Ask Mike: The Right Punishment

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The Saturday Early Show's family and adolescence counselor, Mike Riera, provides advice to parents who emailed us to "Ask Mike" about their problems with their kids.


Dear Mike:

My 17-year-old son is quiet, shy, six feet tall and 300 pounds. He reluctantly played high school football. Now that he is going to college this fall, he does not want to play. He says it is too stressful. I have explained that it's good to stay active, control his weight, and be with people who may give him a positive outlook. Can you help me convince him, or should I let him make his own decision?

Mike's response:

I don't think I can help you convince him to play football, but I'm not sure that is the best choice, either. What you're most concerned about is his health, his physical fitness, and his social life. And there are other ways to address these needs other than football, and that should be your focus. Some kids hate competitive sports, so rather than relieving stress they are sources of stress. Clearly, this is the case for your son. Respect this, even celebrate that he knows himself this well.

How can this mom steer her son into other activities without pushing him?

Make your main points about fitness, health, and social connections. That is, what other things can he do well in these three areas?

  • He can become a hiker and join a hiking club.
  • He can take up swimming as a relaxing activity and swim during open hours in the college pool.
  • He can partake of the different aerobic classes on campus or nearby.

    In short, talk with him about your concern for him in these areas, then brainstorm ways to meet these needs. This way he feels your concern, feels your support, and feels your respect as you respect his self-knowledge about what is best for him.

    What about younger children? Should you encourage them to stick with a sport they don't like at first, in hopes that they'll eventually enjoy it?

    This is tricky, because if you push too hard, it turns them off. But if it's not hard enough, they don't get through their self-doubt to discover if they really like the sport or not.

    Encourage them to be active and when they sign up for something, to complete it. After that, they and you need to re-assess. Bottom line: Is the look of fun and engagement on their faces as they play the sport?


    Dear Mike,

    My wife and I were at a friend's house, and our 12-year-old daughter had a friend (at home) for a sleepover. They got in my car that was in the garage and each drove it around the block. We found out because my daughter hit the garage when driving the car back in. She is a good kid, never in trouble before. We want to punish her but don't know the right punishment.

    Mike's response:

    This is both a huge deal and not that big of an event at all. On one hand, it's huge because she violated all sorts of family agreements: Driving at 12; taking the family car without permission; putting herself and her friend at risk; putting others on the road at risk. You don't really have to go into all this because it's fairly obvious. On the other hand, it's not a big deal because it's an isolated event. That is, with kids, I'm most concerned about escalating patterns of misbehavior: breaking curfew to cheating at school to shoplifting and so on.

    But one isolated incident is usually a blip on the map, and it's easy to know if this is the case with your daughter. When the dust is settled, she's probably mortified at what she did, feeling guilty about her choice, and angry at herself for what she did.

    Still, this dad doesn't want to let her off the hook entirely. What's an appropriate way to respond?

    As for punishment, don't feel compelled to act right away. There is time. Too often, parents feel pressured to come up with the consequence on the spot. Start by asking her how she thinks you ought to respond. Take that into consideration before you decide on the final consequences.

    Some natural consequences might include her having to wash the car every Saturday for a couple of months; no sleepovers for a month; and maybe grounding her for a weekend. Just enough to get her attention and ideally something that has her active and doing something to make up for her misbehavior, i.e. washing the car. But I would be sure to ask her how come she didn't listen to that part of herself that, I'm sure, that night was screaming to her: Bad idea to drive the car!

    One other point: This is why, no matter how responsible the child, when a sleepover at your house is in the picture, you should plan on being home for the entire night. Bad decisions are rampant at sleepovers involving adolescents without parental presence.

    Are you obligated to tell the other girl's parents what happened?

    Definitely! But be sure to first tell your daughter that you are doing this.