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Sunday, 17 September 2000

Good Cop, Good Cop: Single Parents and Discipline

Written by  Talya Shachar

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Good Cop, Good Cop: Single Parents and Discipline

It's the single most common threat, and it appears in many disguises:

"Wait till your father comes home."

"When your mother finds out what you've done, you'll be in big trouble."

"Can you imagine what Dad will think when he hears...?"

Most parents have used this getaway, at least once. It's an escape hatch, so we can think. We need to figure out how we can really do something to this child to change this behavior. It's not that we want him to suffer (or maybe sometimes it is..?), it's that we never, but never, want to see this repeated: whether it's sneaking off with a friend's coveted pencil, crossing the street without looking, or leaving a pan on the fire unattended.

Deciding on an appropriate punishment is not simple and it's easier to put off dealing with it -- at least until you have someone with whom to mull it over. The problem with this tactic is twofold: First, it tends to live up to the original threat ("Listen, she's really expecting you to be terribly upset"), and secondly, it's just so easy to fall back on.

I don't have that luxury any longer.

My decisions are all my own now, and I often wonder if I'm making the right ones and how I could be doing better. Along the way, I've come up with a few helpful rules for myself and for my children.

Make The Punishment Fit The Crime

Your child needs to know that there is a connection between what has happened and the fact that he's being punished. Discuss it with him: "You've thrown a block at Tom. Blocks are for building and throwing a block is dangerous. You know that. So the blocks are being taken away for two days and I hope once they come back, you'll know how to use them properly."

The Punishment Should Fit In Magnitude

Don't overkill, otherwise the effect of the punishment (this time and next time, too) lessens. Coming home ten minutes after curfew doesn't always warrant grounding. An earlier curfew for the next two nights should suffice.

Another adult's perspective is what you are missing most when trying to exercise discipline single-handedly, and you don't have to manage without it.

Another adult's perspective is what you are missing most when trying to exercise discipline single-handedly, and you don't have to manage without it.

Look Before You Leap

Listen to your child: There might be more to the story than meets the eye, but even if there isn't, she'll know she can always count on you to hear her out. It also gives you time to sort out what you think about it before you need to mete out punishments.

Cool It

Don't be afraid to let your child see that you are upset -- after all, you are human -- but make sure you realize this is a bad time to decide on a punishment. You can say, "I have to think about this; I'm too upset now to decide how to deal with your behavior." Take yourself off to your room, maybe with a cup of coffee and state that you are not to be disturbed for at least five minutes. Or until Mr. Nice Mom comes back...


This one is to be done out of sight and earshot of the culprit. Tell your best friend/mom/dad/sister what happened and note the reaction. You might be blowing things way out of proportion, or conversely not giving it its due consideration. Another adult's perspective is what you are missing most when trying to exercise discipline single-handedly, and you don't have to manage without it. You have an advantage in this position, too: You may ask advice, but you are really under no obligation to take it.

A word of caution: Your child should not be aware this is happening. How would you feel if you found out that your behavior was being discussed behind your back and with people whose business you feel it most certainly is not? You don't want your child feeling betrayed by you or embarrassed in front of your confidants.


For older children, you might find it useful to ask them what they think their punishment ought to be. Remind them that the goal is that they should remember for next time. "What do you think would help you remember not to do this again?"

My parents used this device with us and my experience both as a child and as a mom shows that a child is likely to punish himself more severely than the adult would.

Debate is not relinquishing final decision, though. Your family is not really a democracy, although it might be nice to pretend it is sometimes. The final decision lies where final responsibility is -- with the parent.

One of the things I miss about having a partner in discipline situations is the step back he gave me. Why am I really so angry about this? Is it warranted? Maybe it's not as terrible as I think.

I know I tend to go off the deep end. Recently I've found myself imagining what my mom or my sister would say about how I've handled it and I give myself a pat on the back. I don't even call them up "properly" to brainstorm, I just have a little schizophrenic talk with myself. Sometimes I really help me.

I suppose, when all else fails, you can just yell, "Wait till I hear about this! You just wait until I get home!" If that doesn't put the fear of God into your children, well... you must be doing something right.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 November 2011 07:24
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Talya Shachar

Talya Shachar

Talya Shachar was born in San Diego, California. She is a graphic designer, currently designing and developing educational games. She illustrates children's educational books and materials."When I became a single mother, I found lots more support than I expected to find. And I found out who my true friends really are. I also enjoy the freedom in decision-making I have as a single mom." She is the single mother of two children aged seven and four. Talya enjoys folk dancing, swimming, and painting.

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