Question:

First, let me say that I'm glad I found your site and I appreciate your parenting advice.

I am a widower with two teenage sons - 17 going on 18 and 14 going on 15. I've to come to the point where I need to make some decisions about discipline in our household and would kindly appreciate your advice. I've been looking at various parenting sites, particularly those related to single-father families, and also reading some parenting books. I came across your site while doing some reading about parenting and discipline. I like your advice to other parents and thought I'd seek some of my own.

I am a believer in spanking (as was my wife, although we both felt it was a father's duty - especially with sons). When my older son got to be 15 I made the decision to stop spanking and use grounding as the primary source of discipline. I did this for a number of reasons. First, because spanking seems to have become anathema in our society. I also felt that, now that they were older, grounding may serve better. Growing up my father spanked me well into my late teens and I just thought I would try it differently.

Grounding seems to work for the most part, at least for my younger son. It did work for a while for the older one too, but it seems to be waning in its usefulness. I also find that grounding can often end up punishing the whole family. Maybe I need my older son to drive his brother somewhere and can't because of the grounding. Or, it often seems like I constantly have to keep my eye on them to make sure they don't "cheat."

In the past, I used spanking as the primary discipline for disrespect, willful disobedience and when they got into those "attitude" places that some teens can. They were always carried out by me in a calm but stern manner. I tried not to do it when I was angry but would calm down first then talk to the son in question about why he was being punished. It was almost a ritual in terms of how I felt it should be carried out. Depending on what they were being punished for it would last 5 to 10 minutes. Afterward, I always made sure they knew I loved them and that the punishment was over and "the slate was clean."

I just don't feel that grounding is producing the kind of results that it should. I am seriously considering going back to spanking and look for your guidance. Having stopped for so long is it appropriate to start again at their age? I know that you do advocate the spanking of teens, but it's been almost three years since I have done so. Would I go back to methods I've employed in the past, or would being across my lap be inappropriate for a 17-year-old? Would a fairly firm stinging hand spanking be appropriate or would it be best to use a switch or strap?

I really feel that I made a mistake leaving spanking behind as the primary tool of discipline. And I believe that I will begin using it again; however, I would appreciate your advice on the subject.

Answer:

A common problem that many parents find themselves dealing with is deciding on an appropriate punishment for misbehavior. Often we save ourselves mental effort by latching on to the first thing that appears to work and we stick with it, even in situations where it is not appropriate or where it has lost its effectiveness.

For example, taking away the car keys for a month because your son was out too late with the car would make perfect sense, but is it reasonable to use the same punishment because he refused to rake the leaves in the back yard? In the later, he continues to get his way. He may be stuck in his room, but at least he isn't pushing around dumb old leaves.

Then it is important to keep in mind the ultimate goal in parenting: you should be aiming to raise solid Christian men who will be able to handle life on their own. Sometimes we focus on the struggle of getting our children to do what we think is right and forget to instruct them in making good decisions on their own. I suspect there is a problem in this area because punishment continues to be an issue in your household in the late teenage years. By this point in life, they ought to be doing most things correctly and you giving them course corrections on rare occasions. As I am unable to talk to you and your boys directly, I can't say specifically what is missing, but I want you to be aware that a problem exists.

For older children who need punishment, I recommend the method God used on David, "So Gad came to David and said to him, "Thus says the LORD: 'Choose for yourself, either three years of famine, or three months to be defeated by your foes with the sword of your enemies overtaking you, or else for three days the sword of the LORD - the plague in the land, with the angel of the LORD destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.' Now consider what answer I should take back to Him who sent me." And David said to Gad, "I am in great distress. Please let me fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are very great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man." So the LORD sent a plague upon Israel, and seventy thousand men of Israel fell." (I Chronicles 21:11-14). David's sin was numbering his people. He showed a lack of faith in God's care and protection by trying to determine in advance what were his military capabilities. Notice that all three punishments revolve around the count. All three would lower the population by an undetermined amount. Not only would David have less than he thought, but he also will not know for sure what he had left. Second notice that there is a balance. A famine is a long drawn out process, but the deaths being handled would also be spread out over time. The war would be much shorter, but more severe. The three days of plague would be the shortest, but the most devastating on David and his people. None of the choices were appealing, but David had to choose. In making the choice, David had to exercise wisdom.

I suggest that when you must punish your sons, that you take the time to come up with two or three punishments that they can select. Make one long and mildly annoying and on the other end one that is short but severe. All should deal with the misbehavior at hand. For example, suppose your boy was very rude to an elderly gentleman in the neighborhood. You could offer him the choice of doing volunteer work in a nursing home for three months, doing lawn care for the gentleman for a month, giving a sincere apology to the gentleman while you and two of his best friends witnessed it. The first forces him to think about other people and the second forces him to help his "enemy," and the third has him do the proper thing, but with an element of embarrassment that teenagers find devastating. For a list of types of punishments available to a parent, see: Disciplining Children

Notice that I didn't include spanking in this case. That would be reserved for situations of defiance or violence. If your son refused to do his punishment (an act of defiance), then it is brought to the fore.

In regards to how to spank effectively, if it becomes necessary, the Bible speaks of the use of a rod (see Spanking for a list of verses). A rod is a small branch from a tree or bush, or what we currently call a switch. It severely stings without causing lasting harm when applied to the buttocks. Generally, fewer swats with a switch are needed than with a hand to get the same effect.

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