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Disciplining as a Single Parent

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Cartoon image of a mom in a boxing ring by herself
Jojo Ensslin

Take a level-headed approach to leading your family.

When a tag-team wrestler wearies in the fight, he works his way to the corner of the ring. Tired and worn out, he reaches to tag his partner — who then replaces him on the mat. Weary single parents often wish they could ease over to the corner of the ring, tag a partner and take a break. But that rarely happens.

Raising children alone means that, for the most part, you don’t have a partner ready to jump in and help. Whether you are well-rested or worn-out, whether you are physically healthy or coping with illness, you’re still on duty. As a single parent, you have a nonstop assignment that can feel like a never-ending wrestling match.

As we work with parents at The Center for Marriage & Family Studies, one of our goals is to help single moms and dads gain control of their households and manage the daily challenges with authority and composure. Single parents feel healthiest when they know that their kids respect and obey them.

But exercising parental authority does not come naturally for single dads who fear losing their kids’ affections or single moms who are too tired after work to play enforcer. Even though it takes effort, discipline is essential to a healthy family. As your kids learn to obey, your own stress level drops, and peace more frequently fills your home.

One aspect of managing kids well is teaching them that you mean what you say. Tired of all the arguing and whining, single parents often resort to making vague threats, repeating earlier comments or raising their voices in frustration and anger. As the situation escalates, single moms or dads may descend into name-calling, badgering, insulting or inappropriate physical discipline. All of these unintended consequences flow from a lack of control.

To avoid this kind of escalation, help your kids understand that you say what you mean and you mean what you say. The following principles will offer you guidance as you train your children to obey.

Clearly define the pathway to reward

“When you have eaten everything on your plate, we’ll have ice cream.” This statement sets up a clear reward — ice cream. It also clearly defines the pathway to and timing of that reward—”when you have eaten everything on your plate.” With this fact established, your children are now responsible for whether they choose the pathway to reward.

Trust their word, but verify their work

“When you and I have looked at your homework together, and when I see that it’s complete, I’ll get out the Wii and you can play until bedtime.” The advantage of this rule is that you eliminate the temptation to lie. Children know they can’t avoid doing homework by declaring, “But I already finished it!” because you will check the homework for yourself.

Don’t cave

As you establish firm boundaries and give clear instruction to your kids, expect to be tested. Make it obvious from the start that you will not be swayed. Help your children understand that you are simply announcing the decision that has already been made; you are not inviting a debate. This new style of parental communication will take effort on your part, but the rewards reaped in your home life will be well worth the perseverance.

As we often tell single parents, good parenting is not limited to those who have a built-in tag team. By learning to say what you mean and mean what you say, you build credibility with your children and train them to respect both you and your authority. Your kids will gain life skills, and you will gain a sense of calm control as you cope with the challenges of each new day. 

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You may feel that there is no hope for your marriage and the hurt is too deep to restore the relationship and love that you once had. The truth is, your life and marriage can be better and stronger than it was before. In fact, thousands of marriages, situations as complex and painful as yours, have been transformed with the help of professionals who understand where you are right now and care deeply about you and your spouse’s future. You can restore and rebuild your marriage through a personalized, faith-based, intimate program called, Hope Restored.
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