To punish or not to punish stepson?

Dr. Laura,

First time with outside feedback but need to know more because I'm not used to being around a child or disciplining and or rewarding.

I am 27 she is 23 I have been with her for 14 mos she is 6 mos pregnant with my child. So her 5 year old son who is fairly shy the other day was playing with his friend and i looked over he had all of the dvds and games in a line and they were running up and down on top of them all in a row. i told them to stop and asked them to pick the games and dvds up because they cost alot of money and they could easily break them and it was wrong.

After whispering in each others ears they both decided and told me NO!! So i told them that they have 1 more chance to pick them up otherwise i would pick them up and they could no longer use the games (mine anyways, he has a wie i have an xbox and games wich are about $50 a piece ).

So today he comes to the house for the first time since it happened (he's here about %50 of th time). The incident was 3 days ago. He says to me when i walk in the door "im sorry for stepping on your games" and i thank him for his apology and tell him it mean a lot to me. I take a shower and he then says" lets play the game" and i tell him "sorry buddy u cant play the game because u were stepping on them but since u apologized i will let u play it tomorrow. i did this after thinking about maybe saying a week but that's to long and even 3 days he may not realized the distance but i wasn't really sure. What i did know is he knows tomorrow and i wanted him to realize that if u do something wrong to other peoples things you cant just say sorry and do whatever you want.

He then goes to her room and says i wont let him play an she tells me i should have said yes because of how hard it is for him to apologize. At this point i don't want to argue i already feel bad and i go in the room and lock the door so i can be alone for a little while ( not something i do just didn't want us 3 in the same room due to some negativity and anger i thought leaving for a bit would help).

She knocks on the door and is upset that i could hurt her sons feelings like that and because of it she would question my future father hood because of it. I decide i have nothing to say and I feel I was right and that she shoulnd make me feel bad or take his side instantly because he apologized. Granted he really doesnt do much wrong at all but i feel breaking other peoples things si something to be careful with. She then leaves with him and goes to her mothers house.

please give me some help not really sure what to do but i feel %100 right on this but ive been wrong before and i dont know what to do. thank you and weather good or bad reply if i'm wrong i'll admit to her and apologize.

I commend you on your thoughtfulness, and your commitment to finding a good way to handle disagreements with your girlfriend and her son. This is essential to your having a good relationship with her and providing a good home for your unborn child as well as for the step son you have taken on. You refer to him as your girlfriend's son, but by choosing to have a child with her and make a family with her, you have taken on a much more difficult task—forging a positive relationship with her child. The futures of four people hinge on your ability to do this.

You are essentially asking two questions:

1. Did you do the right thing regarding your girlfriend's son?

2. Did you do the right thing regarding your subsequent disagreement with your girlfriend?

Here's my take. It isn't about who's right. Right and wrong aren't really a good basis for human relationships because it's hard for two people to be right at once. When someone, anyone, is made “wrong,” it is hard for them to feel good about themselves and to love. Unfortunately, when people feel bad, and on opposite sides (meaning only one person can be on the “right” side), things tend to spiral out of control into negativity. So let's look at the results of what's unfolded here and compare those to other choices that might lead to outcomes you'd prefer.

Your step son and his friend are playing a game that endangers your dvds. You ask him to stop and pick them up.

Good work setting the limit. Not setting a limit would probably have resulted in breakage. At the least, it would have resulted in your being worried about damage to your belongings. Limits are how young humans learn the rules. You don't say what tone of voice you used, but given that you were worried at this moment, we can assume you used some force. As long as you were respectful and not scary, having some authentic passion behind your words is not harmful to children; it lets them know just how important this limit is compared to, say, something more major (danger to a person) or minor (an annoying noise, for instance.)

If you wanted to make your limit more likely to be followed, the best way is to add empathy: “You two are having so much fun! But those are my games, and they're fragile.” This “joins” with the kids, so they don't feel like you're the opposition. It keeps them from feeling wrong, and helps them move fluidly into seeing your view. Limits get results when they're set with empathy, not as some sort of trick, but because we really do create an alliance for the higher good.

Now if you really want action, the best way is to move in and take action yourself. You can never control what someone else does. You can only ever control yourself. When two kids are in the middle of a game, it can be hard to turn the energy to get them to abandon the game and clean up. You need immediate action, so you need to take it yourself, rather than convincing someone else to take it.

So in this case, you start scooping up your games as you add to your empathic statement “Ok, that was fun, I know, but these are fragile. Games aren't for running on. Let's get these back where they go, and then we can find something else for you to run on. Do you think you could find rocks outside and put them in a row and run on those?”

