequences, you are setting
yourself up to be ignored. While you may be right in principle, predicting the
outcome of a specific situation is a gamble not worth taking. Consequences
occur, but rarely on our schedule and in the form we predict.
Be clear about the issues
Another way we teach our children not to listen is to confuse the issues. Once
my son owned two expensive tennis rackets because he played in
tournaments. If the strings broke in one, he had another identical racket with
which to continue the match. In a local tournament, he broke a string in the
first game. His mom then discovered that he had loaned his second racket to
a friend. She drove home and scrambled to find a racket while he continued
the match with a beat-up racket borrowed from a bystander. By the time she
returned, he had won the match.
Of course our instincts were to jump on him about loaning out his racket,
remind him the second racket was quite an investment for our family, and point
out he was lucky to win. However, from his point of view, we would have
been be making much ado about nothing. After all, he won, didn’t he? He
would have concluded that he had uptight parents, and he would have listened
to our ranting in a polite but deaf silence.
In our family, the real issue was the expense of the racket he loaned out. By
waiting a few days to discuss it, we were able to clarify that it was not a good
idea to loan out his expensive racket. He had already figured that out. He
realized he was lucky to win, and he knew the second racket was quite an
investment. By waiting until we all calmed down, we dealt with the real issue
rather than becoming sidetracked on the irrelevant fact that he was lucky to
The real issue in discipline
In much the same way, we must deal with the real issue in discipline. The real
issue in discipline is teaching the child to deal with Reality. If the stove is hot,
then the stove is a danger to the small child. The parent must intervene to
keep the inexperienced small child from being burned. To use the same
approach with a teenager is nonsense. We assume that a teenager has
knowledge and experience enough to deal with a hot stove, but we cannot
assume that knowledge and experience occur automatically. We must teach a
method for discovering the truth. Is the stove hot?
A Method of Discipline for Older Children and Youth
Discipline as personal growth
In order to deal with your older child and teen, you must take a parental
position that does not change. If you bounce around all over the landscape,
you only confuse your child. She needs you to be a fixed point of reference
However, care must be exercised in outlining a position, for the older child is
aware that you are imperfect. He sees your inconsistencies, your bad habits,
and your failures. Older children tend to become critical of parents and
second-guess decisions. As their world expands, they know other parents
who are different, have different rules, and teach different values. However,
you can take a position that maintains your authority, admits that you are
imperfect, and allows for your decreasing power as the child grows older.
Here is your position.
A parental position that works
I’m not God, and I’m not perfect, but I’m stuck with the job of being
father/mother. There is nowhere for me to go and resign. I have to answer to
God for what I do and that bothers me more than your being upset with me.
So, I may not always do it right, but I’m stuck with the job, and I’m going to
do it every day whether you like it or not.
Moreover, I know you are growing up, and I want you to grow up. Every
year you will be given more freedom and more control over your life. More
freedom each year only makes sense, for you will be leaving home someday
and will be completely on your own. However, by making good choices and
being responsible, you give me confidence in you, and you speed along the
process of gaining more freedom and control.
Some important things are established
Several important things happen when you take this position. For one thing,
you are not asking your teenager to agree with you or to always believe you
are right. Yet, you maintain your authority.
Another important thing is that you teach your teenager that you also live under
authority. More is involved than your whims, for you must answer to God.
Just as you expect your teen to accept your authority as a parent, you accept
God’s authority. You are not asking your teen to do anything you aren’t
doing. After all, accepting authority is not merely a teenage issue. We must
accept the authority of God and the state. We must relate to authority figures
such as judges, policemen, and bosses.
By admitting freely that you expect to give your child more freedom each year,
you express confidence in him as well as give him hope. The issue is how well
he deals with reality and handles immediate situations.
Teaching the essential survival skill
Is the stove hot? The issue isn’t what Mom/Dad says about the stove. The
issue is the truth about the stove. Discipline with an older child and teenager
involves seeking the truth together. Learning to assess and deal with reality is
the skill you must teach if your child is to survive in today’s world.
The popular story (I don’t know the origin) about the woman who cut the
ends off a roast before cooking it makes the point. As the story goes, she
couldn’t explain to her husband why she cut the ends off. Her mother taught
her to cook a roast, and her mother taught her that the first step was to cut
each end off the roast. The husband traced the recipe back to the
grandmother who cheerfully admitted that she never owned a pan large enough
for a roast.
Many teachings from our past made perfect sense three generations ago, but
they are irrelevant today. In disciplining a teenager, never give up your
authority, but be willing to think things through. Ask questions together in the
spirit of finding the truth. Is the stove hot? How can we find out without being
burned? You can always fall back on “Because I said so.”
A possible dialogue
Suppose a boy of thirteen asks his father’s permission to camp out with some
friends. Suppose the father happens to know that several of the boys have
been experimenting with pot. Furthermore, the father knows the boys and
their parents (who would not approve of their boys smoking pot). The father
delays his immediate tendency to say no in order to protect his child. He
knows that drugs are out there, and he knows that his son must learn to deal
with situations involving drugs.
A possible dialogue between the father and son might run like this as they seek
the truth together.
“Dad, can I go to Blanks house tonight to camp out? Some of the guys
are going to camp out behind his house,”
“Who’s going to be there?
He names several friends.
“Are they going to be smoking pot?”
(Surprise) “They told me they weren’t.”
“What are you going to do if they are?”
“I’ll just go up to Blanks house and phone you to come get me. We’re just
going to be right behind his house.”
“Won’t that put you in bad with your friends?”
“Your just leaving like that, calling your dad to come get you.”
