Q: Generally, when my daughters misbehave, they receive the same kind of punishment (no chores equal no tech). I've tried to make the punishments even across the board. As my 9-year-old enters puberty, she has become far more sensitive than her calm 13-year-old sister. I'm entering the uncharted territory of tears at every single thing. I find myself wanting to bargain with her when it comes to her punishments because she is being dramatic and draining everyone in the house. But I feel as though that is unfair to my 13-year-old and is setting a bad example for my 9-year-old. How do I balance parenting and punishment with two personalities?
A: This question is so important. In most positive-parenting theories, punishments are usually pooh-poohed. But I am not going to take issue with what you call punishments (no chores equal no tech) because I think what you have created is a normal consequence. To clarify, a punishment is meant to inflict harm or pain from someone in power against someone without power. A consequence, on the other hand, is an outcome that follows a particular action. It is not intended to hurt, nor is it intended to lord power over someone else. A consequence can be a powerful boundary and help children mature. The parent can take a compassionate position while still holding children to the standards of the family. The boundary may sting, but the child doesn’t usually feel attacked by the parent who uses true consequences.
It sounds as if your 13-year-old has rolled with this system in a lovely fashion. She clearly understands that when she doesn’t do her chores, she can’t use any technology. Because of her temperament, her maturity and her special mix of whoever she is, this all works. And of course you create rules that go across the board. That makes complete parenting sense, and for a lot of families, this works.
But along comes your 9-year-old. She is a different person from your 13-year-old. When I read your letter, I wondered whether your daughter has always been a little more intense or if this is a new development in the family dynamic. Has she always resisted these consequences and is now more vocal? Is she just now finding her voice? And does this matter? Well, yes, a little. If she’s always been resistant, you may have been knowingly or unknowingly pushing her for years. If this is recent resistance, she may be entering her tween years early and be full of counterwill, which is normal. It is also normal among siblings (especially sisters) for one to not go along with the rules that the other sibling happily goes along with.
There are encouraging ways to handle this situation. Because you feel that you are bargaining in the moment of the consequence, let’s find some solutions when emotions are not running so high. It is common sense (and hard to remember) that when parents are feeling pressured, pushed around or back against a wall, we tend to make decisions hastily. This almost always leads to us being too tough on our kids or feeling as if we have had our boundaries pushed around too much. And then we are resentful. It’s a losing situation for you and your daughter.
What I will recommend to you is what I would recommend to any family trying to create reasonable rules and consequences: the family meeting. There are a million ways to run a family meeting, but here are the basics.
1. The meeting has a defined start and finish. Don’t add it onto other issues or announce it out of nowhere. Choose a time (I like to have a meeting around mealtime) and how long it will last (the shorter, the better).
2. For now, address only one or two issues. A shorter agenda stands a greater chance of keeping everyone involved. For instance, discuss chores and that’s it. Don’t add homework and activities.
3. Stick to the needs of the situation, not personal attacks. For instance, don’t say, “Nicole, you never do the dishes, and I am sick of it.” Instead, try: “I have noticed the dishes are not getting done according to the schedule we set. Let’s get back to the drawing board.” Your children are not stupid; they know who is (and isn’t) doing what, but by keeping the focus on the activity, you stand a greater chance of keeping the cooperation going.
4. Allow your children to have a voice in the chores and the consequences. If your 9-year-old has a ton of opinions on these topics, now is her chance to speak and bargain. You may be rolling your eyes inside, but it is critical that children don’t always feel dictated to, and between school and home, most children simply don’t have much autonomy. It is perfectly fine to listen and do some creative problem solving.
5. Put everything in writing and set clear parameters for the chores and consequences.
6. Don’t expect your kids to love this, and don’t expect them to remember you held this meeting when it comes time to uphold the consequences. Your daughter will still try to bargain and talk her way out of this, and that’s okay. Just hold the boundary.
7. Continue holding the meetings to address family concerns.
If you Google “family meetings and preteens,” you will find a million ideas and templates. Find anything that is positive and feels good. And remember, there is no meeting that is more effective than a loving relationship. You can be as organized as you like, but if you and your 9-year-old are constantly fighting, these meetings will be one more thing for her to reject. So remember: relationship first. Good luck.