Notice that you have invited them to help but you have not given a command. A command invites defiance. You are not the parent here, so the kids are more likely to defy you. And because your stepson has an observer, he needs to save his pride, which makes it more likely that he will show off by standing up to you. Now, most parents would be angry, so the big challenge here is to manage your own emotions. Remind yourself that it is not an emergency, because you have intervened in time to teach appropriate behavior to the five year olds. And if you can keep your tone light and playful, and if you add a suggestion for how they can redirect their game to continue it constructively, they are more likely to take your suggestion and help you gather the dvds. But if not, they can ignore your invitation without things escalating to a showdown.

Notice that you did not need a showdown. You didn't need to make them pick up the dvds. What you want is dvds that are safe. You can easily proclaim a rule—later—that the kids don't touch your dvds without express permission every time they want to play a game. There is no reason you need to add anything to your limit right now, such as making them clean up the dvds.

Sure, it will make you feel better in the moment because they have righted their wrong. But maybe they didn't even realize it was wrong. A showdown invites a power struggle, and you don't have the relationship with this child to win such a power struggle. (We know this from the outcome: he defied you.)

We NEVER win power struggle against a child. The only time we win is if the child decides to let us win, and the only reason a child makes that decision is out of love for us. Otherwise, we may win a skirmish, but the war escalates and no good will ever come of it.

So what happens here?

The kids take strength in each other's presence and defy you.

All kids experiment with defiance. This is best handled by staying calm and insisting on whatever limit you are trying to set. Defiance is not a discipline problem, it is a relationship problem, meaning that our relationship with the child is not strong enough to support our request or teaching. (After all, kids only do what we want because of who we are to them, because they love and want to please us. That's why love is a more effective motivator over time, compared to fear, which they quickly outgrow.)

So the best response is to remember that we can only control our own actions, and to take action to protect our property (gather the dvds yourself), and to wait until things are calm to reflect on the defiance. At that point, we can begin working to strengthen our relationship with the child, so next time our request is respected.

Often, of course, we as adults over-react when we feel disrespected, and we add some punitive threat, usually one that has some version of the word “never again!” in it.

They have 1 more chance to pick them up otherwise i would pick them up and they could no longer use the games

Most adults would be angry to see their dvds being mistreated. When we are angry we often say things that we might think better of once we are calm. When we're angry, our bodies flush with “fight, flight or freeze” biochemicals, and the child looks like the enemy. When you feel that “NEVER again” feeling, remember that you NEVER need to make decisions from that space, and if you can't resist doing so, it's a good practice to at least resist communicating them, i.e., making threats.

What COULD you have done once you found yourself here at the moment of defiance? You could have bitten your tongue, moved into action, and picked up the games yourself. You could then have calmed yourself down out of their view. Later, you could have moved the dvds out of reach, or simply made a rule that they are not to be touched without your express permission, and then only used for their actual purpose.

Fast forward three days later. Your stepson apologizes and you tell him it means a lot to you. Good, repair work on the relationship, which was the real damage, after all. Then you have a big decision to make. Do you stick to your consequence—made in anger—that he can not play your games? Being a reasonable guy, you modify the time period from “never” or even a week to one day. This is exactly what most parents in your position would do.

I'm going to advocate, however, that you shouldn't do it. I know, you're within your rights. You're being reasonable. But this is still a punishment and therefore won't get you the results you want.

It is not a natural consequence. A natural consequence is that the dvds break and cannot be played. Luckily you prevented that from happening, but if it had, the child would certainly have learned not to step on games in the future, presuming that he cared about the specific game that was broken.

This is a parent-contrived consequence, otherwise known as a punishment. Are your within your rights? Of course. But it may not be the path you want to take. Punishment drives kids away. Since you already have a relationship issue—which is signaled by your stepson's defiance—you are making that worse and making future defiance more likely.

Isn't the punishment necessary so he learns a lesson about misusing your dvds? Not at all. He now knows beyond a doubt that he cannot use your dvds without permission. You have educated him about appropriate use of dvds. You have set a clear limit. Presuming he has a good relationship with you, there is no way he will misuse those dvds in the future. Even when the other child visits and suggests it, your stepson will be able to resist, because, as you say, he “doesn't do much wrong” which means he is usually able to resist his “lesser impulses” because he has some ability to regulate his own emotions. He cares too much about you to hurt you.

So while you are within your rights to punish, it may not get you the results you want. Which are:

1. He will not misuse your dvds in the future. (You can count on this as long as your relationship is good. If you and he are at war, all bets are off. So punishment will make this outcome less likely.)

2. You and he will have a good relationship so that he is more compliant with your requests and does not defy you. (Punishing will make this outcome less likely.)