“They’re not my friends if they’re going to do that.”
(Pause while the dad thinks it through.) “Do you really believe you can
“I really do, Dad.”
“Well, OK, if you think you can handle it. But remember, you have to
know when to get out of a group. Sometimes when a bunch of guys get
together a group personality takes over. They will do things that none of
them will do alone. Especially if alcohol or drugs are involved, they may
something, or steal something, and you will be in trouble because you are
“I think I can handle it, Dad.”
“OK. Blame it on me if you need to, but you will call me to come to get
if alcohol or drugs get involved.”
The benefits of seeking the truth together
Quite a bit goes on in that dialogue. When you seek the truth together by
throwing out questions, you are teaching your child to think. Year by year,
more and more situations will confront your child when you are not present.
The ability to assess situations, visualize consequences, and make a workable
plan of action is essential. In the dialogue above, the dad and the teen thought
the situation through together and worked out a plan of action. Dad also
planted a few ideas to help the teen know the importance of getting out of a
group when a situation turns sour.
When you seek the truth together by throwing out questions, you are also
teaching that the truth (or reality) is important. In the above dialogue, the issue
was not Dad’s whims. We are assuming in the brief illustration that a
discussion about drugs had already occurred. The teen already knew how
Dad felt about drugs. The immediate issue was whether or not to camp out
with these friends. The dad was wise not to attack the friends, and he focused
on making a good decision.
When you seek the truth together by throwing out questions, you use the
method necessary for applying eternal principles. Much wisdom is contained
in the sayings and precepts parents teach. Some are passed down from
generation to generation within a family system. Many of us believe that the
Bible contains eternal principles to guide us. However, even eternal principles
must be applied to concrete situations. Asking the right question is more
important than finding the right answer, for today’s answer only leads to
tomorrow’s question. Indeed, we live by faith.
Remember you aren’t God
Your teenager will catch on fast, and she will use questions against you. As
you think things through with her by taking her questions seriously, you may
occasionally find that she has a point. Remember the roast story when you
become self-righteous. You will find that some teachings from your past will
need updating. By respecting your teen as you listen to her attempts to sort
out the truth, you will encourage her personal growth, and you will reinforce
the idea that the truth is the issue. After all, you are not the enemy. Your teen
will imitate your behavior and will be freed from the curse of needing to win in
Also, it’s OK to admit that you don’t know something. After all, in the real
world, who knows everything? Knowledge is too vast today for anyone to
know everything about everything. When you admit you don’t know
something, you help your teen develop thinking and learning skills. Where can
we find the information we need? Is this true? How do we evaluate this?
Besides, many teens are dying for time and attention from a parent. They live
in a complex world where they are bombarded by commercials and
misinformation. The alcohol industry implies that no one can have a good time
without dulled senses. The entertainment industry fixates on sex and violence
Illegal drugs are everywhere. The truth is parents can’t keep up with the latest
destructive fad or designer drug. Spending time with your teen in which you
seek the truth together shatters his aloneness.
Many parents are cowards
Sadly, many parents aren’t willing to enter the teenage world and think through
complex issues. Such discussions make them feel uncomfortable. Many
parents resort to yelling instructions, shouting blame, and leaving for the golf
course. Thus, they abandon their teens alone to live in a world they won’t
even visit intellectually.
Remember, you can always fall back on “because I said so.” Never give up
your authority. No one is asking you to become your teen’s best friend.
However, I am asking you to be human. Valuable learning takes place without
a word being spoken when you allow your teen into your existence.
Your teen needs to know you have to search for information, that you have
trouble deciding complex issues, that you feel lonely, and that you become
discouraged. When you allow him into your existence, he learns about the
reality of being an adult rather than some idealized existence of complete
freedom. Your teen is dying to know the real you. Allow her to discover you
are human. She already knows you aren’t perfect.
Your job as parent
Once, when working with the parents of a teenager who was out of control,
the mother suddenly asked, “Well, am I just to allow her to do as she pleases?”
I had to explain again that she had already used her command/punishment
approach to no avail. She knew that she did not have the power to make the
teenager obey. She should face the reality that her power was limited. The
girl was a senior in high school and would be leaving home for college within a
matter of months.
However, she could do certain essential things. She could clearly draw the
line between right and wrong, and she could be explicit about the behavior she
expected. Moreover, she could tell the teenager plainly that the current risky
behavior could foul up her life. Reality is no game. Mom is not the enemy.
No longer will Mom participate in a game of “catch me if you can.” In other
words, they could put the ball squarely in the girl’s court.
When the mother and father took this approach, their daughter didn’t like it.
She wanted them to give in and approve of her behavior. They simply
explained that they could not. They believed she was headed for serious
trouble, and they would not give her their blessing.
Within a matter of hours, she started talking to her mother. Suddenly, they
were seeking the truth together. Now that Mom wasn’t the enemy, the teen
had to decide about reality and the possible consequences of her behavior.
A final word
If your teenager wants to do something, invite him to think it through with you.
If he refuses to seek the truth with you by throwing out questions, then tell him
the answer is “no.” He will come around.
Remember, children will become bigger, faster, smarter, and more mobile.
While you should never give up your authority, and while you can always fall
back on “because I said so,” teaching is the wise approach. To the extent you
teach your child how to find the truth, you teach the essential skill.
Actually, it is easier to yell, threaten, punish, or ignore than it is to teach. You
may refuse to use this method because it assumes you are present and are
willing to be involved. Being a parent will interfere with your schedule, your
play time, and possibly your career choices. The ball is in your court.