That Time I Chose Not to Punish My Kid

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As the school year was winding down, my usually energetic 2nd grader hopped off the bus one day with an uncharacteristic cloud hanging above his head. Instead of bounding to the door while telling me all about his day, he avoided eye contact. As we made our way inside, I asked him how school was.

“Fine.”

Unsatisfied with his one-word response, I pressed further.

“What was your favorite part of the day?” I asked.

It didn’t take much for him to start telling me that something was bothering him. “[friend] and [friend’s older brother] were kicking my seat on the bus on the way home,” he mumbled.

“Want to have some popcorn and talk about it?” I offered. He nodded in agreement.

As I made my way to the kitchen to throw the popcorn in the microwave, though, he stopped me.

“Actually, mom, there’s more. And its ok if you punish me. I did a bad thing.”

I was surprised to hear his confession, because normally he’s pretty well behaved. “Go on,” I said.

“When [friend] and [friend’s brother] were kicking my seat on the bus, I turned around and gave them the middle finger.”

Stop, I thought to myself. Don’t react.

I took a deep breath and thought carefully about how I was going to respond to this. On one hand, giving a kid the middle finger is a punishable offense in my house. He’d never done it before, but I think it’d be fair to take away video games for a week. On the other hand, his conscience weighed on him so heavily that he couldn’t even enjoy an after-school snack without revealing what was actually bothering him.

I knew that how I responded to this could end up being a defining moment. After all, he’s going to continue to make mistakes, right? He’s just finishing up 2nd grade – soon there will be middle school, and high school, and bazillions of mistakes to be made.

If I fly off the handle, will this discourage how he chooses to reveal his mistakes to me in the future? What’s more important to me – him following the rules or him knowing that he can come to me and talk to me, no matter what mistake he’s made?

Since I was just standing there staring back at my son, he got even more uncomfortable.

“So,” He said finally, “what’s my punishment?”

“I think instead of popcorn, we should go get quesadillas.” I responded, putting my shoes back on.

I thought his eyes were going to fall out of his head. Clearly he expected me to be angry, angry enough to give him a ridiculous punishment. We’ve all done that, right? “No video games for TWENTY YEARS!” Of course, when we dole out unrealistic punishments like that, our kids don’t learn much from it.

“You’re still in trouble,” I continued, “but I haven’t decided what your punishment will be yet. Let’s get some Taco Bell first.”

Of all the awful responses he’d envisioned in his mind, none were as awful as me refraining from punishing him right away.

Over our quesadillas, we talked about how he could have handled the situation better. We talked about staying calm instead of reacting (HEY, I just did that, too!), and about how we can’t use the bad behavior of others to justify our bad behaviors.

In the end I didn’t end up taking away video games – in fact, after we discussed it at length, I didn’t give him a punishment at all. The big takeaway for him was that after he makes a mistake, he can always come to me. No matter how big the mistake is, it’ll never be big enough to make me love him any less. I also needed to make sure that he knew how important his honesty was. The fact that his conscience couldn’t bear the weight of his wrongdoing was worth rewarding.

Within the next day or so he patched things up with his friends. They still come knock on the door and ask him to play. I can still hear his laugh halfway down the street when they’re together. Sometimes they bicker and argue – all friends do. But what I value the most is that he’s learning how to own up to his mistakes. I’m not trying to raise a young man that is infallible – I’m trying to raise a young man of honesty and integrity.

school bus

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Amanda is a lifelong resident of the Rochester area (except for a brief three-month period in which she tried to live in the Metro area, but the traffic was a bit overwhelming. Please don’t make her go back there). When she's not navigating the labyrinth of parenting a teen (Noah, born in 2004), a tween (Bethany, born in 2006), and an elementary student (Bradley, born in 2010), you can find her rocking out as the worship leader at Homestead Church, and with the band Winterstate. Amanda’s other hobbies include going on Paranormal Investigations, reading, painting, and sleeping. Follow Amanda on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.