If you’re like most American adults, you are concerned that some of the youth in your family are going to mess up their lives by bad habits and choices on some moral issue.

The ones I hear about the most are sex, money, family, religion, and drug or alcohol abuse. All too often, efforts to talk with younger people about such matters end in greater frustration for both parties, and a wider-than-ever gap between the generations on where they stand.

To prevent such frustrations, here are ten options for you in choosing how to talk about a moral issue with a younger person. The point is, if one method isn’t working, try another. You can use:

1. Punishment or Reward (pain or pleasure). You can emphasize positive or negative consequences of a young person’s choices.

2. Promotional or Emotional Consequences. Bribes (food, money, favors) and extortions (threats of spanking and other punishments) are special promotions that work with younger people. Later on, you can focus on emotional consequences to self and others: "Dad will be proud of you", and "You’ll be glad you did it."

3. Considering self or Others. To young children, only oneself much, but as they grow up, they become more interested in other people. You can’t teach them to care about others until they are ready, so if they’re selfish, make it worth their while to behave.

4. Protecting the child or also the Child’s relationships. Young children don’t care much about getting along with others, but later they begin to care how their moral choices affect those relationships. Your discipline can be designed to restore broken trust with their friends and family.

5. Discipline or Self-discipline. Children understand that adults reward and punish, but as they mature, it’s more affective to ask first, "To teach you not to do that again, what do you think would be the right punishment?"

6. Prophecy or Parable. To teach what consequences would come from continuing to make immoral choices, you can just tell them what will happen ("No one will want to be your friend."), or you can tell them a story to make the nitty-gritty details of the consequences sink in.

7. Lecture or Modeling. The two most popular parental discipline methods are just saying "No." and "Because I said so." When they stop working, parents go to lecturing, and tragically over the years, the less they are listened to, the longer these lectures become. Modeling good behavior is both the most effective approach, and the most difficult, but it helps with all ages.

Now I’m not going to tell you where to draw all the lines about what you should allow, for that is a very personal matter. But I will give you three key principles for predicting which methods will work best.

1. Speak to their maturity level. In the choices listed above, the more basic way to approach issues with immature youth is given first. When one method isn’t working, try one for a different maturity level.

2. Speak to the concerns of their heart. This will require you to listen to them first, to understand what they care about the most. This way you won’t sound preachy, but just giving them new and better ways to get what they want.

3. They should get the credit or blame for their good or bad choices, not you. Your job is to choose the right lessons to teach, the right ways to teach them, and to make sure you practice what you preach. When, how and whether they learn is always up to them.

In my next column I will give you three more ways to talk with your loved ones about moral issues. These three are my favorites, and they deserve to be discussed in some detail, because unless you were lucky enough to have parents who used these with you, you probably wouldn’t think to use them with your own children.

Sixteen-year-olds look completely different from the way they looked at twelve. Even more striking is the difference in their personalities. Parental influence has declined by roughly half, due to more influences from peers, media, hormones, boyfriend/girlfriend, and the huge internal need to feel grown-up by acting different from you.

Yet parents do not adjust their expectations so much. They still expect similar compliance with similar rules compared to what worked at age 12. And these parents who expect obedience are very frustrated with their 16-year-olds, which only adds to the teens’ motivation to rebel.

So with rebellious teens, there’s a power struggle—both of you want to lead. So let them win these battles, and you win the war. You win the war by choosing the lessons to teach (honesty, courtesy, health, safety, responsibility, respect for authority, impulse control, emotional health, studying in school, etc.).

They win the battles by choosing how they learn. You choose the intended destination, and they choose which road they take to get there. Be sure your language reflects that you are following their lead, giving them exactly what their behavior has asked for.

They can learn the easy way or the hard way, now or later, from reward or punishment, from their successes or their failures, from others’ experiences or just from their own, they choose. They know how they can learn best—honestly, they do.

Try this: "If you’re ready to (go out with [person], go to [event], stay out until [time], talk on the phone with [person],etc.), you’ll show me ahead of time by the way you (communicate with me, make your curfews this week, let me get to know [person], check in with me by phone this week, etc.).

