How to Keep Your Child Out of Jail

How to Keep Your Child Out of Jail

A brief disclaimer: The use of the pronoun “he” is not intended to offend anyone. I’m just old-school. Future blogs will use non-gender and female pronouns.

It’s 3 am and you’re awake and worried. Your child crossed a line today, you didn’t handle it well, and now you are convinced he’s headed for career-criminal status. You picture yourself talking to him through a shatterproof glass window. Orange jumpsuits. Handcuffs. Mug shots.

I know the feeling. I know because, well, my child DID go to prison–at the age of 17. The sleepless nights we spent after the fact were all about coming to terms with how this happened, although we should have seen it coming before we did.

I’ve written this blog to give you a quick distillation of the best practical advice I’ve learned from my experience, from “experts”, and from actual prisoners. Print this guide, laminate it, tattoo it on your arm, carve it in stone or write it in chalk on one of those cute slates from Michael’s. Trust me. You’ll need it.

One last message before the list. This advice comes with no guarantee. Anyone’s child can take a sudden left turn into trouble, despite our best efforts. This list is only meant to show you how to minimize your risks. No matter the age, from 18 months to 18 years, these rules can–and should–be applied.

Default Mom’s Rules for Parents

  • Stick to your guns. Your child relies on the boundaries you set, even if he pushes against them. The same behavior should always get the same response.
  • Speaking of guns, keep them locked up. Don’t think your child doesn’t know where they are.
  • Say “no”–and MEAN IT!!
  • Remain calm when your child acts up. If you have a “what if” plan in advance, it will keep you from temporary insanity.
  • Most lessons in life are caught, not taught. Let your child learn ethical behavior from your example: make no excuses, own up to your responsibilities, and don’t shift blame to others.
  • As Dr. Phil says, “Never reward bad behavior.” Sorry, bribing is only a temporary fix. If you get your knickers in a twist over a small misbehavior, that is also, in effect, rewarding bad behavior.
  • If you smoke or vape, quit. See the “caught, not taught” example above.
  • If you’re not sober enough to drive a car, you’re not sober enough to take care of your child.
  • Be consistent. Both parents (even if they don’t live in the same house) should always present a united front to their children. The same response should come from both of you. Argue about it later–not in front of your child.
  • Teaching your child appropriate behavior requires patience. Accidents and carelessness are very different from deliberate destruction. Respond appropriately. In other words, don’t yell over spilled milk, especially if you haven’t taught them how to carry a glass.
  • Find a church, mosque, temple or synagogue where your family feels comfortable and go there regularly. Let your children see how you live out your faith, and how it applies to everyday life.
  • If you are a single parent: NO overnight “dates” when children are present. Also, don’t ask your significant other to babysit your underage children alone.
  • Command (don’t DEMAND) respect, and be worthy of it. Show respect for authority, including law enforcement, teachers, the elderly, those who serve you (waiters, retail clerks, etc.), and above all, your spouse and children. Teach your children to treat others with dignity and respect.
  • Know where your child is at all times, and don’t be afraid to verify what he tells you.
  • Teachers don’t give out bad grades to be vindictive. They don’t have time to single out your child in that way, and they would welcome your partnership in helping your child succeed.
  • Defensiveness gets in your way. One the most difficult tasks any teacher or caregiver has is to report misbehavior to a child’s parents. Stay calm and ask questions to get all the facts.
  • No one over 4 should be having a temper tantrum. Period. That includes YOU. Giving in to tantrums or responding to them with anger will only reinforce the behavior. As annoying as a tantrum is in a two-year-old, it is just plain ugly in a teenager.
  • Asking your child why he has misbehaved is unhelpful. Your child has no idea why he does what he does. Work on solutions instead.
  • Allow your child to “face the music” when he’s done something irresponsible. Give him the courage to admit mistakes.
  • NEVER do your child’s homework for him, but ALWAYS be available to help when he’s doing it. The only way your child’s teacher can assess a student’s progress is to see his work–not yours.
  • Include your child in household chores, for which he should not expect payment. Start young. Click on this link for a printable list of age-appropriate chores:
  • If your child wants to earn extra money, have a list of “extra” chores he can do to earn money. A word to the wise: Don’t pay in advance, or by the hour!
  • If your child forgets his homework/lunch/sports uniform, bring it to him the first time with a warning. After that, he will need to take responsibility for his own belongings. If this is a chronic issue, work with him to figure out a strategy for organization. You are teaching him how to be an adult.
  • The first fifteen minutes you spend with your child when he gets home from anywhere should be a time for re-connecting. Like all of us, your child needs some de-compression time at the end of his day.
  • When your child is hurting or struggling with something, help him help himself. As parents, we instinctively want to rush in and “make it all better.” Instead, gently help him try to figure out solutions to his problems. Give him the tools to cope with the ups and downs of life.
  • When your child breaks a major rule, don’t blow up at him the moment you see him. Let him “stew in his own juice” for awhile, and give yourself time to calm down and consider his consequences. Tell him you will discuss them with him when YOU are calm and ready.
  • Always be ready to drive carpool to school, to practice, to youth group. This is your opportunity to be a passive observer of your child’s social interactions, and to see him in relation to his peers.

The Bottom Line

Our children are bombarded with conflicting influences the moment they look at a screen or step out the front door. You can only control so much of that influence, so make the most of every interaction. Most of all, be sure your children know they are loved.

God bless!