One of the things I love about homeschooling is the opportunity to teach my kids things they wouldn’t learn in a traditional school. For example, I’ve done a podcast episode on how to teach kids to respond to others who are hurting or grieving. Today, I’m going to address how to help kids deal with difficult people.
I not only have professional experience in this area as a psychologist but also loads of personal experience. I haven’t enjoyed it at all, but I’m thankful that I can empathize with and counsel those who struggle to deal righteously with difficult people.
My talk on this topic at retreats has gotten excellent reviews. I do want to write a book on the subject when the Lord gives me a green light to do so. I have a different perspective on this topic than many Christian teachers do that comes from Scripture. In fact, I believe the traditional teaching on dealing with difficult people has caused considerable, unnecessary suffering.
Of course, I can’t tell you what to do in a particular relationship because I don’t know you or the situation. Even if I did, the fact is that people are unpredictable. And we simply don’t know what God has planned for your child and their difficult person. But I can share some biblical principles that I believe will serve your children well.
How do you define difficult person?
Before I share the principles, let’s discuss what it means to be a difficult person. We have all been difficult people by this definition. A difficult person is someone who repeatedly gets in the way of you achieving your goals. Let’s say your teen works at a restaurant and would like to move into a better-paying position. A difficult employee or even a frequent customer can get in the way of that goal by complaining about your teen or trying to one-up your teen.
A difficult person may be well-intentioned. She may not have any idea she is driving you crazy. In fact, this person may end up being a blessing at a later time. But a difficult person may also suffer from a mental illness or spiritual state that causes troubling behavior. In some cases, a difficult person poses a serious threat to others. God can also change this type of difficult person, but the way we approach them is different.
Principle #1 Get away from an abusive person if possible
That leads me to principle #1 for dealing with difficult people. If you can get away from an abusive person, do so. This notion runs counter to popular Christian advice. We are often told that we are to restore the relationship with such people if we are forgiving Christians. Yes, we are to turn the other cheek, but we don’t have to get close enough to let them have another slapfest at our expense.
In 1 Samuel, we read about David running from murderous, jealous Saul. In a scene where David doesn’t return evil for evil by sparing Saul’s life, Saul apologizes. David doesn’t hug him and return with him to “restore the relationship.” He travels far from him for his own safety. Yet David never stops caring about Saul and hoping he will obey the Lord. Jesus too avoids people who mean to do Him harm before His time. Like David, He never stopped loving those who persecuted him.
If you know someone is a threat to your mental or physical health, trust your gut. In David’s case, his friend Jonathan (Saul’s son) did not believe that his father would try to kill David. Only when his father tried to kill him too did he believe.
We all want to believe the best about people. So if you are dealing with someone who is abusive and dangerous, others may poo-poo your concerns. They may tell you that you need to forgive the person by restoring the relationship or meeting with them to talk things out. You don’t have to do that. In fact, in many cases, you are extending a kindness to someone by avoiding them. Saul was insanely jealous of David. Having David around made it worse. His absence allowed Saul to focus on the battles he was supposed to be fighting.
We want our kids to know that if they’re ever afraid of a difficult person and don’t know what to do, they should seek counsel. They should never agree to meet with an angry, controlling person alone. A college student from my neighborhood agreed to meet with her difficult ex-boyfriend by herself. He murdered her. We want our kids to understand that violence is unpredictable, but a history of verbal or physical abuse is a warning sign. They must pray for wisdom and protection.
Proverbs 22:24 says, “Do not associate with a man given to anger or go with a hot-tempered man.”
Principle #2: Don’t believe who a difficult person says you are
A healthy individual will talk to you about something you said or did that was a problem. You’ll be allowed to respond, explain, apologize, and commit to changing in the future if the situation requires it. A healthy person will forgive and/or apologize for their part in the problem. The incident, if it is not serious, will be forgotten.
But individuals who are psychopathic or narcissistic like to use your behavior to define your image and worth. You are what you do, and the worst possible assumption is made about why you behave the way you do. Your child may be labeled by this type of difficult person and told that many others agree with the label.
Saul labeled David a traitor who needed to be killed. This label was given, despite the fact that David had been loyal and obedient to a tee.
Obviously this type of behavior from a difficult person goes hand in hand with abuse. But sometimes we don’t recognize it as abusive. This is because what a difficult person says taps into an insecurity we have.
Some difficult people may engage in what’s called gaslighting. Gaslighting may cause your child to question her identity and her understanding of reality. A gaslighting friend of your teen’s may consistently say that your child isn’t friendly and that other people think she’s stuck-up, for example. Because your child does battle shyness at times, it’s easy to accept the difficult person’s assessment.
