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Invisible discipline: How do you know if a parenting strategy works?


“That’s not fair!” my 11-year-old screamed at me. James stormed from my parents’ porch, where we’d been talking, and slammed the heavy oak and glass door leading into the house. Opened it. Slammed it. Opened it. Slammed it.

The house reverberated with the sounds of a tween thwarted.

Soon his angry footsteps thudded in the direction of the living room. I took a deep breath as I felt the heat rising in my chest. My body itched to storm across the room and yell at him. Or maybe throw him bodily from the house. I took a deep breath of the cool breeze wafting across the porch. I struggled to be calm and firm. I reminded myself of everything I knew about brain science. His amygdala was activated — that’s the fear center of the brain. He probably had no access to the problem-solving, rational parts of his brain.

Should parents apologize to their kids? If so, what’s the best way to do it?

This wasn’t how I’d imagined the first day of summer vacation unfolding.

My children were done with camp for the season, and I’d cleared my work schedule for a couple of days so we could prepare at a leisurely pace for our family trip to California. Then I committed the parental crime of enforcing our family’s screen rules.

Just as with our chore chart and bedtime agreement, we created the screen time rules by consensus. Days before this explosion, I sat down with my 9- and 11-year-olds to rewrite the screen rules based on their suggestion that the daily limit be bumped from 30 minutes to 45 minutes. It was summer, they argued, and I conceded the point. We were vacationing at my parents’ lake house in Wisconsin while my husband Brian worked back home, so the three of us drew up a fresh agreement to post on the wall. After the kids ate and cleaned up from breakfast, dressed and brushed their teeth, did 10 minutes of math practice and completed chores, they could enjoy 45 minutes of screen time.

Usually the screen rules were a workable compromise between our kids’ desire for some entertainment and our goal to include healthy activities as part of the day. But my child had violated the rules by picking up his iPad before he finished (or even started) his jobs for the day. When I caught him with the tablet in his room, he made a lame excuse. “I can’t start the laundry until Ava brings me her clothes!” I expressed sympathy but didn’t budge on banning him from screens for a day, which was our agreed-upon consequence.

This is the part of our parenting style that skeptics sometimes fail to understand. Just because we tolerate a fair amount of chaos and include our kids’ input in decisions, that doesn’t mean there are no limits. Sure, we’re more likely to respond to a yelling child with a hug than by banishing them to their room. Instead of ordering our children to do something, we give them information about the impact of their action (or inaction) on others. But when they violate an agreement we’ve set by consensus, we don’t lift the consequence.

Because of our emphasis on honoring our kids’ feelings and perspectives, when they are angry about a limit, boy, do they tell us! For the rest of the morning, my child grumbled and grumped about the house. First, he twisted around in the one squeaky chair until his sister complained. Then he came back to me with a renewed set of arguments against the screen time ban. Next, he loudly complained that nobody cared about him.

My temper rose at each provocation. I tamped it down. Engaging would only prolong the conflict and distract him from experiencing the consequence of his actions — being banned from screens. “I care about you deeply, and I hope you decide to join me and your sister when we go to the library to check out guidebooks,” I said. I started packing up a lunch to take on our outing, with a sinking feeling that he would sulk away the entire, beautiful summer day.

Then a small miracle happened. He came trotting up to me with a neutral expression on his face. Not a scowl.

“Are you coming with us?” I asked, with a smile. He nodded.

Before I knew it, he had talked his sister into joining my father on an errand and we two former combatants were companionably driving to the library. I wondered aloud: Had he arranged this so the two of us could have time alone? “Yeah. I felt bad about this morning. I’m sorry,” he said. I reached back and squeezed his hand.

This is what effective discipline can look like. Sticking to a limit doesn’t always feel great or elicit a child’s instant, sunny cooperation. But if I had yelled back when he exploded, it would’ve deepened our disconnection. If I had given him a timeout, he would’ve spent that time in his room plotting revenge on me. Instead, I had calmly cited the family rule. Nothing more. That had given him space to calm down and decide that he’d rather have a nice afternoon outing than sulk alone.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a Washington, D.C.-area journalist, author, and mother of three. This is an adapted excerpt from The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever — And What to Do About It by Katherine Reynolds Lewis. 

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