When a privilege isn’t earned, and you need to say no, don’t say, "I told you" or "I warned you", but merely "If it meant that much to you, you would have showed me you were ready." And here’s the key—believe it.

Otherwise they’ll see the worry and guilt on your face, and keep turning up the protest volume until you crack. As they wail, you calmly say, "I know you’re mad at yourself. I would be too. That’s what you learn from. Your actions this week speak louder than your words right now."

In this approach, last minute requests are a problem. In general they should be handled on how the teen’s recent behavior has showed his or her trustworthiness on the issues involved, noton the intensity of their demands, or if they could have foreseen it, on the urgency of the situation.

When they’re angry and you’re calm, the stress is where it belongs, motivating your child’s behavior change. Your job is not to calm them down, or to be liked, just to earn their respect and your own, and to give them the motivation they have chosen to pursue the goal you have chosen.

Almost every child from time to time acts negative. They act like they want to ruin things for everybody—peers, adults and even themselves. At times like this, if you're the care-taking adult (parent, teacher, grandparent, babysitter, child care or day-care worker), you're going to have a hard time knowing why or how to be positive. But you need to know.

And some children seem to be negative most all the time. It seems the only way they know to ask for attention is to act up and evoke criticism or punishment. These are the children who need your positive response the most, if you know how to give it.

Since these children misbehave so often and behave well so seldom, the cycle of ignoreà criticizeà punishà ignore apparently isn't working with them, as it's producing very little positive behavior.

Why are these children so negative? Perhaps they assume that they can't behave, or that if they do, it won't be noticed or appreciated. They may feel weird and unreal if they are praised, so they need time to get used to it. They chose negative attention over none at all. Or perhaps they think misbehavior is a safer path than getting their hopes up in vain for achieving success or popularity.

Now when children misbehave, I'm certainly not against negative consequences. I'm just saying that criticism and punishment are a lot more effective when children realize that they could do better, and that you hope they will do better next time.

I really believe all children need to be appreciated when they are doing positive things, and I believe all children give moments worth celebrating if you watch for them. So I encourage you to affirm and celebrate children, especially "negative" ones, when they show their:

1. Arrival and departure—when they show up and walk into the room, or you walk into theirs, and when it's time to say goodbye, these are good times for a positive word. Use your smile like two bookends for the day.

2. Beauty, brains, charm or humor—notice positively her hair or the colors she's wearing, how handsome he is when he smiles, how quickly they learn something, or how cute or charming they are when they're not misbehaving.

3. Feelings—remember these aren't good or bad. It's how we choose to show emotions that makes our behavior a good or bad choice. When their ways of expressing their feelings are inappropriate (wouldn't work well in real-world relationships), show them better ways to express their feelings, such as putting them into words instead of body language, frowns and voice tones.

4. Social skills or leadership—when they are connecting well with the wrong people, or connecting with better people but in the wrong way, it's good to ask sometimes if they are ready to try something new, make a new friend, join a new group, take a risk, or help out someone less fortunate than they are.

5. Determination—when they refuse to change their behavior despite ramped-up consequences, you can use reverse psychology by acknowledging their strong-willed choice to learn the hard way by suffering and frustration over a longer period as showing toughness, instead of learning the easier way now for popularity and privileges.

6. Independence—when they play alone, or alienate others, you can say that you see they're choosing to go it alone no matter how lonely it gets. You doubt they're as big a misfit as they think, but they may not be ready to find out yet.

In general, it helps to ask how they like to hear you say their name, giving them a choice of different pronunciations and inflections. Use their name the way they like to hear it when they're going good, or no harm, saving the other ways for times of criticism and punishment.

And every child needs a little physical acknowledgment, a brief gentle touch on the shoulder or back when you pass by and they're not acting up, best done so that other children won't notice it.

I started this by saying that virtually all children need some positive acknowledgment. The thing is, we care-taking adults need it too. So that's the last reason to be positive whenever you can afford to be, even with negative children, because we reap what we sow.