What’s interesting is that these difficult people intentionally target the most conscientious people with their gaslighting. They know you will question yourself because you don’t want to treat others poorly. They know they can cripple you with guilt, unlike more confident people who would tell the difficult person to get lost.
The way out of the mess for our kids is for them to recognize that only God gets to tell them who they are. While in the flesh they are a sinner guilty of much worse than what they’re being accused of, in Christ they are righteous. Have them read and reflect on Scriptures that remind them that they are chosen, redeemed, and holy in the Lord’s eyes.
Then have them take the advice of pastor Michael Wells. Have them tell the difficult person that if they are as bad as he says, he would do well to stay far from them.
1 Corinthians 6:11 says, “Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.“
Principle #3: Expect God to use the difficult person in your life for good
God had blessed David with many gifts. He was attractive, a superior warrior, a great writer, and even a skilled musician. Saul’s persecution humbled David and forced him to depend on God.
When our kids have to deal with difficult people, they will also grow in humility and faith. They will learn to choose supportive relationships and to establish healthy boundaries.
Rather than considering how we might retaliate or defend ourselves, we must ask how God is at work through our difficult person. When King David was on the run from his traitorous son, a man mocked him. David stopped his servant from harming the man, saying that God Himself may have been using the man’s words for good. When our children believe that God uses even difficult people for our good, they are truly free. They do not have to live in fear. Instead, they can ask God what lesson He is teaching them.
In some cases, God may call us to return kindness for evil to heap burning coals on our difficult person’s head. This is what David did for Saul in sparing his life.
Whether the Lord’s directive is for us to love or to leave a difficult person or both, we are always called to pray for difficult people. King Saul did not repent before he died. But there was another Saul in the Bible. The believers ran from him and rightly so be cause he sought to imprison them. He also approved of their execution.
But God changed that difficult person into the greatest evangelist the world has known. Saul, later known as Paul, authored most of the New Testament and established the Christian church throughout the Roman world.
The miraculous change in Paul’s life is not work that God has ceased doing. He is still in the business of transforming people through the Holy Spirit and faith in Jesus Christ.
Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
If our children know three basic principles for dealing with difficult people, they will do well. First, they should avoid abusive people, if possible, and never meet alone with them. Second, they should build their identity on who God says they are in Christ, not on what difficult people say. And finally, they should know that God is using the difficult person in their lives for good. They must pray for difficult people as God directs.
I used to think my husband and kids were trying to drive me crazy. That’s before I understood personalities. You would think as a psychologist that I would know better, but I didn’t. Understanding basic concepts of personality can transform your homeschool and your other relationships, too.
There are a number of typologies that are popular now. You’ve likely heard of the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, or the DiSC. We can learn a lot about ourselves and the people we love with any of these typologies, but I don’t use them for simplicity’s sake. I can never remember what the acronyms and the numbers mean. If you’re a fan of the first two typologies, I can tell you that I’m an ENFP and a 7. I haven’t taken the DiSC.
Instead, I use an ancient typology made popular by Florence Littauer. The Eysenck Personality Inventory measures these types. You may have heard them described as animals by author Gary Smalley. There are four personality types that are easy to remember. There is the Sanguine (or the otter), the Choleric (or the lion), the Melancholy (or the beaver), and the Phlegmatic (or the golden retriever).
Simply knowing how social a personality is and its associated traits will not change your life. What changed mine is understanding what each personality wants most. So let’s start there.
The Sanguine personality or the otter (my primary type) wants to have fun. If life isn’t fun, the Sanguine will quit. The brand new curriculum was fun at first, but now it’s boring. She doesn’t want to do it and will likely “forget” to do it.
Fun is also social. Being sent to her room to clean isn’t fun. Cleaning with someone and being able to show off all the accummulated treasures is. Fun means talking. Sitting quietly to work is tolerable only for short periods. The Sanguine wants to discuss, dramatize, and experience the learning. You may want the Sanguine to be content to stay home and do their schoolwork, but this socialite will never be happy with that. Relationships recharge them, and they’re unlikely to be content without friends.
Fun is redecorating your room, not maintaining organization by hanging clothes up every day. Fun is setting up a new planner, not checking off your work day after day after day. You can try to shame a Sanguine into being serious, but it won’t work for long. In fact, Sanguines will avoid anyone who criticizes them, spending the majority of their time with those who sing their praises and make them laugh. Sanguines may change their ways to become more organized and disciplined, but it will likely be because they are earning people’s approval by doing so.
