Don’t Give the Death Sentence for a Misdemeanor Crime

Dear Shaunti,

My 16-year-old son came home an hour past curfew over the weekend – walked in like it was no big deal! “Hey, sorry my battery was dead so I couldn’t text you.” And then when he saw how upset we were he was like, “It was only an hour!” We said, “Yeah, well, that was an hour we spent wondering if you were in a ditch somewhere!” We took away his car privileges for two weeks and he acted like we were killing him. He has been impossible to live with ever since. Are we being too hard on him, or not hard enough?

-Should Have Bought A Dog

Dear Should Have,

I have to think that somewhere up in Heaven, God is checking off a box next to a request from your mother that someday you would have a child that acts just like you used to. And now you have probably put in a request of your own!

That’s the only way our kids will ever understand just how many scary thoughts a parent can conjure up about what could have happened in the course of that silent hour. To your son, an extra hour probably translates into a little more sleeping time, one more shot at beating a video game level, or extra texting with his girlfriend while he waits on his buddies, or whatever the case may be.

For us, it’s 60 minutes of staring out the window into the dark, trying to figure out if we should call the hospitals or the police first.

Our first instinct is to take their car keys and throw them in a lake! But I’d like to suggest that maybe, just maybe, our instinct to punish our kid where it will hurt them just as badly as that silent hour hurt us, might not be the best option for his learning and growth. (Because of course, that’s what we’re thinking about when we’re standing there fuming at his nonchalant face, right? His learning and growth?)

As you ponder what to do now – or what to do next time – consider one all-important thing from his perspective: in his mind, did the punishment fit the crime?

In my research with thousands of teens for For Parents Only and other books, I have found that this is one of the biggest disconnects between parents and kids. Because teens are terrified of losing their most important freedoms (see this column for more explanation), to your son, losing his driving privileges is probably the nuclear bomb of discipline.

You didn’t say anything about alcohol on your son’s breath, or other signals of active rebellion. And I’m assuming your car isn’t missing a bumper and has all of its other necessary parts. So is your son coming in an hour past curfew a “nuclear bomb” infraction? Or is it primarily that he broke a rule, needs to pay the consequences, and needs to learn how important this was to you?

Here’s why the answer matters for what you do now and what you do next time. In the mind of a teen, if the punishment doesn’t seem like it fits the crime, it comes across just one way: Mom and Dad blew their tops in a fit of rage, responded out of anger, are being completely unreasonable and random, and are refusing to be humble and apologize for overreacting now that the rage is past.

In other words, if the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime, not only do you wind up missing a great teachable moment, you actually send a series of signals that probably contradict other things you are trying to teach. Like, “We don’t say sorry in this family” or “It’s okay to fly off the handle.”

So think about what you want to do next. If you do decide to change your son’s sentence a bit (a big heavy load of chores, instead, or losing the car for two days instead of two weeks), talk to him about why.

He’ll learn something from the process, just like you will. But he’ll come away with the same knowledge that blowing off curfew in the future is a stupid move.

Good luck, and if you get that dog, make your son walk it.

Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and relationships, including For Women Only, For Men Only and her newest, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages. A Harvard-trained social researcher and speaker, her findings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times. Shaunti speaks regularly at churches, conferences, and corporate events. Learn more about speaking inquiries here.

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About Shaunti Feldhahn

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Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and relationships, including For Women Only, For Men Only, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages and her newest, The Good News About Marriage. A Harvard-trained social researcher and popular speaker, her findings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.


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