Teenagers: Learning from their mistakes pt 2

I concluded my previous post on teens and discipline by telling you about the essay as a discipline tool. You can find part 1 of Learning from their mistakes here.

Have you ever sent a child to her room to think about what she’d done? Do you really think, while she’s there, that she is pondering on the great wrong she’s done to you? If you do, I hate to burst your bubble. Your child is more likely reflecting on how great a victim she is. Assuming she is not reading, sleeping, surfing the Net or watching TV (but your children don’t have TV in their room, right?? If they do, we must have words). Let’s be honest: when we send a child to their room to “think”, what we are really saying is:

I’m really annoyed by your behaviour, please get out of my space while I regain my composure.


The result of sending a child to his room may not always be as intended but we are on to something with the idea of reflecting on one’s behaviour and understand where it failed. The problem with “go to your room” is that we are not nurturing our children’s budding moral development by shooing them off to “think” by themselves.

When it comes to teenagers, the development of a reliable sense of right and wrong is essential and time sensitive: a teenager in grade 10 (15-16) could be moving out to study in 2-3 years. If they are not learning self-control, impulse-management and developping a moral fiber, they can be in for a world of trouble. When I tell my teenagers to “go think about what you’ve done” I mean it in a way I may not have meant when they were little.

In Good Discipline, Great Teens, Dr. Ray Guarandi suggests using essays instead of lectures to teach discipline. I met Dr. Ray some years ago when I was on the organizing committee for a parenting conference where he was the speaker. His talks are like stand-up routines: we laughed so hard it hurt. But don’t get fooled by the funnies: while his delivery is hilarious, his approach to discipline is serious. After the conference, we went out for dinner with Dr. Ray and I asked him: “That strong discipline approach sounds great in theory but the parents I know who have discipline problems with their teenagers never had a backbone. Shouldn’t they change their approach gradually?”. His reply really left an image that inspires most of my parenting nowadays. He said: “Did you ever drink sour milk thinking it was fresh? When you realize you have a mouthfull of sour milk, do you spit it out gradually or all at once?” When there is something wrong with your children, whether its too much backtalk, too much computer or failing grades, you need to face it head on. Here is a quote from Good Discipline, Great Teens that encapsulates Dr. Ray’s approach:

Dear Dr. Ray, Any words for dealing with a fifteen-year-old who is verbally demeaning to his two younger sisters (…), sometimes abusively so?

Yes. Stop him.

He does give more pointed advice on ways to stop the bad behaviour. But he doesn’t buy the “teens will be teens” schtick. At all. Yes, teens will be teens and this may involve some attitude, back talk and abuse. But it doesn’t mean that you, as parent, have to take it, indulge it or bear it out. Being called over and over on their bad behaviour — and believe me, I have two teens, I cannot overstate how often “over and over” means — is how we imprint on their developping brain what is morally and socially acceptable (and what will get them sued, fired or dumped).

But back to essays. Last December, my husband and I were confronted with a discipline problem involving two of our four oldest children. The offense involved going behind our backs to do something they knew they were not allowed to do. For a few weeks before they got busted, these two children were increasingly short-tempered, rude and difficult. I thought maybe they were overtired or reacting to the twins’ birth, whatever. In hindsight, I think that living a lie was eating away at their souls. When we confronted them, it was very important for us to convey that the material offense wasn’t nearly as big a deal as the lying. The way we approached this was to have a family meeting where we told them (again) about the family rule they had transgressed and why it was in place. We told the children that we knew that two of them had gone beyond our backs. The transgressors were grounded for at least two weeks (except for school and sports) and their computer priviledges were removed (the computer was the instrument of the transgression). Then we assigned them with two written projects. The projects had to be handed-in before the computer priviledges could be regained and the grounding lifted. Both children had to present a written apology with an explanation of what went through their heads when they decided to go behind our backs. They also had to write an essay (500 words for the youngest and 2000 for the oldest) on personal integrity, personal dignity and respect for parental authority. The oldest of the two also had to do a bit of research on why the family rule he-or-she had transgressed was important.

When they handed back their essays and apologies, I was taken aback with how much thought they had put into their work. Here are some exerpts, published with permission from their authors (as long as I keep them anonymous). On respect for parental authority the youngest of the two wrote:

You can see your parents like your boss at work. They tell you what to do and you must obey. But instead of paying you with money, they pay you with love. Another difference is that you will never get fired. In other words, they will always love you no matter what you do.

On personal integrity, the oldest of the two wrote (I really wish I could quote the entire essay, it’s that good):

Integrity. The first image that comes to mind is that of a brick wall. Solidly built, unshakeable and most of all, strong. Every component, every brick, is held together by mortar. Remove a brick and the wall isn’t complete. Remove the mortar and the wall doesn’t hold.

Personal human integrity isn’t all that different. Your values are the bricks, held together by honesty, your mortar. Without your values, your wall of integrity isn’t complete. Without honesty, your bricks will not hold together.

Giving them an essay topic allowed us to put the emphasis on the lesson we wanted the children to learn. The grounding and removal of priviledges were tools to make sure that the children had the time and leisure to work on their essays and also provided motivation for finishing the essays in a timely fashion. I am now thinking of using essays as a gateway for earning more priviledges. For instance, before allowing your child/teen to have a Facebook page, you could ask for a short essay (500 words is very manageable for a 10-12 year-old child) on data mining or online privacy protection or cyber-bullying. Making your teens do the research and writing will always beat a lecture, take it from me.