"Get in this door, young man. You are two hours past curfew. And you are grounded for life."
Sometimes fathers (and mothers) get frustrated with their teenagers when they violate basic family rule--like curfews--and grounding them becomes a natural reaction. Grounding can be an effective disciplinary technique if it is applied at the right time, in the right circumstances and for the right length of time.
But if not, it can really drive a wedge between parents and teenagers.
Particularly with teens, it is often the case that interaction with their peer group is a strong priority for your children. As they mature, it is a natural course of events for them to branch out from family and familiar faces and connect with others of their own age. After all, we do hope they grow up and move out at some point. Gradually connecting more and more with those outside the family is an important part of that transition to adulthood and independence.
As parents, we intuitively know that these associations are important to our teens, so when we are ready to impose discipline, taking those associations away from them for a time seems to be a logical punishment. And, in many cases, it is. Fear of being grounded will often keep a teenager in line; there are few things a teen values more.
But if the consequence of grounding is used inappropriately, it will usually backfire.
It may just result in a teen getting more sneaky and deceptive to get what he wants without parents finding out. Or it may drive a serious wedge between your teenager and you. So, what does a father need to do to successfully use this disciplinary tool to get a real change in behavior from his child?
Natural consequences are best. Most parenting experts agree that we should work to establish natural consequences for children's behavior. The more intuitive the consequence, the more effective it will be in preventing unacceptable behavior. So, for example, would a total and lengthy grounding be an effective punishment for shoplifting? Probably not, unless the event occurred when your teen was with the wrong friends. And then, grounding from those friends, along with another consequence like community service or working without pay for the establishment from which he or she shoplifted would be a more fitting consequence.
Establish rules with defined consequences. Because grounding involves removal from a social setting, it should only be used when the behavior involves a social setting. And it should be a consequence connected to a specific family rule. For example, a family rule might be that we have an 11:00 p.m. curfew on a weekend night. When the rule is established, a consequence should be affixed--like being grounded from friends for the next two weekends. Then, when the curfew is broken, the punishment is easy to administer because the consequence was understood up front.
Define what grounding means. Figure out what you mean by grounding.
Does it just mean a period of time without socializing outside of school? What about phone calls and text messages? How about social networking on the Internet? What about extracurricular activities or church or neighborhood events?
Don't make the grounding too long. Grounding a teenager for a month is probably not a good idea. If too much time gets in between the behavior and the penalty, the message is less clear. Grounding for a week, or two or three weekends is probably sufficient to get the message across without losing it over time. And having a shorter time gives you as a parent a lesser chance of caving in and reducing the grounding period later.
Consider ways to let them earn it off. Many experts suggest linking grounding to other consequences that would allow teens to earn a reduction in the grounding period if they so choose.
This might include things like major jobs around the house (cleaning out the garage or stripping and waxing the kitchen floor). It might include volunteer time at a local social service agency. Some parents have let their children reduce grounding time if they write a report on their unacceptable behavior and develop a plan for not repeating it.
Grounding can be an important tool for parents in their discipline kit. But like any tool, it's important to use it when it is appropriate and for the right kind of job. Following a few simple principles will make grounding a very effective tool for changing behavior in the lives of our teenagers.