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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 24, 2010

Excessive punishment often hurts, not helps

By John Rosemond

I'm painfully aware that because I have a deserved reputation for taking a "no nonsense" approach to discipline, I am generally expected to always take the parent side of any parent-child conflict. When I don't satisfy that expectation, the parents in question tend to become confused and even bent out of shape.

In this regard, several simple facts are worth repeating: First, consequences are generally overused. They will not solve every discipline issue and sometimes make things worse. Second, parents are not always right. Is that so hard to fathom? Third, when determining how to deal with misbehavior, the child's age and history are important factors to be considered.

Case in point: A nearly 18-year-old girl's parents tell her that body piercings are not acceptable as long as she lives under their roof. She goes ahead and gets her navel pierced and then attempts, unsuccessfully, to hide it from the piercing police. When her abomination is discovered, they make her remove it, begin monitoring her navel, take away all of her freedoms including phone privileges, and confiscate the keys to a car she had purchased from them after obtaining a bank loan.

The young lady responded to this clampdown by displaying what the parents describe as a "snotty" attitude and retreating to her room. In turn they told her that if she was going to run to her room instead of "facing the music," they would make her room off-limits to her as well. What else can they do? they ask.

I told them they're making a mountain out of a molehill, which indicates that they are having difficulty negotiating their daughter's transition into adulthood. As it stands, they're in danger of going to war with an otherwise responsible 17-year-old over something that when the big picture is considered, no big deal. (And by the way, I detest body piercings, especially of facial parts. They're stupid, pointless and self-disrespectful.)

I advised that they sit down with their daughter and say, "Look, we over-reacted to the hole in your navel, but there was a rule, and you violated it. The fact is, when you don't like a rule, the very worst thing you can do is defiantly violate it. That just makes people mad, as you discovered. If you don't like a rule, if you don't think it's fair, go to the person who made the rule and try and renegotiate it. In other words, when you're ready to try and renegotiate the holes-in-your-body rule, we're ready to talk."

They wrote me back, expressing confusion, telling me that my advice to them was not consistent with previous public statements I've made on the subject of discipline. Actually, the only inconsistency was between the parents' expectation of me ("John will back us, for sure! He'll think of even more unpleasant things we can do to prove that we must be obeyed!") and my advice.

These very well-intentioned folks responded to their daughter's transgression as if she was a 12-year-old with a history of rank rebelliousness instead of a 17-year-old with a job and a history of responsible behavior. In this context, her "snotty" response, however counterproductive, is understandable. In their zeal to prove their point, these parents are now in danger of destroying nearly everything they've accomplished over the past 17 years. Over what? A hole in their daughter's navel! This sort of thing was once referred to as "cutting off one's own nose to spite one's face."

Winning a war (and every parent in America, whether they realize it or not, is at war for the emotional health of their children) requires the courage to lose the occasional battle.