Setting the Bar

Am I being too strict?

Am I being too lenient?

Both those questions came within minutes of each other after my Parenting the Texting Generation workshop this weekend in New York. Today’s parents seem to struggle finding a balance between being to hard and too soft on their kids. Most parents know that they need to “set the bar” somewhere, but the world’s bar is barely above sea level… and that’s making our job as parents very difficult today.

Let’s be honest. It’s hard to tell your 16-year-old girl she can’t go to the homecoming dance when every other girl from church (including the homeschooled kid) is going. On the other hand, how do you send your little girl to a dance where you know about 80% of the girls in the room aren’t even face-to-face with their dates… they’re “backing it up” to the guy groping them from behind while listening to the “clean version” of Sexy and I Know It.

How should parents go about setting biblical standards without pushing their kids over the edge?

In my conversations with parents tonight I found myself saying the same advice again and again, so I thought it might be good to put some of these broad principles in print.

Here’s a few principles parents should remember when setting guidelines:

  1. Relationship first. All the rest of the principles below are assuming that you’re already hanging out with your kids, listening to your kids, and engaging in activities with your kids that catalyst conversation. If your daughter likes yogurt, do “fro-yo” runs once a week with her and just listen to her heart. If your son likes french fries and pancakes (at the same time), frequent your local greasy spoon and listen to him as you both load up with senseless carbs. The “where” isn’t important. Just connect with your kids regularly so they feel loved, noticed and heard. That being said…
  2. Parents are in charge– teens aren’t (despite what the Disney Channel tells us). Yes, this generation seems to declare entitlement even more than past generations, but in most cases, parents still pay the cell phone bills, provide food and shelter (I listed those in order of priority for teenagers today)… so feel free to take away cell phones, cars, and revoke other privileges if your teenager doesn’t obey. Let me say it even more clear: a cell phone is a privilege, not a right. If your son or daughter is violating your trust, take away their cell phone. They’d prefer that you deny them water.
  3. Always clearly communicate your standards and the resulting punishment that you’ll enforce if said standards aren’t met. Sound simple? It should be; but sadly, most parents don’t do this. Just lay it out. Tell Jordon, “If you download another song without permission, I’ll take away your iPod and computer privileges for a month.” Or, “If you text after bedtime, you lose your phone for a month.”
  4. Take the time to follow up with the standards you set. If you say, “no cell phones after bedtime,” (a good standard) jump online to your cell phone provider’s web site randomly and check to see that no texts were sent during that time. If you tell your kids that you can read their Facebook account at any time (another good standard), then log on randomly and read through their posts, messages and various friends’ pages. You can learn a lot. Don’t set a standard if you don’t plan on following up with it.
  5. Follow thru with your clearly communicated punishment “with love.” It’s actually possible to enforce punishment without yelling. This is the same kid that you spend time with regularly (see #1 above). Don’t let their violation of rules stifle your time together. They should clearly see that nothing they do could separate them from your love and desire to listen to them.

These are just a few broad strokes to consider. They’ve helped me; they might help you.

I spend an entire chapter of my book, Candid Confessions of an Imperfect Parent talking about discipline and follow-through.

About Jonathan McKee

president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of over a dozen books including the new Get Your Teenager Talking, The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket, The Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide for Teenager, and youth ministry books like Ministry By Teenagers, Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation, and the 10-Minute Talks series. Jonathan speaks and trains at conferences, churches and events across North America, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, TheSource4YM.com and TheSource4Parents.com. You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan and his wife Lori, and their three teenagers Alec, Alyssa and Ashley live in California.
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9 Responses to Setting the Bar

  1. Carrie Capps says:

    Thank you for your insight into “setting the bar” we also thank you for stopping in Niagara Falls, New York. We parents need to be aware of what our kids are seeing out there even if it is not in the home. Unless you keep your kids locked in a dungeon they are being exposed to things out there that is disgusting and distasteful. It is best to research, bring these things up at home and talk about it. I never thought to actually listen to the music myself and discuss it with them. Thanks for giving the tools to help and connect with our teens.

