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Making Discipline Work

The word discipline is so often used interchangeably with punishment that we tend to lose sight of its true purpose and meaning. “Discipline is not intended to be punitive,” explains Dr. George Comerci, an Arizona pediatrician and former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The object is to teach self-control and to prepare teenagers for entering adulthood and society.”

You and your youngster will both benefit if you approach discipline as a system of setting and enforcing effective limits through incentives and deterrents rather than issuing ultimatums. An ultimatum is a do-it-or-else statement: “Joe, put away your bike, or you can’t ride it for the rest of the day.” It is condescending to teens and may be interpreted as a challenge.

Establishing boundaries, on the other hand, communicates respect.



You spell out the desirable:

"Joe, I want you to put away your bike…"

Then specify a positive consequence for compliance:

"If you put it away now, you can ride it later…"

And a negative consequence for noncompliance:

"But if you don't, you cannot ride it for the rest of the day."


First parents must establish and clearly identify what constitutes permissible and unacceptable behavior in everything from conduct, to school performance, to curfew. Instead of calling these rules and regulations, let’s refer to them as a teenager’s rights and responsibilities. It may seem a small difference in semantics, but these terms more accurately reflect the goal of imposing discipline at home: to teach children the self-discipline they must master to achieve happiness and success in later years.

Youngsters who have little or no structure at home may be the envy of their peers, but as Dr. Renée Jenkins observes, “They often feel ignored by their parents.” Teens will never admit to it, but secretly they want and need us to set limits—even if they don’t always abide by them. In time, most come to realize that we do so out of love, not merely to flex our adult muscles. Just don’t expect to receive any expressions of gratitude until they become parents themselves.

Rules for Making Rules

Adolescents, so intent on asserting their independence, tend to see themselves as tyrannized by rules, rules and more rules. Although consistency in the enforcement of your rules is key to discipline, not all rules are equally important. Now and then parents can bend the regulations pertaining to such matters as TV viewing, curfews, bedtime, dating, homework habits, car privileges and similar matters. Learning to prioritize household rules gives both you and your teenager room to practice the arts of negotiation and compromise. As Dr. Adele Hofmann explains, in a discussion of establishing a curfew: “It’s like buying a rug at a Turkish bazaar; you bargain your way down.” A curfew negotiation might proceed along these lines:

“I’ve given a lot of thought to what your weeknight curfew should be during the summer. Nine o’clock seems fair.”

“Nine o’clock? But Mom, all my friends get to stay out till eleven!”

Suppressing your skepticism, you reply, “Well, I think eleven o’clock is much too late for a fifteen-year-old. What if we compromised and said ten o’clock? That gives you an extra hour...

As with a commercial transaction, it helps if you enter the negotiation with an idea of where you’re willing to end up.

However, there should be no negotiation when it comes to restrictions imposed to safeguard youngsters from risky behaviors such as substance abuse, premature sexual activity and reckless driving.

Your policy on matters that affect health, safety or well-being should be stated clearly. For example, make sure that your child understands that tobacco, alcohol or other drug use will not be tolerated, and that any breach of your trust will result in serious consequences. It’s wise to spell out your expectations early on in adolescence, if not sooner, to help avert problems down the road. And your chances of having these expectations met are higher if you are prepared to explain your decision. “I can’t ride my bike to the mall across town? But why not?” your teen is likely to demand.

An appropriate response would be: “Because your father and I think that it’s too far away and there’s too much traffic. You can take the bus, but biking it is too dangerous. We love you, and we’re concerned about your safety.”

Teenagers are more inclined to comply with a rule when they understand the logic behind it, as opposed to receiving a flat “Because I said so, that’s why.”

Last Updated
Caring for Your Teenager (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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