Discipline an Older Teen? My Son and the Get-Out-of-Jail Sheet

10 years ago

You may have heard that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results. From that reference point, I decided I needed to change how I disciplined my teen son or run away from home, and I also needed to answer one question: Is it ever too late to teach a teen the right lesson?

What had I been doing? For years I had been handing out penalties like no TV, no Internet access, no video games for X amount of time.

What had he been doing? For years he had been committing various infractions, doing his time, and then returning to a life of careless disobedience and mindless endeavor only to enter a new punishment cycle a few weeks later. He was being a teen.

But "something has to give!" I screamed to myself this past November. My son was 17 at the time, soon to be 18 and all I could see was "this is my last chance. He'll be graduating soon, possibly going away to college. I've got to break this immaturity unless I want a big college bill and no diploma from him or maybe worse ..." Mothers can always imagine the worst.

For clarification, my son is not what you'd call "a troubled teen," meaning he doesn't do drugs; hasn't caused me to report to a police station to bail him out; his grades are okay most of the time; and generally, he's respectful. I count that as a blessing, not anything attributable to my parenting skills, but God's providence. And yet I fear for his future: will he be able to care for himself, hold down a job, make reasonable decisions? (If you want to read more about how he's frustrated my motherly aspirations, you'll find elaboration at my blog.)

I fear for his future because I see how this world speeds along, only accommodating success for those who work hard and keep its pace. For a black man, the struggle may be more challenging. My son is black.

Anyway, despite seeing when he was a toddler that he required more structure and discipline than I gave to my daughter, I never got around to teaching him that to my satisfaction. I didn't go for high-activity schedules nearly chiseled in stone, the set chores always enforced, the consistency on paper and in the real world. It takes self-discipline to enforce such things. How can you instill in another what you yourself lack? And so, in November of last year, after he'd plucked my nerves by not doing something I'd told him to do more than thrice, panic overtook me, and I meditated a while. Later, I called him in, sat him down, and handed him my salvation: a "get-out-of-jail sheet."

The Get-Out-of-Jail Sheet

Sounds harsh, a tool designed to stir terror about a potential dark future, but if the fictional Ghost of Christmas Future can scare Scrooge straight, why not a real mother her son? My son knew from whence I came. He'd heard my lectures often, discussing how African-Americans, especially males, are at a high risk to end up in prison, and it's an easier end to meet than you might think, even for a middle-class son if he's not careful.

All it takes to come to a bad end is an unwillingness to believe you'll face consequences for your actions. Believe that one too many times and you may face certain peril -- if not with the law, then with your boss, if not with the boss, then with a mate, if not with a mate, perhaps with a credit card company. Parents of all races can testify to that.

I told him that while I didn't see jail in his future--unless he acted with extreme stupidity or was so unwise as to be in the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time--I did see a life of binding mediocrity and an unhappiness with self if he didn't stop fooling around with time. Time is fleeting, and through its misuse we build our own prisons.

I also told him that the only job of a parent after protecting a child from harm is to prepare a child to take care of him or herself honestly once the child is grown. If the child does not understand how the world works and cannot fend for himself wisely, then the parent has failed, producing a being no good to himself or others.

Furthermore, he's been looking for part-time work, and I've been telling him that unlike Mom, bosses don't remind you to do your assigned duties. Usually they don't coax you to perform better either. You look up one day and the other guy's ahead and you're not. That's that.

More than looking for work, however, he's been scoping colleges, many of which have admission deadlines this month. His going away to college would take a financial sacrifice on my part, and he needs to understand what that means.

"If I don't see in the next few months that you complete chores without being told, see what needs to be done to help others in this family and do it without coaxing, finish school assignments without reminders, can tear yourself away from a video game and do what you've got to do without external pressure, then you can't go away to college on my dime. You'll be stuck here going to a local public college until further notice or until you notice what stuck means. I'm not going to waste my money on dorm life for you," I said.

