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The Consequence System

How To Use Opportunity and Responsibility to Parent Your Preteen

Raising preteens in today's world isn't easy. Not only are these young people far savvier than their parents were at the same age, but their schedules are often as busy as an adult's. Disciplining them can be difficult; grounding them can throw off their entire schedule, let down a team or even cost the parent money due to missed classes. So what's a parent to do?

Belinda Mooney's family uses a system of responsibilities and privileges. As the child's responsibilities increase, so do their privileges or opportunities. She and her husband have found that the system works well – and they have seven children!

"We find it highly effective," says Mooney. "It helps them deal with the real world later. You don't work, you don't eat. Dad doesn't work hard, we have no electricity. If I don't get the house clean during the day, I have no time in the evening to sit and do what I want. It's an instant reward system. Although it gives greater understanding for the future, the results are immediate."

The Natural Order

Thomas B. Haller, a child and family therapist and co-author of The 10 Commitments: Parenting with Purpose (2004), believes parents should avoid earning and taking away privileges as a parenting method. Instead, he advocates the use of responsibilities and opportunities. "The earning and taking away of privileges is not recommended as an effective way of parenting," he says. "Earning a privilege is a form of bribe: 'If you do what I want, you can have what you want.' In this way, the parent is taking the focus off of the cause and effect relationship that occurs between choices and behaviors. The focus is then placed on what the parent is 'letting or not letting' the preteen have. A power struggle ensues and the two become locked in a battle to extract what they want from the other person."

Haller says it is more effective to help the child see the relationship between the opportunities they have and the responsibilities that go along with them. The more responsibilities you handle, the more opportunities you create for yourself. Haller gives the example of a child who has the opportunity to use the computer and be online with his friends. The parent tells the child that it is the child's responsibility to steer clear of off-limit sites. If the preteen visits an off-limit site, they have chosen to lose the opportunity to use the computer for several days. This loss was not by the parent's design, but by the preteen's choice.

"What is especially useful for a preteen to understand is the outcome of the choices they make," says Haller. "Many preteens 'do' without thinking through the consequences or outcomes. Help your preteen (and all children for that matter) live with intentionality. Help them see how the choices they make and the behaviors they have affect what is happening in their lives."

The Three Rs

Haller reminds parents that their parenting strategies need to be reasonable, respectful and related. When the consequence is not reasonable, respectful and related it is interpreted in the mind of the child as a punishment, "something you are doing to me." It is not reasonable that a preteen be grounded for a month, it is not respectful that a preteen be called lazy when they don't get their homework done and if the consequence does not connect back to the choice in a logical manner, it is not related. To lose computer use because you didn't take out the garbage does not relate. To be "grounded" from having friends over for two weeks because of a school detention for talking in class does not relate.

Haller's coauthor, Chick Moorman, agrees. "It is not the severity of a consequence that has impact," he says. "It is the certainty. The certainty that specific, logical consequences follow actions allows children to trust the discipline process. Your consistency in implementing consequences is the glue that holds a discipline strategy together. Children learn that if they choose to leave their bike in the middle of the driveway, the bike will be hung up in the garage for a few days."

The trick then, is to take their opportunity, tie it to the responsibility and give them the choice of losing their opportunity if they neglect the responsibility. When the consequence occurs consistently, children can count on it and plan accordingly.

The Anger Trap

Moorman stresses that there are pitfalls with this method of parenting that parents need to be aware of. "Effective discipline calls for the parents to arrange consequences so that the child is in control," he says. "They set it up so that the child is in control of his choices and thus controls the outcomes which result. Consequences are not used to control, to manipulate, to demonstrate power or to get even. Attempting to use consequences for control crosses the line and becomes punishment."

Moorman also warns that parents need to be in control of their anger. When you discipline in anger, the child's attention focuses on your strong emotion. He looks outward to the person applying the punishment rather than inward to his own internal reaction to the results of the choice he made. "Sincere empathy is much more effective than anger in a discipline situation," says Moorman. "'Bummer, what a shame, I bet that will be a challenge for you now,' is empathy that maintains a positive connection between you and the child, even as you hold them accountable for their actions. When the child hears empathy, instead of anger, he is more likely to look inside and to notice the connection between cause (his choice) and effect (the consequence)."

Tips You Can Use

The following tips by Haller and Moorman will help you use this parenting strategy effectively with your preteen:

Take 15 to 20 minutes to think through how you want to respond to a particular behavior. It could be important to wait until later to discuss options with your partner. Helping children see the cause and effect relationship that exists between the choices they make and the consequences that are directly related to those choices is more important than whether the consequence occurs immediately or the next day.

When children see themselves as in control of whether or not they experience consequences or outcomes, they are empowered. They learn to see themselves as the cause of what happens to them. It is therefore the children who need the power and the control for discipline to be effective.

In the use of consequences, the effort does not concentrate on making the child comply. The goal is to present choices, allow the child to choose, then give her room to learn from the positive or negatives outcomes that occur. With the consequence system, children learn a lesson from either the positive or the negative outcome.

Avoid modeling the very behavior that you are trying to help your child extinguish. If you want your child to respect boundaries, begin by respecting his. If you want your child to be gentle with his words, be kind and gentle with your words as you speak about others. If doing homework is important, model the reading and math that you do at home.

Manage your anger. Anger has the potential of changing the focus of the lesson – the focus is placed on the strong emotion and not necessarily the behavior and the choices that led to it.

Stop trying to get your preteen to comply. Compliance or noncompliance by the child has nothing to do with the effectiveness of a discipline system. When discipline strategies demand compliance, such as in the case where the parent keeps increasing the severity of the punishment until the child complies, children learn that adults have power and they don't.

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