In other words, punishment may make you feel better temporarily, but it leads to more misbehavior and erodes your relationship. Let's look at it from a five year old's perspective. He and his friend get carried away with their game of running on the line created by the dvds. Fun! This is an honest mistake unless you have previously forbid playing with the games. So far, only a redirection and teaching is needed.

You stop them. Ok. He realizes that maybe that was not the best use of the dvds, even if he is mad you stopped him and needed to show off in front of his friend to defy you. When he gets home, either he stews about it and decides to apologize to show you that he actually loves you, OR his mom tells him he must apologize. Either way, he apologizes, you accept, and you have a great opportunity to re-connect with him. In fact, he tries to reconnect, in his five year old way, by suggesting that you play a game together. Great idea, just what the doctor ordered!

But you reject his overture for reconnection. In fact, you throw it back in his face. You reject it BECAUSE he misused your dvds. Or, that is what you say, but actually, the punishment is because he was defiant, because you only made the threat once he was defiant. So his attempt to heal his defiance by reconnecting with you gets rejected—because he was defiant! He's stuck. Hurt. Angry. He goes to his mom.

Enter Mom. Mom is livid. Maybe she forced him to apologize, suggested he play a game with you to heal things, and now you're ruining her orchestrated plan. Or maybe she just thinks you're being unfair. Either way, your insistence on punishing her son makes her mad. She defends him. You are now officially in over your head, and you know it.

You feel like it is two against one. How can she not see that you are right? You are too mad to interact. How great that you know this. MUCH better to go in your room alone, rather than starting to yell.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of marriage research that shows that when guys yell, OR stonewall (and locking yourself in your room and refusing to answer her is stonewalling), marriages are less likely to survive. What can you do besides yell, or stonewall? You're being asked by the universe to step your game up a notch here. You need a signal, a way to communicate to her that you are too upset to talk but you love her and want to work this out. A signal you work out when things are calm.

It might look like this. Your girlfriend comes in, livid, and tells you that you're wrong to punish her son, that he has already learned his lesson and just wants to connect with you. Forget who's right and who's wrong. All you know is that you feel abandoned, alone, and confused. Not to mention afraid and furious. You say, using your pre-agreed upon signal, “I am too upset to talk right now. I need a time-out to calm down. Can you give me an hour to get calm, and then we'll discuss it?”

Then you go in your room and lock your door. You do not spend that hour justifying your position and reviewing all the ways that your girlfriend and her son are wrong. You spend the hour breathing deeply, exercising, asking for guidance, doing whatever you need to do to calm yourself.

When you come out, you suggest that the adults need some private time to talk, and send Junior outside to play. You breathe your way through the discussion. (Research shows that when women get upset as they interact with their man, the man has two choices. He can get upset back, in which case their relationship is probably doomed. Or, he can “man up,” and regulate his own emotions, calming himself down while he listens to her. Those are the relationships that last.)

After she shares her views, you say, “Look, I think I was right, but I hear you. What I really care about here is loving you, and loving him. And what's best for everyone long-term. That means I want a good relationship with him. And I think you and I need some more discussion about discipline, and how we expect our children to learn appropriate behavior, including respect for each other. I think I treat him with respect, and I don't like feeling disrespected. But I'm a man, and he's a five year old, so I am not going to act like a five year old. I will reach out to him, and reconnect, and work to strengthen my relationship with him.”

But should you stick to your consequence—the threat you made in anger when he defied you—and not play a game with him? Again, that depends on the outcome you're after.

If you don't, you will have to make clear why you have changed your mind, which is that you see he has learned to treat your things with respect, and to treat you with respect, and your relationship with him is more important than what you said when you were hurt and angry. You'll be modeling even better apology skills than he did, and you won't be sorry, because he will bend over backward in the future to protect your relationship.

If you do stick to your consequence, you'll be making things tougher on yourself, because you STILL have to find a way to reconnect with him, and he will be angry at you. I'm not sure how you end the day feeling closer to each other after this, but maybe you're really resourceful about connecting with him. Take him fishing, or play some soccer, or have a pillow fight, or build a tree fort, or find some other way to bond. So just know, if you choose this course, that the punishment is not necessary to teach your stepson, and you are making things harder on both of you.

Ultimately, what you want is a cooperative child and a happy family. When you have to choose between love and punishment, choose love and respect over pride every time. When we extend love and respect, that is what we get back from our children and spouse. Love never fails.

The world needs more thoughtful, caring dads like you, who are willing to examine their own actions and to grow. I'm honored to be a small part of your parenting journey. I wish you and your family every blessing.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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