Parent disciplining his daughter
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How to Discipline Your Kids When You're a Big Ol' Softie

No dad wants to be The Bad Guy, but you should at least strive to be The Fair Guy

For once, I held my ground. And I think I won.

The battleground: a dispute with my 13-year-old daughter over a Five Nights at Freddy's movie ticket I'd already purchased for her, piles and piles of clothes cluttering up my laundry room, and a bathroom my kids share.

My daughter was all set to go with her friends to a Friday afternoon showing of the aforementioned movie right after school. This was Tuesday. I told my daughter, as I was purchasing her seat for the movie, "If you want to go to this movie, you need to get all the clothes off the washer and dryer. You need to go through all the clothes in your hamper. Your sister says there's clothes in there you haven't taken out for months."

My daughter, in her mind already sitting in the movie theater enjoying PG-13 frights and munching popcorn, said something to the effect of, "Yeah yeah, OK, sure, whatever." 

"I'm serious," I told her.

The problem: I am almost never serious.

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I've got two kids, one of them a 16-year-old rule-follower who only occasionally rebels. Then, I have the 13-year-old, who, since she was a toddler, has always found ways to subvert, work around, or outright ignore the rules. She would cheat at board games played with her furious sister. She'd find a loophole in a parental command to do chores. To this day, she continues to find clever, unexpected, and frankly manipulative ways to trick Daddy (no Trina). If she's punished, she soon finds a way out of it. Things always work out for her.

I almost always let things slide, which is a failure of my parenting, not a failure of my kid.

Ferris Bueller is a lot of fun to hang out with, but it sucks being their parent.

On Wednesday, I reminded my kid that the clothes would need to be put away. She said "OK."

On Thursday, I reminded her again. Lying in bed with her phone in her hand, she said, "I'm tired from school. I'll do it tonight."

Later that evening, I told her she only had a few hours left before bed and that she wouldn't have time in the morning to finish. She slept.

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Friday morning, on the way to drop her off at school, I gave her the bad news. "You have until 4:30 to do what I asked or else I'm canceling the movie ticket."

"You can't do that!"

"I can absolutely do that," I told her. "I bought the ticket. I can go online and cancel it and get a refund. You can buy your own ticket."

"I can't! It's sold out!"

"Welp. Sucks for you. Figure it out."

That day, I got texts from her assuring me she'd do the cleaning after the movie. She'd have plenty of time. I told her no. 

She reached out to her mom. She tried to convince me to pick her up early from school to do the chores. I kept saying no. For once, I was going to hold firm. I wasn't going to let her manipulate me into taking it easy or equivocating.

There's an episode from the early seasons of The Simpsons in which Bart gets into huge trouble and Homer forbids his son to see the new Itchy and Scratchy movie, which becomes the cultural event of Bart's generation (not unlike Taylor Swift or Beyoncé's 2023 world tours). Homer stands firm, and it's not until decades later, when Homer is an old man and Bart is middle aged, that they actually go see the movie together when it's re-released. For once, Homer was a good parent. He did the right thing, even as Bart whined and cajoled and made threats.

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I thought about that episode as I kept shutting down my daughter's attempts to slide by one more time, to get out of the punishment I'd already detailed to her several times. She texted with an offer. I said no.

I almost always let things slide, which is a failure of my parenting, not a failure of my kid. She's doing what kids do: Bypassing whatever boundaries I am unwilling to set and stick to.

That afternoon, she found a ride home from school instead of taking the bus and hurriedly rushed to the house to clean up the clothes, five minutes before the deadline I set to cancel the movie ticket. She put together a bag for Goodwill donation, cleared the clothes from atop the laundry machines, emptied out the hamper, all in record time.

I stood and watched, not offering to help or advise. When it was over and she was about to rush out of the house, I told her calmly, "I didn't create this situation. You did. You knew what you needed to be done and you blew it off. Now you're late for your movie. This could have been avoided."

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I don't know if the lesson sunk in or not; she made her movie on time, once again Ferris Bueller-ing her way to a fun time. She wasn't mad or resentful about the stress she added to her own day; it didn't come up.

But for once I felt like I did the right thing as a parent. I'm not great at disciplining. I want my kids to like me and to work with them to get them through these teen years. But that's not how parenting works. You can't be their parent and their friend at the same time. You have to choose.

I chose right this time. Even this late in the game, as my kids get so close to adulthood, I'm still learning.