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If your child has ever said “That’s not fair!” … they’re usually right!

Young people have an innate sense of fairness, particularly when it comes to how they are dealt with by adults. Make clear your rules and expectations, treat them with respect and if they then do the wrong thing and you come down on them, they usually wear it on the chin and accept whatever consequence and/or punishment that comes their way. I was reminded of this during the week when I was at a school speaking to a particularly lively group of Year 11 girls and had two young ladies in the front row who just couldn’t help themselves – I was presenting some pretty heavy material, telling stories relating to that material or giving the group important tips and strategies about how to stay as safe as possible and they kept on chatting. Admittedly they were discussing what I was saying but regardless, I have a very clear rule – when I speak, they listen – that’s just basic manners. When I begin my talk I always outline my rules and make it clear that if they don’t follow my rules, there are consequences. I addressed the issue a number of times and eventually told them that I would have to move them if it didn’t stop. It’s fairly humiliating being pulled up like that in front of your whole class and I’d have completely understood if they walked away after the talk, mumbling to themselves, not thinking of me too highly. Instead, one of them stayed after the talk with another friend wanting to ask me a question. When I told her that I didn’t like having to pull her up in front of the class her response was priceless – “But I broke your rules and was doing the wrong thing – I can see why you did it! No problems!”

Of course, teaching and parenting are very different things but there are some basic principles that are effective in both areas. One of those is around establishing rules and boundaries. Ask your teen who their favourite teacher is and I can pretty well guarantee that it’s not the one that tries to be their best friend. It’s the one that starts the year off by making clear their expectations, outlining the rules that operate in their classroom and letting each and every student know why those rules exist. They’re also the one that cracks down on any misbehaviour quickly, fairly and appropriately, treating all in the class with great respect. Parents need to do the same thing – rules and boundaries need to be established, consequences need to be made clear but it is vital that these are seen as ‘fair’ by your child!

If your teen has ever said “That’s not fair!” (and I bet they have many times) have a quick think back and try to remember what it was about. I can pretty well guarantee that it was in response to a decision that you had to make ‘on the run’. They had just misbehaved or done something wrong and it was related to something that you weren’t prepared for, i.e., rules and consequences hadn’t already been established around that particular behaviour. If you hand out a consequence or punishment for something that has never been discussed before, of course they’re going to say it’s not fair – particularly if that punishment is viewed as severe in their eyes – they haven’t been told about that rule or that punishment. As I said, it’s most probably not fair! Now I’m sure some of you are saying that it’s not possible for you to be prepared for everything a teen could possibly do wrong and have rules and consequences for each and every potential scenario and, of course, you’re right. But you can have some general rules established around your family values and expectations (i.e., in the basic areas of honesty, trust and respect at the very least), making them aware that if they let you down in any of these area there certainly will be consequences.

The other area where young people are often completely justified in their “That’s not fair!” response is when the rules haven’t been adjusted as they have gotten older. One of the most important things for parents to remember about rules (if you want them to be effective) is that they must be age-appropriate and they must change over time. The rules a parent establishes around parties for their 15 year-old must change – try to keep the same ones all the way through until 18 and you are going to have lots of trouble! I’m not saying you let them do what they want when they turn 16, but I would suggest sitting down with your teen regularly (at least once every six months) and having a discussion about their behaviour in this area. If they’ve been doing the right thing, reward them and adapt the rules accordingly – do that and it’s going to make everyone’s life just a little easier.

As regular readers would know I’ve been conducting a survey at some of the schools I visit across the country, asking Year 10s and 11s to answer a brief questionnaire which covers a number of issues, one of them being around breaking rules and what students believe are appropriate punishments. I’ll be putting together a couple of blog entries in the next couple of weeks highlighting some of the findings of the survey but in the meantime I thought I’d include a few of the answers students provided when they were asked the following question – “If you broke a rule your parent had set around parties and alcohol, what do you think an appropriate punishment would be?”

  • “Grounding with no electronics beside computer use for homework” (Year 10, female)
  • “Take things off me, phone, PlayStation, also grounded and not allowed to play sport or go out but especially not go out with friends anywhere” (Year 11, male)
  • “Taking away my privileges so I could appreciate them more and respect the terms and conditions of those privileges” (Year 11, female)
  • “Not being allowed to go to similar events for a few months, depending on the severity of the breaking of the rule” (Year 11, male)
  • “Grounded for at least 2 weeks. No phone, no money” (Year 10, female)
  • “Tighter requirements before going out so that parents can ensure the party is safe” (Year 10, male)
  • “Not allow me to go to parties, or the parties with certain friends that influenced me” (Year 11, female)

In the last few schools I’ve conducted this survey I added an extra question straight after this one. It’s all well and good asking what an “appropriate” punishment would be, but did they think that what they suggested was actually “fair”? Although this is included as a ‘Yes’/’No’ question, many of the students who have answered it have added a sentence or two usually stating that the punishment very much depended on the ‘crime’. What was this rule that they had broken? One Year 11 girl also added “It so depends on whether I knew about the rule and fully understood it.” Once again, that innate sense of fairness – if they are given rules and boundaries and it’s made quite clear what will happen if they break those rules, they’re not going to necessarily like what happens next but they’re certainly less likely to turn around and say that it’s not fair!

Published: July 2016

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