  2. Thanks Carrie… I had a great time with all you New Yorkers. I even came close to buying a stuffed Buffalo for my daughter at the airport (but it was like $20!).

  3. adam mclane says:

    Forgive the analogy… but let’s back that thing up. :)

    I love what you said. And as a dad, trust me, as I think of my little girl going to a dance in a few years I would want to chaperone with a sledgehammer under my jacket for the first greasy faced punk who tried that one.

    The flip side is what we know to be true. Parenting adolescents through firm rules doesn’t guarantee a child will make it to adult faith in Christ. Instead, we need to teach high schoolers to think for themselves and help them make wise choices… even if that means they fail here and there along the way. Right?

    • Adam says:

      I think there’s probably some “both/and” here. Regarding the rules, if you set something you’d better be prepared to follow up. Be firm in the rules that you have set. And it had better be done within the construct of a pre-established relationship. I think that’s what we can all agree on, and the main point.

      I think one of the questions is “where do we let kids fail?” Adam, can you give us some ideas of what you’re thinking of here, hopefully some concrete ones (even if they’re made up). I’m thinking that cell phone limitations (time, content) is fine to have a clear boundary on. Letting a kid stay up late and fail a test as a result, maybe that’s one that you give on and let them feel consequence. Is there a specific example that you disagree with? Would love your take…

      • adam mclane says:

        OK–
        You can teach your 15 years old why you’d prefer that she not dance “like that.” But some kids are from Missouri right? (The show me state) Until they go out on that dance floor and do it they won’t know that it’s not for them. Telling them “I’ll take away your cell phone for a month if you do that booty dancing thing” might make them not do it, but it didn’t make them know that it’s not right for them. I’d rather my 15 year old experience that failure while living at home than when she gets to college.

        Our oldest is 10. When she gets in trouble we talk about it before we punish her. Let’s say she gets in trouble at school for talking. We could just say, “Megan, because you got in trouble at school we are taking away your DS for 2 weeks.” Instead, we want to have the conversation about why she got in trouble… because we’ve learned that she doesn’t automatically know that talking when the teacher says no is disrespectful because… (its the because they don’t hear.) When she gets that, then we talk about what a punishment should be for something like that and she knows WHY we are punishing her.

        Does that make sense?

        • Encore Mr. McLane. (Wow, that sounds so official! Mr. McLane!!!)

          Some day our kids are going to be on their own… and the closer they get to that age, the more they should be making decisions on their own while we’re still there to pick them up when they fall. At the same time… there’s a balance. If our 3-year-old is running toward a busy street, we’re not going to say, “Let her go. She’ll learn!” In the same way, we are going to set guidelines to prevent our teenagers from making huge mistakes. But as you said, all these guidelines should be accompanied with conversations, love and encouragement.

          • Adam says:

            Yeah, all good, that makes sense. My oldest is only 6, so I’m not quite there yet, but getting there quick. (He tells me all the songs they play on the bus, I counter it by making him listen to the Rocky IV soundtrack over and over again at home).

            I’m wresting with the whole “how much do you let them fail” concept. I want my kids to fail at stuff. I hate helicopter parenting. I’m trying to find the balance though, because I don’t want them doing something stupid that’s going to hurt them more than necessary. Does booty dancing cross that line? I dunno. That’s something I think I’d want my kid to get away from.

            An Jonathan, you need a “subscribe to comments” button on here.

          • Ha… I’ll work on that. But to answer your question, yes, booty dancing does cross that line. Read my next blog about the Homecoming dance. I think parents need to think very carefully before sending kids into that minefield. I actually laid out four variables to consider.

  4. Rachel Hill says:

    Thank you so much for these articles. They are awesome and so informative. I love reading them!

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