Discipline of Teens – The Basic Offenses

When I wrote a book on parenting a number of years ago, people made two objections to it. First, there were those who attacked the basic premise of the book. I called it “To Be A Father Like The Father” and my central idea is that in order to parent well we must use God the Father to be our example.

A number of people told me that they felt this was a misguided project. “Human parents can’t copy what God does. Our goals must be different. God does not actively involve Himself in the affairs of humans.” These were the frequent comments made.

But I persevered through that misunderstanding. As I explained in that book, it is the attitude of God toward His children I wanted to emulate. And out of that attitude comes a workable model that may have to be adjusted to the realities of home life and each individual generation. Most people were satisfied when I explained that. For those who were not satisfied, I consoled myself that they at least had bought my book.

The second objection to the book was more laughable. I was continually accused of being a “Permissive Parent”. Because I don’t advocate harsh punishment for some of the more sensational crimes a teen may commit, people assumed I was not for punishment at all–after all, if you don’t whip a teen for coming home drunk, why bother saying anything when they dent the car?  They missed my point altogether.

The point of the book was to show that God understands that the heart is deceitfully wicked and no laws are going to change that. The Apostle Paul clearly teaches that the Law was only created to show us the evil in our hearts; it had no power to remove that evil.

No amount of punishments will correct the heart. And the heart is the only part of us that matters. The “heart” equals that aspect of our soul which chooses and decides. While a teen is at home, a parent’s job is to help them learn to control the inclinations of their own heart. When a teen leaves home, they are no longer under the tutelage of a parent. Unless you plan to follow them to college, career or marriage, they had better learn self-control before they leave.

I was not a “permissive parent”. But long before my children became teens, I established three points of contact with them:

First, we talked a lot. We talked about everything. I was just as willing to share my vulnerabilities and failures as I expected them to be.

Second, I never disciplined them without an explanation. I told them why I was disciplining them. I asked them to be more considerate and thoughtful in the future. I also treated them with respect and allowed them to express their anger in appropriate ways…even toward me.

Third, I did require they be part of everything the family did before teen years. We expected them to go to church with us. They went on vacations, outings, visits, etc. And I let them know that no experimentation or potentially dangerous behavior would go unpunished. But once they hit teen years, I slackened off my firm hand of discipline. Why?

Because I  needed them to know they were now immature adults. If you can reproduce, you are an adult. And you should be treated that way. How would your thinking change if your teens were not your teens but a young friend staying with you? Would you handle their stuff differently? Of course you would. Many times, we show more respect for people outside our family than those inside.

There were things I disciplined my teens for and these are exactly the same things I encourage all parents to discipline teens for. They fall into four simple categories:

  1. Disrespect:  I taught my children from the time they were young that every human being is deserving of respect. I treated my children with respect. I expected them to treat me the same way. I asked that they treat each other that way. I explained that respect meant not stealing, not lying, not gossiping etc. My children, to this day, know that nothing makes me more angry than when one of them is disrespectful to another human. Yes, my children saw my anger. I don’t think a parent should hide their anger. But neither should they let anger be their controlling factor.

    I have a friend whose son broke a neighbor’s car window with some neighbor kids as part of a practical joke. When my friend found out the details from an onlooker, he was mortified. He also practices the type of parenting I espouse, so he sat his son down. He asked him to see the situation from the neighbor’s point of view. Of course, the teen made excuses and rationalizations. But my friend interacted with him as he would with another adult. He carefully dissected each rationalization calmly. In the end, he told his son three things: You are wrong because you disrespected our neighbor’s property. You have disappointed me because you tried to cover it up with excuses instead of owning up to it like a man. And you will go over and admit your role and offer to pay back twice the value of the window. The boy never did anything like that again. As an adult, this young man shows respect to people without thinking. That is because he was forced for many years to think about it.

    The major area of respect that children must learn is with other siblings and parents. So for this to work, parents need to teach this daily before children become teens. Starting with this teaching at age 14 is a fruitless endeavor.