Last fall we mourned the passing of my mother, Betsy Hanna Schmidt (she’d insist, “Mrs. Craig Schmidt”).  On what would have been her 85th birthday this month, 20 family and friends gathered to celebrate her life.  I was amazed at how her life seemed to have impacted her grandchildren as much as us children.  I see now that spending time with grandparents brings certain very special gifts if we look for them.

1.  A new gear.   If you don’t get this one, you won’t get any of the others.  They talk and live at a slower pace.  Get with it—it’s good for the body and soul.

2.  An open ear.  If nobody else wants to hear the full story of how much you’ve suffered or accomplished or been blessed, they will.  And better still, they’ll believe it.  If they don’t think to ask about it, tell them to sit back and listen up.

3.  Stories.  They tell stories, thankfully without any point.  Stories entertain, teach, and digest better than the lectures others give, full of principles and advice.  Theirs is too, but you don’t notice.

4.  Solutions.  If you don’t want advice about your problems, just ask, but if you do, just state your problem and listen.  More often than with others, solutions will be given with no strings attached:  they’ll love and respect you all the same if you don’t follow their advice.

5.  Authority.  Theirs is over your parents’, always was.  It doesn’t over-rule.  It’s wise enough to overlook and oversee.  It’s based on vast experience.  It’s like covering yourself on a cold day with a warm blanket.  Don’t miss it.

6.  Affirmations.  Other people, especially peers and parents, tend to focus on what you don’t do well.  They focus on your strengths and talents, often seeing what others cannot, and that really feels good.

7.  Identity.  These affirmations can give you a new view of yourself.  They may give you nicknames you love.  Compared to being your parents’ child, or even sometimes your lover’s lover, being their grandchild is a whole lot closer to being your own person.

8.  Importance.  Maybe nothing you’re doing right now is working out very well, or you feel nobody needs you.  Well they do, and cheering them up with a call, a card, or best of all a visit, is a home run very time.  You are always important to them.

9.  Laughter.  When everyone else in your life including yourself takes you and life too seriously, try your grandparent.  Old people can laugh at themselves and life better than anyone else on earth, and it’s contagious.

10.  Role Models.  After you’ve listened to their life story enough to where you can tell it yourself, and you do, you will see they may be your best role models, especially for laughing, loving, living simply, aging, dying, relating to God, and for handling pain, loneliness, and adversity.

So remember how to visit your grandparents (or your children’s!):  look for the good stuff, and that’s just what you’ll get.


Until five years ago, I never thought I’d ever create a stepfamily, but now I have. Turns out, I’m just going with the national flow. Even the staunchest defender of the traditional nuclear family, Focus on the Family, states that within two years, there will be more blended families in the US than any other form of family.

I have learned some things from reading and from doing (both right and wrong). Here are some things that help in step-parenting:


Take an interest in your stepchildren’s lives (friends, music, sports).

Be there for them - steady and supportive.

Make yourself available from a slight distance - not pushing yourself on them.

Be understanding and non-judgmental toward them.

Be patient - allowing them time to sort problems out.


Don’t try to replace or compare yourself in any way to their other parent.

Don’t shower them with too much praise or affection at first.

Don’t demand a lot of attention.

Don’t do anything that makes you need or expect appreciation or response.

When you are talked to in a mildly disrespectful way, ignore it and just discontinue the conversation.

Whenever a stepchild addresses you in a very disrespectful way by attacking your character, say calmly that you love them, but you also love yourself and you will not participate in conversations like this. Withdraw immediately, remaining quiet and peaceful, and let your spouse know about it when you get together.

A good parent and spouse will broker the relationship, getting both of you present and asking both what was said, and where the stories of what happened are different, calling no one a liar. Your spouse needs to invite and encourage both the child and you the stepparent to rephrase statements so both can show respect for each other.


