Updated: Sep 3
Some of the most devoted, patient, and intelligent adults make terrible parents.
If you're tired of reading books on childrearing and are about to lose hope of ever finding real answers, this is your lucky day. Here are two steps at the heart of a healthy relationship between parents and children:
Clearly communicate the rules you expect your children to obey. Write them down and tape them to the refrigerator if necessary.
Consistently enforce the rules.
“Everyone knows this,” you say.
Really? If you’re like most parents, you don’t. As a result, there is much anger, anxiety, resentment, and isolation in the teenage world.
A parent is neither compassionate nor loving who does not clearly state rules and enforce them.
A household should have as few rules as possible and they must be enforceable. A rule that cannot be enforced isn't a rule. The idea, ultimately, is to make it impossible for the child to do the forbidden thing (I'll explain this later in this post). Otherwise, the child has a choice: he can break the rule and accept the punishment, or he can obey. When such a condition exists, the child is making the decisions in the household, not the parents.
Inconsistently enforcing rules is not being kind or loving. Inconsistency engenders disrespect, ingratitude, regret, self-centeredness, and a host of other unhealthy human traits.
Children, including teenagers, want to please their parents. They do! But, they cannot if parental expectations are undefined or shifting.
The remainder of this post demonstrates how to accomplish these two steps.
Clearly communicating rules is not:
“Clean your room.”
“Don't stay out too late.”
“Get good grades.”
“Find a job.”
“I don’t like your friends.”
“You watch too much TV.”
Enforcing rules is not:
Allowing the freedom to fail
Clearly communicating rules is:
“Make your bed. Pick up all your clothing and toys off the floor and put them away. Do it now.”
“Be home by 10:30 tonight.”
“Achieve at least a 3.0-grade point average this semester.”
“This month, find a part-time job that gives you at least 20 hours per week.”
“Limit your friends to those who don’t smoke and do not have problems with the law.”
“Do not operate any electronics until your chores are done." (Chores must be clearly defined.)
Enforcing rules is:
Preventing a broken rule from being broken again.
Loving a child doesn't mean giving in to all his whims; to love him is to bring out the best in him, to teach him to love what is difficult. -- Nadia Boulanger
How to enforce rules
When a teenager breaks a rule, the teenager demonstrates that he/she is not responsible enough to handle the rule. Therefore, the teenager is prevented from breaking the rule again.
If Johnny comes home too late at night, Johnny loses access to the car keys.
If Gary sneaks out of the bedroom window at night, the parents nail his window closed and guard the bedroom door at night so he can't slip out.
If Kristen has trouble completing chores because she prefers to watch TV, then the TV is locked in a room to which Kristen doesn't have access.
If Michael has trouble fighting with his brother, then Michael must stay in [specified room] for a specified period of time when his brother is home so Michael won’t be tempted to fight with him.
It's "one strike you're out," not three.
You may think this is harsh. It isn't because once your child believes you're serious, your child will be obedient to the rule. Arguing, fighting, and stonewalling will end, and everyone will be happier.
The point is not to punish, but to to prevent the rule from being broken again.
How not to do it: Cleaning their room with arguments/bitterness
If you don’t define what “go clean your room” means to your teenager, your teenager will clean his room according to his standard of bedroom cleanliness. Then you go in afterward and tell him he didn't do it well enough. This is followed by arguments, lectures, and debates.
The better way: Cleaning their room with love
Clearly define to your teenager what “cleaning her room” means before she begins work on it. Then, when she says the task is done, check her room against the standard you specified. Do not add another requirement. If she has conformed to your wishes, give her a hug and say, “Nice job.” Then let her be.
What if she still doesn’t clean her room?
If your teenager is unwilling to abide by your clearly-defined rule to keep her room clean, then the parent removes selected items from her room (with the teenager not present). When she confronts you about the missing items, say, “I’m making it easier for you to keep your room clean.” Do not argue with her about it. Do not debate or rationalize or defend your decision. Return the items when she demonstrates sufficient responsibility to obey the rule.
Never say, “Do this or else.”
Enforcing means making it impossible for the rule to be broken again. This eliminates any need for punishment. By saying, “or else,” you’re making obedience optional. If the argument or debate with the teenager lasts an hour, then for that hour the teenager is in control. Is that what you want to teach your teenager? Instead, if the teenager breaks a rule, the parent executes the consequence without word or argument.
If you keep telling your son to stop hitting his sister before stopping him from hitting her a third time, then you are teaching your son it is okay for him to ignore you the first two times.
Years ago, we needed to move the living room furniture to another room. I lifted one end of a couch and asked my son to lift the other end. His response to me was to ask, “Why?”
I stood there (without a scowl) holding up one end of the couch until he lifted the other end and helped me move it. Not a word needed to be said! No debate, explanation, defense, or argument.
Your teenagers must believe you
If you clearly communicate rules and consistently enforce them, then most arguments with your teenagers will stop. Perhaps not right away. This is because for years you have been imposing shifting and undefined standards upon them. Your children will come around when they believe you're serious.
But my kids are different
This same process is used to train circus animals. Circus animals are quite different than human beings. Even your dog or cat understands these two principles. Your children are capable of understanding them, too.
My kids aren’t trained circus animals
Thank goodness! As your teenager’s level of responsibility increases, she will require fewer specifics. A mature adult can clean a kitchen without any input from you. As your teenager demonstrates greater responsibility, you may say, “Go clean your room,” and he will complete the task without further definition. Far more importantly, your teenager will have confidence that you will approve of him and his work. Your children want your confidence in them. This will go far toward improving your relationship with them.
