Single Parent Discipline

Q:I’m a single father and I’m finding it harder and harder to keep my kids in line. When I was married, their mother and I could back each other up. But now that I’m alone, I don’t seem to have the energy to take a stand like I know I should as their parent. What can I do to regain control?

A: At one time or another, all parents struggle with discipline–establishing and enforcing limits, and getting their kids to speak to them respectfully and do what they’re supposed to do. For single parents, though, who are already probably pretty exhausted, anything other than putting food on the table and clothes in the closet may seem like too much trouble to worry about. But this is important. So if you feel yourself becoming more lenient, stricter, or just plain inconsistent, here’s how to stop.

  • Be consistent. Not only on a day-to-day basis right now, but consistent with the way you and your spouse used to do things before you became a single parent. In addition, try to work with your ex to come up with a discipline plan that’s consistent between homes and agree to back each other up on how you’ll enforce limits. If you can’t, you’ll have to be firm in telling your kids that, “in your mom’s house you follow her rules, but in this house, you’ll have to follow mine.”
  • Establish and enforce reasonable limits. No child will ever admit it, but the truth is that he needs to know who’s boss and he needs that person to be you. Setting your expectations too high, though, can also be a problem, frustrating your kids and making them feel bad or inadequate when they can’t comply.
  • Link consequences directly to the behavior. “I’m taking away your hammer because you hit me with it,” or “Since you didn’t get home by your curfew, you can’t go out with your friends tonight.”
  • Don’t worry. Unless the limits you set are completely insane, your child will not stop loving you for enforcing them.
  • Chose your battles. Some issues–those that involve health and safety, for example–are non-negotiable. Others don’t really matter. Does it really make a difference if your child wants to wear a red sock and an argyle one instead of a matched pair?
  • Give limited choices. “Either you stop talking to me that way right now or go to your room.”
  • Encourage your kids to be independent. “When parents do too much for children, to ‘make up’ for the fact that they have only one parent, the children don’t have a chance to develop responsibility, initiative, and new skills,” writes Jane Nelsen, co-author of Positive Discipline for Single Parents. But don’t go too far here. Your kids still need structure.
  • Understand your child’s behavior. According to Nelsen, kids misbehave for one or more of the following reasons:
    • they want attention
    • they want to be in control
    • they want to get back at you for something you did
    • they’re frustrated and they just want to give up and be left alone

    Trying to punish a child without understanding why she’s doing what she’s doing is a little like taking cough syrup for emphysema: the thing that’s bugging you goes away for a while, but the underlying problem remains–and keeps getting worse with time. The most direct way to solve this is to simply ask your child–in many case she’ll tell you. If she won’t tell you or doesn’t have the vocabulary to do so, make an educated guess (“Are you writing on the walls because you want me to spend more time with you?”).