"Don't think I'm kidding here, either. I'm pretty frustrated with you and myself, and I'm to the point where I'm ready to suggest you enroll in the military to learn what it means to be responsible."

Egads! My son knows I've always steered him away from the military. College. College. College. And, oh, how he hates my lectures. It would be better that I, as one friend said, "just get a hickory stick and whack him already."

Whatever. It was time for a change, and so, I handed him the get-out-of-jail sheet, and on it was a list of daily chores, most of which were to his benefit such as one hour of Calculus daily, whether his teacher assigned homework or not (he had a D at midterm and I wasn't having that), and the sheet included time for SAT prep (he needs to improve his score if he wants to go to a certain school otherwise his scores are fine). His regular family chores were on the sheet as well, sweeping floors sometimes, mopping at others, etc.

Each day, after he completed items on the sheet, he'd be awarded points. If he did everything on his daily list, he could gain about 30 points, and he also had an "above and beyond" slot with open points given according to my discretion if he helped around the house or accomplished something at school above and beyond requirements. I would sign each slot nightly, and I was a stickler on this. The points only counted if I signed, and he could not bring the list to me the next night and ask me to sign for the day before. I had to sign on the same day he did the work so I could verify what he did or didn't do. With such rules I would prepare him for the world's minutia.

What was his jail sentence?

When this experiment in discipline began, he also had his regular penalties, no video games, TV, Internet time (unless school related) until December 24. In essence, no entertainment. Grounded indoors and out.

The difference this time? He could end his punishment himself sooner by completing everything on his list each day. Every 40 points earned equaled one day removed from his punishment. He could end his punishment 12 days early, if he chose to do so. And during this time he would get no reminders. I'd swoop down like a hawk instead with psychic shocks, I warned him.

To top it off, I assigned Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, as extra reading with a 500-word report due. Come hell or high water he was going to learn what people do to be good at what they do. They practice. I'd been telling him this forever, it seemed, to no avail. Also, perhaps after he wrote his essay, I'd help him overcome the errors that blotted his SAT writing sample. Synergy. I love it.

I really hoped to teach him something through the get-out-of-jail sheet. Administering discipline is about teaching, after all, and I wanted him to connect the dots from responsibility to rewards, from goof-off to the bad consequences of doing without what gives you pleasure. I also wanted him to learn that what I kept telling him is true, that he's smart and shouldn't be getting a "D" in anything, not even dreaded Calculus. What he had to do is apply himself by studying and studying should come from a desire to understand and succeed.


A few weeks went by, and his chore completion was sporadic. He watched his sister and I go out and leave him at home with his grandfather. He found ways to sneak in TV, but saw me eying the next step, "no cell phone." However, I had something else up my sleeve other than another removal of privileges.

One day I gave him a warning: "So far your punishment has been positive reinforcement. You've got a date on which your "sentence" ends, but you can end your sentence sooner by completing your chores. Nothing is being taken away from you if you fail to complete chores, and yet you're still slacking, and that tells me you don't take this seriously. So, I'm giving you three more days to show me that you will do everything on your list without prompting and if you do, I'll leave the get-out-of-jail sheet system as is. However, if you don't improve, then it will become negative."

I explained that if he didn't do better, then not doing chores would work against him. For every 40 points he didn't earn, a day would be added to his punishment. So, earn points and get out of jail early or don't earn points and stay in even longer. He agreed, but he still didn't believe me.

Christmas break began. He watched his sister and I go to movies without him, heard plans for events excluding him, and tried to work around the system. One day, for instance, he offered to teach me a video game, but I explained he couldn't teach me a game without enjoying a video game vicariously, so "no thank you."

Frequently I made comments in passing such as, "Yes, we'll probably do such and such in February, but not my son because he'll still be on punishment. He'll probably be on punishment when he graduates from high school at the rate he's going."

"Oh, Mom!" he'd say, like "pschaw. She's kidding."

And then one night it happened. We had a come to Jesus meeting in the livingroom while his sister was at work. You know what that is, right? Come forth, confess your sins, start anew, and accept reality. Jesus is not necessarily mentioned.

