So if rules are meant to be broken what do we do when they break?
One of the biggest issues in parenting is keeping your kids accountable to the rules and expectations that you set. Let’s face it. If parenting had an underbelly, it would be discipline. No one likes it. No one waits in anticipation for the opportunity to really “teach them a lesson” when their kids break a rule. But it is an absolute necessity all at the same time. Discipline and keeping your kids accountable is what holds all those rules in place. So, let’s talk about some things that we can understand about this side of parenting to help make it a little easier. Probably still not going to make it your most favorite part of having kids, but at least it can be a subject you feel confident about.
The Latin origin of the word discipline is “to teach.” That being said, I think it’s important to go back to our focus: parenting based on values. To raise our kids by and teach them these values, we set our rules and expectations around them. However, the lesson goes one step further when they are then held accountable to these rules and expectations by way of appropriate consequences that also fit our values. The only way kids will learn that our rules and expectations matter is by being held accountable to them. If there is no accountability then our rules are merely suggestions. As simple as that sounds it is not always simple for parents to figure out their method for holding their kids accountable to their actions. Sometimes we get caught up in our feelings about being too harsh, not wanting our kids to be upset, or we get too rigid and fear every infraction deserves a sky high consequence or our kids are destined for orange jumpsuits. Below are some suggestions to help stay in the zone of fair, reasonable and productive.
- Do not ignore behaviors that break your family rules. If there is a rule and it gets broken there should always be some type of accountability. It is often recommended to ignore behaviors and they will go away. This does NOT apply when your child is breaking a rule. Ignoring behaviors is something reserved for annoying, obnoxious, or attention seeking gestures - not for actual offenses to rules. If a rule is broken or expectation unmet it at least deserves a conversation. Even a conversation shows your kids that you are paying attention and they will be confronted if they step outside the boundaries. Even further follow-through with well-laid-out consequences would be even better.
- Accountability is best found by way of natural consequences. The best lessons ever learned are the ones that make sense. When we find consequences that fit the crime it makes way more sense to us and our kids than the regular go-to of getting grounded….AGAIN. So whenever possible try and find a consequence that fits the situation. The best way to think of it is to ask yourself what it would take for your child to right their wrong. So if your kids made a huge mess the natural consequence is that they have to pick it up before they can do anything else. If your teenager comes home after curfew, the natural consequence is having to be home that many minutes earlier the next night. Excessive tardiness or repeatedly ignoring curfew (even after consequences) could then warrant not getting to go out at all for the next few nights.
- Reasonable and fair. Consequences, after all, should not foster resentment from your children toward you, but instead be a reflection of their own behavior in a fair and reasonable way. Getting your phone taken away for two weeks because you left a sock on the floor may or may not teach your kids to not leave a sock on the floor. What it will also potentially do is cause resentment and a lack of trust in the system of rules and consequences. This can then spiral into defiance, disrespect and a general lack of cooperation. Keeping things reasonable and fair will help keep emotions to a minimum in the discipline process.
- Respect and Keeping Your Cool. Most families are going to have values around respect. It is important that when keeping your kids accountable that you are also using methods that are in line with this value. By discussing the accountability your kids need to have for their actions, or when delivering consequences, it is important to do this in a respectful manner. If the issue at hand is something that has you angry and upset it is absolutely fine to take a minute away and chill out before deciding how you want to go forward. If you don’t, then emotions could run high and the situation will quickly escalate. Your kids may not handle their consequences well, so it is even more important that, as the parent, you have kept your wits about you and can keep control of the situation.
- Everyone should be on the same page. If there is more than one parent in the house it is important to communicate what has occurred and what the expectations are for holding the kids accountable. It’s important that you stay on this same page and neither parent work against, or undermine, the other while carrying out discipline. Kids will find a way to manipulate the situation if they know they have a chance. Be clear in both your words and actions that you are working together.
- Know the finish line. Consequences without a concrete time line or action to mark the end are really just mind games. I am not a fan of leaving kids on a cliff hanger for when they will be “off the hook.” It tends to leave kids confused and eventually hopeless that they will ever be ungrounded or get their video games back or whatever the case may be. In addition, it also keeps you, as parents, in a state of constant contemplation and with few places to go when your kid breaks another rule - and then another - in the meantime. So instead of saying “You’re grounded until we can trust you again.” (What does that even mean?!?!) Say, “You are grounded for 1 week,” or “You’re grounded from the car until you pay us back for the damages you caused.”
- Follow-Through, Wait and Watch. Some kids will do their best to try and make you believe they do not care about their consequences. This is a power move on their part. Bless their little manipulative hearts for trying to win! It is important to remember that kids will try and outsmart you, make you mad, disengage or become incredibly emotional in order to make you forget your agenda in holding them accountable to their mistakes. It is important that you stand your ground, follow-through, wait and watch. When the consequences are complete, it is then that you can decide whether or not it was effective or meaningful. Even if kids are made to do something as a consequence that they don’t mind doing anyway - like volunteering or helping with chores - they still don’t have the freedom of how they are spending their time and energy. Once you name the consequence, it is important that you follow-through completely, regardless of the impression they are giving you of how it is affecting them.
Holding your kids accountable for their actions not only teaches them that their actions matter, and your rules matter, but also that THEY matter. At the end of the day, having parents watching over their decisions and keeping them accountable helps kids feel safe. It’s more than just getting kids to do and act the way you want them to. It creates an environment where they can trust that you are looking out for them (even if they don’t like it or see it that way now). So although discipline and teaching accountability may be the underbelly of parenting no one wants to talk about, it really is one of the main players working to build relationship, trust and respect in your family.