I’m rather proud of the fact that my daughter is kind of a nerd. Oh, she won’t admit it, but she loves Star Trek, board games, Minecraft, and technology in general. And I’m also proud of the fact that she’s a good kid, most of the time. For a ten-year-old, it’s remarkable that we almost never have to raise our voices or punish her for anything.
The problem with those kinds of kids — and take it from someone who was one — is that, when they do screw up, it’s a doozy.
Usually when my daughter has to be punished we just take away her technology. It’s an inconvenience, but honestly she doesn’t just sit in front of the TV or on her tablet when she’s with us; we play a lot of board games and do stuff around the house, which keeps her engaged and busy. This happened last week when she lied to us about something; no technology for the three days she was with us. It wasn’t terrible because she could still read, and we still played games, but she knew it was a punishment.
She did the same thing this week. But instead of a note home from the teacher, the teacher had her write us an e-mail letting us know that she was aware she wasn’t fulfilling her responsibilities. Which is all well and good, but she lied to us about the same thing, and that’s what she got in trouble for.
But grounding your nerdy child can be a difficult thing. Here’s six reasons why — and please keep in mind that I’m just one dude with a column, not a parenting expert.
6. Solitary confinement isn’t good for anyone. — Plenty of studies now show that solitary confinement in prisons is often inhumane. And what is being confined to your room if not that? Now, I wasn’t seriously damaged by getting grounded every now and then, but then, things were different in the 80s. My daughter has a lot of things to do in her room, and I don’t have the time or inclination to monitor if she’s sneaking books or coloring with her gel pens or whatever else. If we can’t trust her to tell us the truth, how can we trust her not to do that? And we’re certainly not going to make her sit with her nose in the corner.
Alternative: We happen to have an office off our living room that’s separated by French doors. Instead of putting her in her bedroom and ignoring her (even if it was “active ignoring”), we had her sit in there where we could see her. We did catch her drawing on one of my notepads, but ended that real quick.
5. They thrive on engagement. — Kids in general want attention from their parents and guardians. That’s why some of them act out — because they feel like they’re not getting the amount of attention they need, and they figure that bad attention is better than no attention. As engaged parents, my wife and I make sure we’re very involved in my daughter’s life, and the kid knows it. But if she’s grounded, we can’t do the non-technological things with her that we might normally do — especially playing games.
Alternative: The most effective punishments, we’ve found, is not only making her fully aware of what she did but also how it makes us feel about her. In this case, she knows that we would much rather be spending time with her, so being apart from her (even if she’s just in the office and we can see each other) makes us sad too. If you’re going to do this, though, make sure you don’t look like you’re having a good time. Sit quietly, work on your computer, or read a book. Don’t rub it in.
4. Their brains need to be stimulated. — Being grounded is boring. The kid made that very clear to us. But given that solitary isn’t exactly humane and given that nerdy kids need to keep their brains running or else they’ll go mad (or, in my case, I get depressed if I get too bored), they have to have something to do.
Alternative: Let the kid read. It’s not my daughter’s favorite activity, but it keeps her brain engaged. We told her the only things she could do were sit there, or read, or use the rowing machine (which might tire her out). She chose to sit there. But she knew at any time she could ask one of us to bring her her book and she could read it. She was clearly just being obstinate, but again, her choice.
3. Nerdy kids usually have nerdy parents. — I would have loved nothing more than to play a game with my wife, or watch one of our shows, but like I said above, that’s just rubbing it in. She worked on her computer, and I played a game on my phone with the screen turned away so the kid didn’t know what I was doing. But as nerdy parents we like to do nerdy things with our nerdy child, and even when she’s not being punished we’re likely to be playing a game instead of sitting around watching TV. And on top of that one of us had to keep an eye on her, which distracted us from what we were doing, and anyone who gets deeply involved in something knows how much of a problem distractions are.