In relating to stepchildren, it is helpful to avoid some common assumptions that turn out to be MYTHS:

The more love (attention, approval, affirmation, acceptance, affection, assistance, allowances) I give them, the more they will give to me. 

Depends on the child—some absolutely yes, some absolutely not, and some absolutely unpredictable. Don’t take it personally, or it will be worse. That’s just how they are. Like an elementary school teacher starting up a class in August or September, it’s better to start out more reserved and matter-of-fact. Let them see that your greater warmth will come out in response to theirs, and to the respect they show you with their loyalty and obedience.

Now that we are married, stepchildren won’t mind seeing affection between us. 

The marital affection you receive in front of them needs to be reserved, and the affection you give needs to be VERY limited. It takes a long time, if ever, before they will be comfortable seeing or hearing about the affection you naturally show each other.

Eventually they will get over their jealousy of me. 

It will take more time (years) and effort (from both of you) for them to let you into their hearts, especially if (a) the divorce wasn’t fairly and adequately explained to them, (b) your remarriage was fairly quick, (c) you are suspected of dating each other or being friends before or during the divorce process, (d) the other parent isn’t yet remarried and happily so, and (e) your spouse isn’t very loyal or assertive in power struggles between you and others for their support.

It will be easier for the older children to accept me because they will be able to understand.

Actually teenagers are often the hardest to reach and to know. Probing questions may be taken personally, and so they would come best when you and your spouse are both present, and agree for one of you to say, "We were wondering. . ."

In our own blended family, I have approached building relationships with my stepchildren as a life-long adventure. Without extending myself any less than before to my own children, I offer as much of myself personally to my new (step) children, though they don’t usually need or take as much. Treating them as a wonderful add-on feature of my life, just as important as my own children, when on occasion I find them treating each other the same way, I am pleased and amazed.

All parents from time to time find themselves locked into an ongoing power struggle with a child. The parent’s natural instinct response to a child’s misbehavior is met with more and more of that behavior. My suggestions here will require parents to go against their instincts.

Many of the ideas below can be found in two excellent programs for parents. One is Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP), at www.lifematters.com. The other is Parent Effectiveness Training, begun nearly 40 years ago by then Western Kentucky University professor and later Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thomas Gordon (see www.gordontraining.com).

1. Figure out what the child is trying to do. It may take asking, or else trial-and-error learning to determine which games the child might be playing. They play games like Do my work, Show me you care, Take my tension, Pay attention to me, Feel my pain, and You can’t make me.

2. Figure out what you can’t stand, and learn to stand it. Perhaps you can’t tolerate the feeling that you’re not in control, that you’re a failure as a parent, that your child doesn’t love or like you, that you’re acting like your own parent did, or that there’s screaming or danger of violence in the house. Whatever you can’t stand, the child knows it, and will give you that feeling to get you to cave into the child’s demands in return for the child’s stopping the behavior you can’t stand.

3. Redefine your terms. Take the focus off what you can’t change (the child) and onto what you can (yourself). Refocus on being in control of yourself, not failing to change your ways, loving yourself, etc.

4. Learn to time yourself out, and soothe yourself. Take deep breaths, pray, call a friend. If appropriate, wait for the child to re-engage you. Be sure you’ve calmed yourself down before responding.

5. Avoid rewarding children for passivity, dishonesty, disrespect, or dangerous behavior. Don’t cave to their demands when they’re misbehaving.

6. Give them natural consequences for misbehavior. If their selfish demands would provoke rejection outside the home, give it them. "People won’t trust (like, include, admire, cooperate with, want to be around) you when you act that way with them, and neither do I." Parents must teach and act out how misbehavior will be responded to in the real world of school, job, love, marriage, friendships, or college roommates. So the consequences are things like loss of privilege, loss of help, end of dialog, time out, or withdrawal of attention.

7. Offer to let children win their game if they let you win yours too. Give them attention help, sympathy and trust if they give you respect, honesty, self-control and cooperation. If they refuse, just tell them you guess they don’t want what they were demanding as bad as they said they did. Tell them their actions speak louder than their words. Tell them you’ll follow their lead. You’ll cooperate when they cooperate.