  2. Harming Others:  In lock-step with respecting others is the concept of doing no harm to others. This is often the context I explain sexuality to teens. I let them know there are many ways that casual sex can cause harm to yourself and others. I explain STD’s, teen pregnancy, rape, coercion, sexual manipulation, sexual taunting (making fun of another person using sexual language), etc. I also explain how casual sex can cause a spiritual sleepiness to happen when we break relationships off. I told my children that if they experimented with sexuality and the result was someone got hurt, they would be disciplined severely. If they chose to be sexual in a way that was careless, I still counted that as an action worthy of discipline. I never included self-pleasure in that for I taught there was no harm in it and no reason to be ashamed. But, if pornography was involved, then I did discipline. I consider porn to be very harmful to the developing psyche of a teen.
  3. Not Fulfilling Obligations:  There are promises made by teens that they often discard very flippantly simply because they don’t want to go through with it. I never allowed my kids to break their obligations. If they joined a team, they finished the season. If they joined a club, they followed through. If they made a financial commitment, they went through with it. I refused to bail them out or let them off the hook. That applied to pets as well. If they begged for a pet, they  had to live up to their end of the bargain or lose privileges.
  4. Lying: the rule in our house is that it went better for you if you did wrong and told the truth than if  you lied. This is my rule for anyone, not just teens. If friends of mine lie to me, I will have to think about excluding them from my circle of trust for awhile. If they do it again, it will be a long time before I entrust anything to them. My teens all knew this, though they still occasionally lied. I told them clearly that as a teen, I lied all the time, I was, unfortunately, addicted to lying. I believed there was nothing worse than people finding out the truth about me, even in small matters. As God worked in me to change my inner heart, I came to see that the Truth is always the right course, even if people do reject you for it.


These are the four areas that I would discipline teens for and they are the areas that I advise parents to discipline their children for.

After I wrote the first article, two different people asked me why I wouldn’t react if kids were using drugs, sleeping around or leaving their room like a disaster area. I never said I wouldn’t react. I did react. One of my kids brought drugs into our house one time and when the smell reached my nostrils, I went running 100 miles per hour downstairs. I demanded the drugs be taken out of my house. I demanded an explanation for the behavior. We spend many hours talking about the implications of drug use, lying and poor decision-making.

In short, we dialogued. We discussed, I lectured, I demanded respect. I set boundaries on what would happen in my  house. But I did not discipline for experimentation. i disciplined for disrespect and lying. I am pretty sure that same child continued to experiment off and on for several years, but it was never a problem for our household.

I remember a day when two parents dragged their 16-year old daughter in to see me. She admitted to her parents she had become sexually active. Their answer was to shame her in front of me and to tell her that they were disgusted with her and that she would never be allowed to date again. I met with her alone after all this and we talked. This was her first sexual encounter and she had  no idea what was happening. Her parents had never explained sex to her. In addition, as she described what happened, it was obvious she had been date-raped. Because I’m a mandated reporter, I enlisted her parents and the pastor of her church to confront the young man and hold him legally accountable. We found out he had done this to several other girls as well.

After all the legalities were settled, I sat the parents down and asked them three questions:

  1. Why had you never taught her about sex?
  2. Why did you feel you had to shame her in front of me?
  3. What are you afraid of with your daughter?

When we worked through all the issues, I realized mom was ashamed of her own teen years and she wanted something different for her daughter. Her rationale for not teaching about sex is that it would just encourage her daughter to act like she did.

That young girl started to talk to another counselor about sexuality and has grown up to be a person who handles her life well. She is a rare success story. There are more failures because parents are not aware of the most important actions to discipline for. Hopefully this article gets you rethinking your own approaches.

In the next article, we will be looking at how to deal with teen crises–drunkenness, teen sex, thievery, etc–in ways that do not primarily focus on discipline, but rather, restoration.