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Punishment versus consequence for tweens — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

We have a 12-year-old who is usually very responsible. However, last Friday night he came home after 10 p.m., which is his curfew on a non-school night. My husband and I agreed that he would be on restriction for the rest of the weekend — no time with friends including telephone/texting/online gaming. Do you think that’s enough punishment to make him remember to come home on time in the future?


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Dear Mom,

There’s a difference between punishment and consequence. They may look similar, however, teaching a child to remember the right thing to do in the future relies more on his experiencing a negative consequence than punishment. A consequence is a direct result of the wrong action, which teaches the child to try to avoid suffering it again. A punishment, on the other hand, can unfortunately teach a child to be sneaky — to avoid getting caught and punished, or rebellious — to undermine or to stop recognizing the power of the punisher. Obviously, the way to go is for your son to experience a weekend’s restriction as a consequence, so he can steer the best course for himself as time goes on.

When you deny access to his friends, they are, hopefully, aware of his absence and the reason for it: namely, he didn’t get home by his curfew. If they are true friends, looking out for his best interests, they will help him honor his parents’ deadline for getting home so they don’t have to be without him. Your son should get a reminder, too, that he demonstrates being a good friend by reciprocating for his buddies. He should be helping them to follow their parents’ rules, too. In other words, following parental guidance turns out best for everyone in the long run.

You and he may find some changeovers among his peers — and your peer parents — as adolescence takes place. Your family will do best if he associates with friends whose parents are in agreement about the right things for the kids to be doing, and at what time they should all be back under their own roofs. Networking among the parents can help avoid a lot of rule breaking among the kids, since you only need to make a quick phone call to verify or refute a fishy sounding story.

If you haven’t yet, it’s time to have a discussion with your son about why you have set your curfew. The general reason is likely that there is more trouble to get into the later he stays out. Children of responsible parents have all gone home, so those parents are no longer “on duty” looking out for other children as well as their own. The later the hour, the older the unsupervised youngsters are likely to be, so your 12-year-old could encounter social pressures he’s not ready for, such as trespassing to take a dip in an unguarded pool. Teens have been known for generations for risky business in the absence of adult oversight. Tragedy sometimes results. Car insurance prices for anyone up to 25-years-old reflects the somber statistics of impulsive decision making for teens and young adults. Drivers of any age are more likely to be under the influence of drugs and or alcohol as the evening goes on, making it less safe for everyone out there.

This is not to say that Jamal is in that much more danger at 10:05 p.m. than he was at 9:55 p.m., but responsible parents strive to set healthy limits in order to protect children from harm. There is also a long-term benefit from teaching him to set healthy limits for himself. When you apply a consequence, such as taking his friends away for two days, be sure that he understands that his health and safety are behind your decision.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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