Because fun is what a Sanguine wants, you will have to work to deliver it. Introduce humor into the lessons. Change things up regularly, avoid traditional textbooks, and sign your student up for activities. Help your child clean, praise your child for progress, and avoid criticism.
The Choleric personality or the lion (my secondary type) wants control. If life isn’t under his control, he will be angry and rebel. Sometimes control means a desire to control others, but it always means a desire for self-control.
Control means achievement, but only in ways it matters most. The Choleric has control when he gets good grades but doesn’t waste time doing things that he thinks are unnecessary. Control means deciding when to do school and chores. It doesn’t mean following a schedule to the minute, especially when he gets older. Control also means deciding when to go to sleep. A Choleric will listen to your arguments about getting enough sleep and will make his own decision on bedtime based on his goals. If it’s important that he not be tired the next day, he may go to bed even earlier than you recommend.
The Choleric would like to teach more than be taught. He is social and wants to be respected for his contribution rather than being the subject of the empty praise that pleases the Sanguine. Winning a competition, making money, or achieving a rank is evidence of contribution.
Control for the Choleric means reading the books he wants to read, exploring philosophies outside of what he’s been taught, and asking people in authority challenging questions. He will not respect you if you aren’t ambitious and self-controlled as he is.
To homeschool a Choleric, you will have to choose your battles and then fight to win. A Choleric who can talk you out of anything will try to talk you out of everything, just to see if he can. Give your Choleric student control over curriculum and schedule within boundaries you set. Hand him this control; don’t wait for him to demand it.
Because it can be draining to deal with a Choleric’s desire for control, be conscious about communicating your love and respect for him. Make it clear that your love is not conditional on his agreeing with you. Affirm his strong will as a gift from God that can be used for His purposes.
The Melancholy or beaver personality wants perfection in herself and her environment. Without that perfection, the Melancholy may become depressed. Perfection means getting all the answers correct, arriving on time, and putting things in their place.
Many Melancholies are musical and will embrace the practice-makes-perfect philosophy. They are sensitive to jokes at their expense, but feel free to criticize Sanguines who do not embrace their desire for perfection.
The Melancholy, unlike the Sanguine and Choleric, is an introvert. She wants quality time with immediate family and a close friend or two. But she would prefer to avoid large groups and gatherings as they drain her. Solitary pursuits recharge her.
To homeschool a Melancholy, provide opportunities for completion, if not perfection. This student wants to finish the whole book. Allowing these students to go back and correct mistakes to earn 100% will please them.
Give your Melancholy student a sense of order. Leave earlier for appointments, devote a short time to cleaning up after projects, and give this student the chance to organize her room, your school space, and other parts of your home. But teach her to praise others for progress made instead of criticizing them.
Protect your Melancholy’s quiet time. Keep social requirements to a minimum. A small space of her own where belongings are undisturbed will also help improve her mood.
Finally, the Phlegmatic or golden retriever personality wants peace. He will work the hardest to avoid conflict. He does not want to argue with you, and he avoids making decisions for fear you’ll be unhappy with his choice. He is easygoing, likable, and unlikely to openly defy you. He is more likely to be passive aggressive and will claim to have forgotten what you asked him to do. Phlegmatics can be successful, but are attracted to easy work and careers that afford them lots of free time.
Like the Choleric, the Phlegmatic wants respect but in his case, in spite of a lack of ambition. Where the Choleric wants to climb the corporate ladder, the Phlegmatic looks forward to climbing onto the couch. Peace, for the Phlegmatic, means guilt-free leisure time. He wants to enjoy watching shows, playing video games, or reading for pleasure without criticism. He’s less concerned with the future than with the ease of the moment. However, if he enjoys something, he can be very committed to it.
Because he is so easygoing, it’s easy to ask him to do the lion’s share of the chores (pun intended). But avoid this habit as the Phlegmatic may eventually erupt out of the lack of respect paid to him and his thwarted desire to be left in peace.
Phlegmatics are unlikely to use the colorful language of the Sanguine to describe activities. The Sanguine will say that the class was amazing! The Phlegmatic is more likely to say things are fine or good without being negative.
To homeschool a Phlegmatic, use free time as a reward. Choose curriculum that is quick to complete with no busywork. Break long lessons up into shorter sessions to motivate him. Although the Phlegmatic is an introvert, he will work more diligently around others. Consider doing family schoolwork at set times, allowing your Phlegmatic the chance to do as he pleases with any extra time he has. A visual timer can be useful for Phlegmatic students. Consider adjusting school hours for Phlegmatic teens who tend to like to sleep in.
Give your Phlegmatic student options. Ask which of three curricula he prefers, for example. Ask which of two excurricular activities he wants to pursue. Affirm that you don’t have a preference or the Phlegmatic will try to guess to please you.
