Dear Kid Whisperer,
My 15-year-old son charged $105 on my credit card for video games to download to his PlayStation 4. I am so upset I can’t see straight. I yelled at him and told him that I was so angry that I had no idea what I was going to do, which I feel stupid about now. How do I redeem myself? What do I do now? -Tyler, Houston, Texas
You didn’t mess up nearly as badly as you think. Never feel badly about saying that you don’t know what to do. While it is more helpful to remain calm, it is pretty difficult to do so when you discover that your teenager has effectively committed a felony. So, while your anger isn’t helpful (it makes it more likely that your kid will put his anger on you instead of on his own bad choice) it is certainly understandable.
Unbeknownst to you, but beknowst to me, you did something right: you did not try to come up with a consequence in the heat of the moment. Many parents and teachers think that when their kid does something, there needs to be an immediate consequence.
This is nonsense.
For 99% of us, calmly coming up with a logical, enforceable consequence when we just found out that our kid, I don’t know, let’s say, committed credit card fraud, is pretty much impossible. Great work basically telling your kid that his behavior was so ridiculous that it rendered your brain inoperable. That is a good, honest, and accurate assessment of what happened.
You have set yourself up for success. You are now (hopefully) calm. You now have a (hopefully) functional brain. You can now give your kid a logical consequence that will do the teaching instead of trying to use words and anger.
During a calm time when all is well, here is how I would consequence your kid:
Kid Whisperer: Hey! Remember how angry I got the other day about the fact that you stole $105 from me? That was kind of hilarious. Sorry about that. I guess I just get upset about my teenager committing felonies.
Kid: How long are you going to ground me for, anyway? Let’s get this over with.
Kid Whisperer: I will not be grounding you at all. Actually, and I’m not sure that you noticed this yet or not, but I sold your PlayStation for ninety-five dollars online. It’s gone. I also sold one of your games, Grand Destruction of Basic Decency, for another ten bucks, so you are all paid up.
Kid: What do you mean it’s “gone”?
Kid Whisperer: I guess I don’t know any other words for “gone”.
Kid: HOW DARE YOU! I WILL SUE YOU! I WILL NOT ACCEPT THIS! I WANT MY GAME SYSTEM RETURNED IMMEDIATELY!
Kid Whisperer: Yikes.
Kid: Where are the rest of my games?
Kid Whisperer: They are still in your room.
Kid: How am I supposed to play them?
Kid Whisperer: I don’t know.
Kid Whisperer: Feel free to save up money for a new gaming system, and I will be happy to allow you to purchase and keep it as long as I can trust that you will not use the system to steal from me or anyone else. Right now, I obviously can’t trust you, but I will be watching how trustworthy you are acting now and into the future.
Kid: How long will that take?
Kid Whisperer: I suppose it depends on how trustworthy you are able to be. Maybe before you are 18. I love you, good luck, and I know you can do better!
By waiting to give consequences, you have waited for your kid calm down, for you to calm down, and you have given yourself time to create a great consequence that can teach life lessons that may keep your kid out of prison.