My son said to me, "Mom, I'll be so glad when I get off this punishment on December 26."

The boy is slick. He assumed I would just go along. Two days past the original date of December 24, he'd determined, was fair.

"What did you say?" I asked, and then laughed. "Haven't you been paying attention? I'm pretty sure you're well into January with days added daily from your not completing your chores."

He disagreed, and I told him, "Bring forth the get-out-of-jail sheet." He did. I whipped out a calculator and tallied up all the spots that I had not signed. He was looking at an end of punishment sometime in mid January.

Let the Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth Begin!

"It's not fair. It's Christmas break!" he moaned. "I want to do something fun before break is over."

I was unmoved. I'd told my daughter more than a week before Christmas break that this would happen. I'd said, "Watch. Your brother thinks I'm going to break down and let him off because it's Christmas. He's got another thing coming."

"It's up to you when you get out of jail," I told him as the crocodile tears streamed down. "That's all I've ever said."

In the next few days I saw clear improvement, but nothing like the improvement I saw after Christmas day. On Christmas morning, I pulled out the mack daddy of parental plays. When he opened his Christmas gift, he saw something he'd been asking for since the Christmas before, an X-Box 360.

Oh, the screaming and yelling. The jumping up and down. It was like Wheel of Fortune, and after he'd calmed down I had one thing to say, "It's too bad you can't touch it until you get out of jail. It is, after all, for video games."

Object lesson: The good life is close and yet so far for people too dumb to learn the error of their ways.

He kicked into high gear. My front steps and back patio have been painted, something requested months ago. My fence has been repaired. The dog is now on a regular walking schedule of 30 minutes daily. Garbage day is not missed. And, his Calculus grade has moved from a "D" to a "C," and climbing (clear improvement in Calculus happened before Christmas break.)

Most of all I got a little peace of mind, the feeling that he'll be okay because when he'd earned his points and freed himself from my penalty jail, he came to me and said, "Mom, I know my punishment is up, but please let's keep on this list. I want to stick to it."

Thank you, Lord. I can still get through to my teen despite his being classified as "an adult." Yeah, but an adult still in high school and under my roof, and an adult that I wanted to take more initiative and accept responsibility and see for himself that consistency and perseverance pays dividends. My hope is that he's becoming more self-motivated and less mom-motivated.

So, not only is it not too late to be happy, it's not too late to be Mom.

Discipline links to view:
"Punishing Your Children" at Momversation

Spanking? Timeouts? Bribery? It seems like there are a bunch of ways that parents discipline their children, but which is the best? ... What's your discipline style? Do you believe in the old saying, "My way or the highway?" Or do you prefer to give a child choices like Giyen does? (Watch video)

"Discipline Tips for Teens"

All of a sudden, your teenager is no longer dependent on you; no longer looks at you as an idolized hero. Rather, he or she questions every move you make, doubts your intelligence, and challenge your rules and discipline tactics. If that is not bad enough, after all the challenges, they even ask for money. Good grief! Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way? (Read more)

"How to Discipline Your Children"

Ultimately, the goal of discipline is to teach. Appropriate discipline helps children learn to recognize and choose to abide by limits set in smaller communities (family, school, etc.) as well as larger ones (society).

Providing discipline or guidance is one of the most important jobs of parenting. Popkin advises parents to adopt an active parenting style, "… an authoritative style of parenting that incorporates a variety of respectful discipline strategies, not only teaching children independence within reasonable limits, but also instilling such character traits as responsibility, cooperation, and courage." (Read more)

"Top 10 Tips for Teen Discipline"

You may have thought you’d left the tantrum stage behind when your child outgrew the terrible twos but brace yourself: you’ve still got tween terror and teen mean in the not-too-distant future. In fact, the tween and teen years aren’t unlike toddlerhood: your child is testing his boundaries and working out just how much he can get away with… (Read more)

Nordette is a BlogHer CE whose personal blog is WSATA.


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