Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a single dad and am having trouble disciplining my kids. When I was married, my wife and I could put up a united front. But on my own, it’s hard enough to keep up with everything going on in my kids’ (and my) life, and I just don’t have the energy to get into big battles with them. I know that something needs to change, but I don’t know what it is or how to do it. Can you help?

Every parent—married or single—has occasional (or frequent) struggles with basic discipline—things like setting and enforcing limits, getting the kids to speak respectfully, and making sure they do their homework. But experience and observation have convinced me that on average, single parents have an even tougher time—in part because we’re trying to do alone what’s already a major challenge for two people.

Single parents’ discipline struggles are driven by three factors. First, many single parents feel guilty about putting their kids through a divorce or breakup. Second, non-custodial parents want to make every precious minute they have with their kids as enjoyable as possible. Third, we’re just exhausted, and doing anything more than putting food on the table and clothes in the closet may seem too overwhelming to even think about. In all three cases, the result is the same: rules get broken, boundaries overstepped, and discipline becomes inadequate or inconsistent. Here’s how you can turn things around:

  • Choose your battles. Some issues—such as anything involving health and safety—should be non-negotiable. Many others aren’t worth arguing about. Does anyone really care whether your child wants to wear a green sock and a polka-dotted one instead of a matched pair?
  • Establish reasonable limits. Your kids will never admit it, but the truth is that they need to know who’s boss and they need that person to be you. However, having unreasonable or impossible-to-comply-with expectations can make discipline problems worse.
  • Link consequences to behavior. “I’m taking away your phone because you ignore my texts,” or “Since you didn’t get home by your curfew last time, you can’t go out with your friends tonight.”
  • Consistently enforce those limits. Inconsistent enforcement is basically the same as no enforcement at all. So you need to stand firm. Unless the limits you set are completely insane, your children won’t stop loving you for enforcing them.
  • Understand your child. Jane Nelsen, co-author of “Positive Discipline for Single Parents,” suggest that children misbehave for one or more of the following reasons:
    • They want attention
    • They want to be in control
    • They want to get back at you for something you did
    • They’re frustrated and they just want to give up and be left alone

    Trying to punish a child without understanding the reason for the bad behavior is, as I like to put it, like taking cough syrup for emphysema: what’s annoying you stops for a bit, but the root cause remains—and gradually gets worse over time. Try the direct approach first: If you ask, there’s a good chance your child will answer. If he doesn’t (or is too young to articulate the issue), make an educated guess (“Are you not doing your homework because you want me to spend more time with you?”).

  • Encourage independence. The goal of any kind of discipline is to get kids to be able to make good choices when they’re on their own. Without a basic framework of rules and consequences, your kids will never learn to be responsible or to take responsibility for what they do.

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