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Cleaning Up the Swamp

Using creative discipline with older kids

Lisa's room had become impossible. School stuff, makeup, and all sorts of paraphernalia were piled on the desk and dresser. Clean clothes were stacked on a chair, and dirty clothes were on the floor. Need I say more? Any parent with a teenager will recognize the scene. I decided I had a public-health duty to the rest of the family. Since Alan Alda's "M*A*S*H" series was Lisa's favorite TV program and Hawkeye's tent was referred to as "The Swamp," I taped the following sign on her door:

M*A*S*H Unit 4077

"The Swamp" has been declared unsafe for human habitation. Some attempt to resolve the worst damage must be completed within 24 hours.

James Geiger, M*A*S*H Unit Health Officer

When Lisa read my note, she wrote a sarcastic "Ha! Ha!" in the margin and left it posted on the door. She was not thrilled with her father's tactics, but she cleaned her room that night.

On an earlier occasion, before older sister Jennifer left for college, the girls stopped making their beds before school, and days passed with wrinkled bedspreads lying around the room. Finally, in an act of desperation, I made their beds and used the back of my business card to leave a bill for twenty-five cents per bed for "maid services." I suspect they were a little embarrassed that their father had had the run of the room in order to make the beds, and they certainly were caught off guard to realize Dad had left them a bill for services rendered. I even pressed the issue by insisting they had a legal obligation to pay their honest debts. I don't remember if they ever paid the bill, but they did begin making their beds before school. Who knows—maybe it was just a ploy to keep Dad out of their space.

On another occasion, my wife and I insisted that we needed more "family togetherness" with our son, so we supervised the cleaning of his room—fearful that we would find a missing chair!

Parents have a right, indeed an obligation, to insist that their teenagers maintain some minimum standards in their private living space. But how does a parent balance the Bible's admonition to "train up a child" with the teenager's need to develop self-reliance? And why should parents assume that ideas like sanctuary and the home as our castle apply only to adults?

If one's sanctuary is where one finds a measure of freedom and privacy, then the teenager's room should be his or her sanctuary. Otherwise, the teenager will seek refuge elsewhere. It may be the home of a friend. It may be at the gym, on the playground, or in a tree house. It may even be a hangout with friends who are unacceptable to mom and dad. But it will be of the child's own choosing.

My wife and I tried to ensure that our children's bedrooms were their sanctuaries. But I hasten to admit the obvious. It is easy to theorize about a teenager's place of refuge, but it is difficult to practice what you preach.

A child's sanctuary is not a place where dad flaunts his parental authority or where mother creates an Early American scene or a Joe College look. Indeed, a child's sanctuary is usually a swamp. The door is plastered with multiple signs that say things like "The Beast Is Asleep—Keep Out," "Pike's Peak: We Made It," and "Save the Whales." The walls are covered with pictures of athletes and entertainers, and strange music leaks out through the walls and from around the door.

All parents live with the tension between Proverbs 22:6, "Direct your children onto the right path," and Ephesians 6:4, "Do not provoke your children to anger." As parents, we walk a tightrope between responsible discipline and the reality that our teenagers will soon be young adults living on their own in a college dorm or in some other arrangement. We live with the fear of having cracked down too much or not having done enough to prepare the teenager for being an adult. Overreaching runs the risk of creating submissive weaklings, and falling short runs the risk of creating angry rebels.

"Creative discipline" means preserving the fiction—that is, pretending the parent really is talking about "cleaning The Swamp," "paying one's just debts," or more "family togetherness," as mentioned above, instead of trying to discipline a child. The teenager knows better, but it is sort of a game we play to avoid talking about discipline and punishment. Here are some ground rules parents should consider if they decide to play this creative discipline game:

Be intentional in planning. Be cool-headed and never allow the parental relationship to become a quarrelsome debating society. Remind the teenager, "The boss is not always right, but he or she is always the boss." Most important, insist on a follow-up discussion when cooler heads prevail.

Identify the problem in advance and explain what is going to happen if it continues. Maybe even put the warning in writing and have the teenager sign the "agreement" so he or she cannot claim surprise.

Be consistent. "Say what you mean, and mean what you say!" If you warn that you are going to take the car keys, then you must take the keys, if only for one day. The whole relationship is a matter of trust, and it is essential that the teenager trust you to keep your word, especially in matters of discipline.

Try to create linkage between the offense and discipline. If the problem is a speeding ticket or other car-related problem, then pull the hot keys and put them in the refrigerator to cool off for a day or so, increasing the number of days if the problem persists. Nothing says wimp like mother dropping off her teenager at a party.

Get the teen's attention in a creative way, so that he or she chooses to do the right thing and hopefully continues on after leaving home. Parents should start creative discipline as early as possible. It is best to deal with small problems early on—rather than wait for major confrontations when the teenager is in high school. The older the child is, the more difficult the discipline. Indeed, if a parent cannot control a 10-year-old child, the problems will increase exponentially at 15 or 16.

I believe the reverse application of a wrangler's lasso is a helpful image for "training up" and eventually "releasing" children. Whereas the cowboy's goal is to pull the doggie closer and closer in, the parent must let out more and more rope, eventually releasing the teenager as he or she comes of age and leaves home. In the final analysis, the parent's only tools are prayer, unconditional love, and fair communication of parental values and expectations. Even so, a spoonful of humor helps the tension go down.

The ever-present reality is that soon those teenagers will fly away from home and be free to do as they please.

James W. Geiger graduated from Stetson University and Stetson Law School and later studied at Knox Seminary. He served as an FBI Agent and Prosecuting Attorney, practiced law, and has taught law, Bible, and Great Books. He is the author of Christianity and the Outsider (Wipf & Stock Publishers).

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

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