How should I discipline a pre-teen whose behavior is characterized by a serious lack of maturity? He's not disobedient or defiant – just irresponsible. For example, he doesn't put things away. He leaves his bike out in the front yard where it could easily be stolen, and I'm constantly tripping over his clothes, shoes, and toys. What can be done about this?
Every parent has his or her own method of handling such challenges. We're hesitant to impose our perspective on your personal style. At the same time, we feel pretty certain that rigid "discipline" isn't the best way to deal with a situation like this. As a matter of fact, a hard-nosed approach could prove counter-productive. You don't want to do anything that might have the effect of pushing your child over the line. If you do, you could end up transforming thoughtless irresponsibility into premeditated rebellion.
To the extent that you can, we recommend you take full advantage of natural consequences. The bicycle in the front yard is a case in point. If you live in a neighborhood where there's a real danger of theft, warn your son about it. A word or two should be enough. Constant nagging isn't necessary. After that, see if you can't find the courage to sit back and let events unfold as they will. If the bike is stolen, so be it. If the boy comes to you complaining of his misfortunes and asking for a new one, calmly explain that you aren't in a position to replace the bicycle at this time. Maybe he'll get the point: it pays to put things away in a safe place.
When it comes to his shoes, socks, clothes, and toys, you can appeal to a similar motivation. We suggest you adopt the following plan. Using a strip of masking tape, mark off a boundary line-probably at the door of his room – between his personal "messy zone" and the rest of the house. Then say, "Inside the 'messy zone' you can do as you please. But if you want anything that's been left on the floor outside the 'messy zone,' make sure you pick it up before bedtime. After that, it will be confiscated. We'll place it in quarantine until you have enough money to buy it back. The going price is one dollar." If nothing else, this is a good way to reduce clutter in the house. It can also provide you with a handy fund of money for fun family outings or pizza-and-movie nights.
If these strategies don't work, ask yourself whether there might be something more serious going on. It's possible that there are physical or emotional causes, like ADHD, for your child's inability to concentrate and follow through on simple tasks and responsibilities. In that case, you should make an appointment with a family counselor who is trained to diagnose such conditions and who can help you come up with a plan for dealing with the problem. Call us. Focus on the Family's Counseling staff can provide you with a list of qualified professionals practicing in your local area. Our counselors would also be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you over the phone. Each is a committed Christian and a licensed family therapist.
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