Crime and Punishment: How to Discipline Your Kids

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Raising Good Citizens

There are days when I think I'm getting it mostly right, but many, many others when I wonder if I'm having any effect at all. As soon as our kids could toddle, we expected them to put their trash in the trash can and their dirty clothes in the laundry basket -- so why does our 15-year-old still open a new CD and let the cellophane wrapping drop to the floor? And why are his brothers, who have been coached since their first "ma-ma" to use kind words, still capable of calling each other "a booger-crusted turd wad"? We're talking years of staying on message here, and it's still going in one ear and out the other?

It doesn't help that the stakes feel so high. I have friends who grew up with uptight, my-way-or-the-highway parents, drill sergeants for whom good behavior was a matter of unvarying conformity to rules. In those families, "because I said so" was an adequate parental explanation for any household law. But Haywood and I come from deeply religious homes, and for our parents discipline was about something much bigger than mere obedience. It was about becoming a good citizen by cleaning up your own messes and taking on your share of responsibility; about being a good steward of God's gifts by working hard to develop your talents; about developing into a good person by heeding the feelings and needs of others. Civilized behavior is hard enough to instill, but when discipline is about nothing less than character formation, the whole issue can seem overwhelmingly huge.

What I secretly long for is a silver bullet, a simple, one-size-fits-all response to defiance and misbehavior that doesn't require hand-wringing or internal debate. But every time I think I have the hang of it, every time I've discovered exactly the right consequence for the wrongdoing du jour, one of my children enters a new phase, and I'm figuring it out all over again. Kids are like flu viruses, constantly mutating to evade vaccines designed to keep them in check.

So I've pretty much given up trying to devise the perfect one-stick-and-it's-done inoculation against bad behavior. My youngest son leaves for college in 2016, and I'm resigned to nine more years of muddling through -- making the expectations as clear as I can, responding to each lapse as fairly as I know how. And I have to admit, I spend a lot of time dreaming of the day when my boys -- by then honorable, lovely men (I hope) -- finally marry the girls across the street and produce some adorable grandchildren I can spoil perfectly rotten.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2007.


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