8. Realize the wisdom in these proverbs I’ve heard: "You can’t change anyone but yourself." "You aren’t giving up control, just the illusion of control." "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." "Children respond better to encouragement than criticism." "You choose the lessons you teach, and let the child choose how and when to learn them."

Just remember, in a power struggle, parents who get upset enough to cave in are not saying to the child, "You win" or "I love you", but "You don’t have to change, I will. This isn’t your problem, it’s mine."

If you’ve ever wondered why so many people spoil their children, it’s simple. They get two big pay-offs. First, the obvious: it’s easier just to get through the moment by indulging children’s demands, rather than stopping to teach them a lesson. And the more subtle reason is that by living for and through the child, they can avoid all their own feelings, issues and responsibilities. It’s like a drug—a pain-killing escape from reality.

The reasons not to spoil a child are that you do get to live your own life. They won’t wear you out, embarrass you, or empty your wallet. And when they get older, they won’t be as quick to turn their backs on you like they have no idea who you are.

It is very satisfying to raise children who have the basic self-confidence to believe that their needs will be met, not necessarily on demand, but always on time, not necessarily by others, but because they’re also learning how to get things done themselves.

Raising unspoiled children requires that you don’t meet their wants or especially their demands when these differ from what you know deep inside that they need. Making them wait fairly often for what they want teaches them patience, and allows them to use their imagination and self-care skills to see how they can more independently meet their own needs.

As they see you sometimes taking care of your own needs ahead of their demands, you are modeling for them how effective caretakers must take care of themselves too.

So how can you tell yourself and your children the difference between what they need and what they demand? They often want or even whine for things they don’t really need, because they don’t know what they need. They need you to teach them what they need, such as:


They need to know their needs will be met eventually if they wait and ask politely.
The demand of the spoiled: I will get others to meet my needs.


They need to know that they are loved, that they can give love and receive love.
The demand of the spoiled: I will charm others into showing love to me.


They need to know they can comfort or entertain themselves when they are lonely, sad or bored.
The demand of the spoiled: I can always find ways to avoid being left alone.


They need to learn to enjoy hard work, finishing a task, and doing it well.
The demand of the spoiled: I am charming and clever enough to get others to do my work for me.


They need to express anger at selfish mistakes, forgiving themselves and others for such mistakes without holding a grudge.
The demand of the spoiled: If you don’t do things my way, my temper will make you wish you had.


They need to trust themselves not to freeze when they’re afraid, but to act smart.
The demand of the spoiled: I will dramatize my fear until you have done whatever it takes to relieve me of it.


They need to give a brief smile or hello with eye contact when they first see a friend or family member.
The demand of the spoiled: I am special, so I don’t look at or speak to people until they have broken the ice first.


They need to trust that they will be praised and rewarded eventually for doing good, criticized and punished eventually for doing bad.
The demand of the spoiled: I am praised because I am specially gifted. I will make anyone feel guilty for criticizing or punishing me.


They need to avoid lying, realizing they don’t always need to tell the entire truth.
The demand of the spoiled: I give whatever version of the truth it pays me to give, but I’ll never admit that.


They need to apologize and discipline themselves when they’ve messed up.
The demand of the spoiled: If I’m in trouble, I will never apologize. My family and friends will bail me out, because if I ain’t happy, ain’t nobody going to be happy.


They need to know they can make friends easily, because they enjoy being a good, loyal friend.
The demand of the spoiled: I’ll treat you like a friend when I feel like it, depending upon what you’ve done for me lately.


They need to know that they are being prepared to leave home someday and live their own lives.
The demand of the spoiled: I will leave home (and come back) whenever I feel like it, for a bigger stage and a better audience.

When you’re tempted to indulge your children, just remember, you’re not giving in to them, you’re selling them out, down the river to a sick society. You’re spoiling their lives, and not just theirs, but yours, and everybody else’s they’ll spoil. So Buck Up, Campers. Let’s put our grown-up pants on.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt