Dear Mr. Dad: I'm a single parent and I'm finding
it harder and harder to keep my kids in line. When I was married
the two of us could back each other up. But now that I'm alone
I don't seem to have the energy to take a stand. What can I do
to regain control?
A: At one time or another, all parents
struggle with discipline--establishing and enforcing limits,
and getting their kids to speak to them
respectfully and do what they're supposed to do. For single parents,
though, who are already probably pretty exhausted, anything other
than putting food on the table and clothes in the closet may
seem like too much trouble to worry about. But this is important.
So if you feel yourself becoming more lenient, stricter, or just
plain inconsistent, here’s how to stop.
* Be consistent. Not only on a day-to-day
basis right now, but consistent with the way you and your spouse
used to do things
before you became a single parent. In addition, try to work with
your ex to come up with a discipline plan that's consistent between
homes and agree to back each other up on how you'll enforce limits.
If you can't, you'll have to be firm in telling your kids that, "in
your mom's house you follow her rules, but in this house, you'll
have to follow mine."
* Establish and enforce reasonable limits. No child will ever
admit it, but the truth is that he needs to know who's boss and
he needs that person to be you. Setting your expectations too
high, though, can also be a problem, frustrating your kids and
making them feel bad or inadequate when they can't comply.
* Link consequences directly to the behavior. "I'm taking
away your hammer because you hit me with it," or "Since
you didn't get home by your curfew, you can't go out with your
* Don't worry. Unless the limits you set are completely insane,
your child will not stop loving you for enforcing them.
* Chose your battles. Some issues--those that involve health
and safety, for example--are non-negotiable. Others don't really
matter. Does it really make a difference if your child wants
to wear a red sock and an argyle one instead of a matched pair?
* Give limited choices. "Either you stop talking to me that
way right now or go to your room."
* Encourage your kids to be independent. "When parents do
too much for children, to 'make up' for the fact that they have
only one parent, the children don't have a chance to develop
responsibility, initiative, and new skills," writes Jane
Nelsen, co-author of Positive Discipline for Single Parents.
But don't go too far here. Your kids still need structure.
* Understand your child's behavior. According to Nelsen, kids
misbehave for one or more of the following reasons:
- they want attention
- they want to be in control
- they want to get back at you for something you did
- they're frustrated and they just want to give up and be left
Trying to punish a child without understanding
why she's doing what she's doing is a little like taking cough
syrup for emphysema:
the thing that's bugging you goes away for a while, but the underlying
problem remains--and keeps getting worse with time. The most
direct way to solve this is to simply ask your child--in many
case she'll tell you. If she won't tell you or doesn't have the
vocabulary to do so, make an educated guess ("Are you writing
on the walls because you want me to spend more time with you?").
Since its debut, Armin
Brott's New Father series has been making life easier--and
a lot more fun--for fathers and mothers around the world.
Overflowing with practical advice and month-by-month developmental
descriptions (of fetus, baby and dad), the books in the New
Father series also examine the roles of fathers and
encourage men to continually take an active role in rearing
Visit Armin's website.