Alternative: I’m pretty sure there’s something that I could have done around the house instead of just sitting there — I know the kitchen and front hall still need to be cleaned, and we have bags and bags of stuff from spring cleaning that need to be donated, and I could have taken care of either of those things while my wife kept an eye on the kid (or vice versa). If you’re not doing stuff with the kid, you might as well do the stuff you need to get done so at least you can have more leisure time later.
2. You still need to break up the monotony. — Just because the kid is being grounded doesn’t mean she needs to stay in one place the whole time. I know some people believe that’s the whole point, but she has responsibilities at home too. About 45 minutes in, she had to finish doing her laundry, which killed ten minutes. Forty-five minutes after that, it was dessert time. That sort of thing. She still knew she was in trouble but at least she got out of the room once or twice. (Not including bathroom trips — don’t restrict the kid from using the bathroom, but it might be good to make sure there’s nothing fun to do in there. If there are books or magazines in the kid’s bathroom, take them out during this time.)
Alternative: This is more about what not to do, but it’s probably best not to associate food with punishments or rewards. Yes, she’s being punished, but she still gets dessert if she wants it (and she eats it at the dining room table, like usual). If the kid wants a drink, get the kid some water; if the kid is hungry, arrange a snack. But don’t penalize with food. We also didn’t assign her extra chores so that she wouldn’t associate those with punishment either (although sometimes cleaning a bathroom is pretty punishing on its own, especially if you haven’t done it in a while). We offered her the opportunity to do additional homework, but didn’t require it — same reason. Don’t just pile on additional tasks; the kid might make the wrong associations.
1. Being strict is hard work. — A couple of years ago I wrote about strict parenting from the point of view that parents need to be strict with themselves so that they provide good, consistent role models for their kids. The same thing goes for when you have to punish your kids: be strict with yourself, no matter how hard it is. Don’t let up when they give you sad eyes; don’t let up when they’re miserable; don’t let up when you think they’ve “had enough”. You meted out a punishment; whatever it is, you have to follow through on it, no matter how much it sucks for you.
Alternative: Make punishments reasonable so that you can follow through on them. The kid got grounded for two nights, and given that she’s never really been grounded before (removing privileges was usually enough) it was plenty of time. I actually wanted to add a third day (we have her this coming weekend so it would have been this Friday night) but we decided that wouldn’t be necessary, and it would also be unfair. I think her punishment — two nights being grounded and no electronics for the rest of the school year while at our house (which is maybe a month, tops, if you were to add all the days together) — was reasonable. The grounding was an additional penalty; the electronics, since only one week didn’t work, we upped it in hopes that it would help to get our point across. And it’s something we can easily follow through on: two nights is manageable for all three of us, and she has plenty of stuff to do at our house without needing the TV or her tablet. Whatever punishment you hand down, you have to follow through on it, so don’t threaten something you’re not willing to do when (not if) your bluff gets called. Kids usually do stupid things to test boundaries; if they can break through, then they’ll just keep pushing, but if you are strict about holding the line, they’ll get it and they’ll actually respond better to you.
Once the kid was in the office on Monday night, my wife and I tried to figure out what to do if she lied on this scale again. The longest we can really ground her is three days, because we only have her three days a week. We can’t take away her electronics again because she already lost them until the week before Memorial Day. We don’t use corporal punishment. We’re not taking away desserts or books; and we’re not going to make her go to bed early because all she’d do is lie there, tossing and turning, getting madder and madder. The whole point of this isn’t to make her mad; it’s to help her understand why what she did was wrong and ensure that she doesn’t do it again.
I think what we’ve agreed on is that, if this happens again, in addition to being grounded she will be copying definitions of certain words by hand — respect, honesty, responsibility, etc. Writing lines can be mindless drudgery, but it is possible to make it a constructive experience. The definitions may do that, or maybe for some kids writing a short essay about what they did and why — and how they will work not to let it happen again — can be effective as well. If we have to, we’ll do that.
Just try to be constructive with whatever consequences you give your kids when they misbehave, because if they don’t work then after a while you’ll just be piling on the consequences and eventually you’ll just give up because none of it is working — and that’s not good for either of you.
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