Making the punishment fit the crime

Published 8:17 am Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Saying no to kids has always been hard for me. Especially when the kids are mine. Over the years, I have learned a few things about disciplining children that might help other moms with the same weakness. For instance, when youngsters break the rules, it’s good to impose a penalty that curbs the behavior. When my kids were teens, I didn’t make that happen every time, but once in a while, I nailed it.

I’m thinking about when our oldest son got his license. During Daniel’s first year of driving, we shared a vehicle. He took my car to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and caught a ride with our next door neighbor on MWF. Like most teenagers, he sometimes overslept. He missed his ride sometimes and I let him take the car to class, even though it meant rearranging my schedule. It was very inconvenient.

One day, when our man-child was still in bed at 9 am after multiple attempts to wake him up, I put my foot down hard. You know that feeling when you let yourself get pushed too far and then you blow? “I don’t know how you will get to school today,” I said, “but you may NOT take my car and I’m Not driving you.” And then I upped the ante. “And if you do take my car, I’m calling the police.”

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All of us make empty threats from time to time. I can’t count the number of times I made this statement: “If you aren’t in the car in 2 minutes, I am leaving without you.” My kids always knew I was bluffing. I’m going to leave a three year old home alone?

But this situation involved a 16 year old who had shown that he would not stop pushing until I pushed back. I had to follow through with my threat or lose my parental power. The good news? I had a plan. A sheriff’s deputy supervised the high school every day. The woman who worked in the office was a personal friend. Between them, I could call my son out without actually turning him in.

Daniel took my car, but as soon as he arrived and sat down in his first period class, a man in uniform appeared at the door. To his chagrin, Daniel got interrogated in front of teachers and fellow students. Coach found out, too.

That got his attention. It made an impression on me, also because my boy held a grudge for quite a while. I wondered if I had overdone it. At some point, he decided mom was a bad ass. Now he’s a dad. He’s really impressed.

I don’t know where I got the guts to do such a thing. Not to mention the creativity. Successful parenting often requires thinking “outside the box”. Like the lady who took the door off its hinges the third time her daughter slammed it in a fit of rage. There is nothing quite like natural repercussions to get a kid’s attention. Pain helps too. The lifeguard can blow his whistle and yell “no running!” to kids all he wants, but it usually takes a hard fall to remind them to walk.

Yesterday, I heard an anecdote on talk radio that got my attention. This parent-child battle was waged over a very common problem: laundry. Mom had begged and begged her son to put his dirty clothes in the hamper. The teenager saw no problem with dropping them on the floor of any room in the house.

One day after school, the young man walked into his room to find his closet and chest of drawers completely bare. He ran to the kitchen. “Mom, where are all my clothes?!”he asked. “Look outside”, she answered. His entire wardrobe was floating in the swimming pool. Let’s just say it was a turning point in their relationship.

It’s easy to set limits for our kids. It’s quite a bit harder to enforce them. There ought to be pushing and pulling between parent and child. It’s healthy as long everyone remembers who is in charge. Following through on a punishment that fits the crime can do just that.

Donia Caspersen Crouch was raised in Southeast Texas and lives in Austin. Want more?  Donia’s  Stories of Hope and Humor can be ordered at