Why Parents’ #1 Discipline Action Is Often Unwise

Dr. Delaney Ruston – When kids break rules at home, how to respond? The issue of consequences can be incredibly tricky. As parents, we grapple with questions such as what consequences make the most sense and what is too harsh or too lenient.

In our new film, Screenagers Under the Influence: Addressing Vaping, Drugs, and Alcohol in the Digital Age, adolescent psychologist and author Laura Kastner discusses the topic of consequences, emphasizing the importance of natural and logical consequences. Natural consequences directly respond to a person’s actions or inactions, while logical consequences have some connection to the behavior being addressed. 

Kastner says, “Natural would be if they lose their cleats three times, they’re going to pay for it.”

In the context of cannabis use, Kastner notes in the film that parents have the right to take away drug paraphernalia as a natural consequence. She says, “If you just happen to find a pipe, the natural consequence then is to take the pipe.” 

The concepts of logical and natural consequences overlap, and often they are actually one and  the same. For example, when your consequence is to have your teen pay for something they keep losing, that is both logical and natural. 

Many parents default to taking away their child’s device as the go-to consequence for any transgression, even if it is unrelated to phone rules. For example, a kid might have lied and said he went to the library after school, and the parent learns she actually went to a hang-out spot. A parent might exclaim, “That was completely not ok, and I am taking your phone away for the next week!”

Kastner says in the film, “Often parents know that since the phone is the most sacred, wonderful device in the teenager’s life, it’s sort of loose logic, just like, take that away, and that’s the best punishment. But it’s not very logical.”

Not only is it not very logical when we resort to taking devices as the go-to consequence, but it can really backfire. It is normal that our kids might be mad at us for enforcing a consequence. But if our consequences feel arbitrary or excessively harsh, and always about devices, it can cause the child to focus on their anger towards us instead of reflecting on their misbehavior. This can take a serious toll on the relationship. 

I often hear from young people about their frustration about devices being taken away when they didn’t break a rule around the device. What’s worse is that they tell me that the prospect of this punishment can deter them from disclosing thorny situations to their parents because they fear that they will get in trouble and lose their device privileges.

Kastner says,  “If they have misused the phone like there is a rule of not having it in the bed all night, they then used it, so take the phone.”

When rules about device use get transgressed, removing privileges around device use for a short time is logical.

I want to be clear that I am not saying youth should have 24/7 access to their phones or other tech. I am just talking about the risks of using it as the default disciplinary move. 

Questions to get the conversations started: 

  1. Have I ever had a consequence that you thought was too harsh or not harsh enough?
  2. How do you think parents should decide what consequences to give for different rules being broken?
  3. Can you think of a time when you broke a rule, and the consequence helped you learn from your mistake?