Freedom requires Responsibility
Most people don’t believe it's a punishment to restrict a toddler from crossing the street on his own. This is because freedom cannot exist without responsibility. The more responsibility the child demonstrates, the more freedom he can enjoy. This principle has been true all around the world since the beginning of Humankind. Your teenager is not an exception.
Four-year-old won’t get ready for bed
A parent told me recently, “When I tell my four-year-old daughter to get dressed for bed she doesn’t do it. I punish her by not reading her a bedtime story or by making her go to bed earlier. This only causes her to start screaming. The next day she still won’t get dressed for bed again. This keeps happening and I’m tired of it. Nothing works.”
My advice to the mother was, “Tell your daughter to get dressed for bed. Give her a time limit, such as, ‘In five minutes.’ Do not repeat the instruction or engage in debate. If she isn’t ready for bed by the limit, stand behind her and hold each of her hands with yours. Move them as if she were a puppet. Get her dressed for bed using her own hands. She will likely become distraught. At some point, let her go and see if she’ll finish getting ready on her own. It may be helpful to tell her, 'Mommy's helping you because you're having trouble getting ready for bed on your own.' Repeat the process the next night if necessary. She will get ready for bed properly as soon as she believes you are serious.
No arguing, no debating, just the loss of freedom to dress herself until she does it on her own.
Truancy from school
What if your teenager keeps ditching school? Take a day off work and attend school with the teenager. With the teacher’s permission, sit next to him or her in class if necessary. Then, spend less money on family entertainment over the next week to pay for the loss of family income for the day.
In general, if your teenager is where he or she is not permitted to be, go to that place—whether it be a bar, the beach, or a strip club, find him or her, and stay close to him or her. There is probably no greater torture than that. And it's legal.
The key is the teenager must believe you’ll do it.
Getting dressed for church
When I was about seven years old, I had trouble getting dressed for church on time. My mother lectured and spanked and punished me. We lived in a small, rented house behind another house. To get to the street where our car was parked, we had to walk down a long sidewalk past the house in front of us and then out to the street in plain view of the neighborhood.
My mother finally told me, “The next time it's time to go to church, you'll go dressed as you are."
Sure enough, the next Sunday when it was time to leave for church, I was running around in my underpants. My mother said, “Let’s go.” I ran to put on my clothes. She let me gather them but didn't let me put them on. I had to carry my clothing in my arms as I walked to the car wearing only underpants.
I was never late getting dressed for church ever again.
When I was about nine or ten years old, I started stealing money from my mother’s purse. I used the money to purchase candy to give to the other school kids to buy friends. I would get caught and punished by my mother. I would steal from her again and get caught and punished again. She kept increasing the severity of my punishments. Nothing worked.
Then one day she said, “If you steal from me again, I’m going to call the police and have you put in Juvenile Hall.”
I never stole from her again. This was because my mother, without exception, always followed through on her word. I knew she would do it.
What finally worked required no arguing, no punishing, and no debating. It was simply a statement given to me by my mother that I believed.
Adult children in your home
Your adult children may live in your home as long as they abide by your rules which you clearly specify and consistently enforce. If not, they may live somewhere else.
What doesn't matter is:
Their financial status.
Their educational status.
Their emotional or physical health.
How much they help you around the house.
How much money they pay you to live in your home.
If you permit them to live in your home while they do not conform to your rules, you are allowing them to manipulate you and take advantage of you. Is this what you wish to teach your adult children?
Perhaps you want your adult children to live with you so badly that you're unwilling to enforce rules. Okay. Then don’t argue with them and lecture and feel martyred when they mistreat you.
What about mercy?
There is nothing more merciful than letting people know what you expect of them, and then “letting them be” when they conform to your wishes.
Constantly haranguing people who are trying to conform to unclear requirements is not mercy.
What about love?
There is no better way to love your children than to make it possible for them to win your approval.
Is this not the same as our relationship with God? After you have kept His will, will you be kept from Heaven because of some previously undisclosed commandment? Such a notion sounds ridiculous. Yet, parents do this to their children routinely.
Rules vs. Wishes
Rules are not optional. An unenforced rule is not a rule. However, wishes are perfectly fine. Wishes cannot and should not be enforced. If a parent wishes that his or her teenager gets better grades and expresses this wish to the teenager, the teenager may then choose without consequence from the parents whether his or her grades improve.
But if the parent then brings up the issue of grades and lectures the child repeatedly, the wish is actually an unenforced rule.
Unenforced rules are destructive. They're judgmental and communicate the following:
“You have poor sense.”
“You are insufficient.”
“What I feel and believe is better and more important than what you feel and believe.” Such is the definition of contempt (look it up). Do you really want to have contempt for your children? Do you want your children to feel your contempt?
When expressing your wishes to your teenager, let her make her choice and accept her choice with love.
Teenagers want to please you
Your teenagers must be allowed to know how to please you. They will gravitate to respecting your requirements as soon they understand them and believe you are serious. Then, all the time spent on fighting can be devoted to activities like going out on dates, going on that camping trip with friends, and playing games on the XBOX One X console they’re finally allowed to use.
Your teenagers will adore you because they'll have confidence that you'll accept them. They will know how to succeed with you. They will know how to be at home without being harassed or lectured. They will find joy in feeling love at home.