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Raising Cain?

What to do when your kid gets in trouble

A ringing phone shattered the quiet I was enjoying while my kids played outdoors. It was from my neighbor Ann.

"Susan, I discovered your twin girls crawling into the large manhole in our street, and I was afraid they'd get stuck or run over by a car," she said. "I told them to get out and they did, but I thought I'd better tell you."

I hung up, then raced to the street. "Susy! Libby! Don't you know that's dangerous? Why on earth did you play in the manhole?"

"Because it's there, Mom."

That's the kind of reply that makes a mother want to scream. The reality is, every child gets into some kind of trouble, whether it's in school, in the neighborhood, or even with the law. What do we do?

School Trouble!

A high-school teacher I know says her biggest challenge is dealing with students who disregard authority. Recently she asked a student to leave her classroom because of his verbal abuse. In talking with his parents, it became clear this teen hadn't learned actions have consequences.

Ginny's parents, on the other hand, had taught her certain behaviors are not acceptable. Ginny was caught helping another student on a paper that was to be done alone, and the school disciplined her. Ginny's parents wisely chose not to intervene. They let their daughter suffer the consequences, and as a result, Ginny learned—the hard way—that cheating has serious ramifications. Ginny's mistake became an opportunity to bring home character-building lessons.

Neighborhood Trials!

Jay, 13, had been playing basketball with my friend's son, Dustin, 10. Jay was going through a difficult stage and was unusually surly and critical. Dustin looked up to this older boy, and both families were friends. But Dustin came home several times upset with how cruel Jay was to him on the court.

"Mom, Jay tells me I'm a lousy player. He makes fun of me in front of the other guys."

At first my friend merely said, "Jay's just having a bad day. Don't pay any attention to what he says."

However, when Jay's cruelty continued, my friend called Jay's mom. "I need to tell you what's going on with the boys," she said. "I'm sure Dustin has some fault in this, but I thought we both could help our boys grow through this."

Later that evening, Jay and his dad came down to talk to Dustin and his dad. In a halting voice, Jay said, "I'm sorry for all the cruel things I said to you, Dustin. Will you forgive me?"

"Yes," replied Dustin.

Because their parents used a neighborhood squabble as a way to train their kids to love others, this became a turning point for both boys. They were able to see vividly the power of words to heal or to hurt.

Law Trouble!

I couldn't have been more surprised when I answered a knock at my door and discovered a police officer there clutching my son Chris and his best friend Nate. The boys had been hiding behind a dirt bank, throwing dirt balls at passing cars. The first car they hit was a police car! A very angry officer now stood at my door with two terrified boys.

A good discussion ensued, emphasizing the "what ifs" their behavior could have caused. Chris was grounded for the weekend, and had to write a letter to the police officer thanking him for catching him and telling him what he'd learned from the situation—that putting others in danger is never worth the risk of momentary "fun."

At 17, another friend's son, Roy, was trying to follow God, but the gang he hung out with wasn't encouraging that kind of lifestyle. One evening Roy was sent to pick up some beer for his friends. As he loaded a case into his car in a parking lot, a cop pulled up. Roy was arrested and taken home in handcuffs. He had to go to court and pay a huge fine. His license was restricted for six months. This was a wake-up call for a boy who needed a shock to his system. Getting caught and suffering the consequences can be a good thing.

What's the best way to respond when your kid gets into trouble? Ask yourself the following questions:

What are my long-range parenting goals? Ours have been to raise confident kids with the character needed to live a God-honoring life used to serve others. If you have a clear sense of your long-range vision, you'll be better able to gauge whether your child simply made a foolish mistake (and that the consequences should nip it in the bud!), or whether more serious action—perhaps intervention—is needed to redirect his behavior. That way, you're intentionally parenting, not merely reacting.

Does this misbehavior involve a character issue? Does it go against God's desire that we be generous, kind, loving, truthful, etc.? If so, you'll need to take some steps to reach your parenting goals—and help your child understand that what's at stake isn't just misbehavior, but attitudes and actions that ultimately impact his character.

Is it a serious violation of family policy? Did your child know this behavior—whether it was lying, cheating, or being selfish—was unacceptable? If not, use this as an opportunity to clarify family rules.

Are there clear consequences? Do the consequences fit the infraction? How will you follow through with consequences? Once you've determined the appropriate response, it's important to:

Be consistent. Enforce the rules, then follow through.

Be supportive. Remind your child that you love her—and that nothing can change that.

Be positive. Say, "God answered our prayer. You got caught." A little humor, if appropriate, helps.

Keep things in perspective. Even though it seems like it now, this situation isn't the end of the world. God will bring you and your child through this. He's faithful (Lamentations 3:22-23), and he'll use this for good in each of your lives (Romans 8:28).

Susan Alexander Yates is the author of numerous books, including How to Like the Ones You Love: Building Family Friendships for Life (Baker).

Talk to Us!

We'd like to invite TCW moms to share how you handle the challenges of mothering. The subject of an upcoming Your Child column is: Building better communication with your kids.

Have you ever felt you couldn't get through to your child? That he just doesn't listen—or talk to you about what's happening in his life? What steps have you taken to improve the dialogue between you two?

Send us your solutions and your name, address, daytime phone number, and ages of your kids. E-mail us at TCWfeedback@christianitytoday.com; fax us at 630-260-0114; or drop us a note at Your Child, c/o TCW, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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