Never shame a Phlegmatic for his desire to have free time as this attempt to motivate is likely to backfire. Instead, praise him for work well done and for his agreeableness. Express your confidence that God will use these character traits for His purposes.
To summarize, the Sanguine wants fun, the Choleric wants control, the Melancholy wants perfection, and the Phlegmatic wants peace. Now that I’ve explained how to homeschool each of these four personality types, I’m going to give you a quiz. These are things my kids have said or done. Which personality type are they?
My son spends hours learning new songs on the guitar.
My daughter made no progress on cleaning her messy room until a friend came over.
My son said his computer class was fine.
My son quickly became a leader and earned a pay raise at work.
You and your kids can be a combination of these personalities, but not the opposite pairings. You are not going to be a Sanguine/Melancholy or a Choleric/Phlegmatic.
If you are interested in learning more, I recommend the book Personality Plus for Parents by Florence Littauer.
If you are one of millions of parents who has had to supervise your child’s education because of the pandemic, this article is for you. Or, if you know a COVID-schooler, I hope you will share it with them.
I have heard from a number of COVID-schoolers in my groups on Facebook. While some of them have embraced true homeschooling, many have been struggling. They try to do their best for their children but cannot wait for schools to get back to normal. This COVID-schooling thing doesn’t work, they think.
First, how do you know if you’re a COVID-schooler?
If your student is:
still enrolled in a school while doing online classes at home
using a curriculum or set of curricula to recreate a classroom education without your participation, or
your student is just doing what is required until they can be back in the classroom, you might be a COVID-schooler.
If you are happy being a COVID-schooler, I’m not going to say you must change. For me, homeschooling is about having the freedom to choose what you believe is best for your family. If what you’re currently doing is serving you, continue on! But if you are struggling and worse yet believe that homeschooling is a terrible option, I want to share some things with you about true homeschooling.
Adopt your own schedule
If you’d like to shift from COVID-schooling to true homeschooling, the first thing you must do is adopt your own schedule. As true homeschoolers, our days and our weeks are filled with activities of our own choosing. That’s true, even when we enroll our kids in online or in-person classes.
If you are trying to work from home and teach your children, you can experience a huge relief in planning your kids’ education around your schedule, not a school’s. Teaching time can take place in the early morning, afternoons, evenings, and even on weekends. You can have a 4-day week or a 7-day week. You can teach year-round with planned breaks or you can follow the school’s schedule. It’s up to you! What’s even better is you can change your mind. If a particular schedule isn’t working right now, change it. No school board meetings are required.
In my own family, we have started school later in the day with teens, have taken days off for birthdays and snow days to have fun, and have taken vacations during off-peak times. The flexible schedule is one of our greatest joys of homeschooling.
Choose your own curriculum
If you are using the same type of materials that the school is using, you are missing out an another joy of homeschooling. If you or your child is bored and doesn’t understand the curriculum, you are experiencing unnecessary frustration.
Let’s take grammar as an example. The standard approach is having the teacher explain that a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. Students then complete a worksheet that asks them to identify the nouns. This is how I was taught grammar. Not so fun, right? And utterly forgettable. Excellent classroom teachers will also incorporate games to teach the concept. But now that students are learning online, playing classroom games becomes a lot more challenging.
When I started homeschooling, I was surprised to find a curriculum that uses songs to teach grammar. The repetition helped my kids to learn their parts of speech. The problem? They hated the songs.
That’s why I created Grammar Galaxy–elementary language arts curriculum that teaches grammar and other concepts using story. Nouns are abducted from planet Sentence and guardians (your students) have to put them back on the streets where they live–Person, Place, and Thing Street. Games, a few songs, and short lessons make this curriculum beloved by kids. But what they really love is having you learning with them. That’s recommendation #3.
Learn with your children
If you are trying to corral your child in front of the computer or a workbook to learn all day, you are missing out on another incredible blessing of true homeschooling–participating in their education.
Parents of traditionally schooled students have been told that education is to be done by the experts. Step aside and let the teachers do their jobs. However, research of homeschooling suggests that parents without teaching degrees can do as well or better in teaching their own children. No teaching model can outdo one-on-one tutoring. That’s just common sense.
The argument against parents homeschooling is that you can’t teach what you don’t know. The rebuttal is that it’s possible to learn as you go. I have shared this before, but I did not study world history in all my years of education. Even though I had no world history experience, I didn’t put my kids in classes with a trained teacher. Instead, I used excellent materials from Konos, Mystery of History, Notgrass, along with historical fiction to learn along with my kids. I have learned so much and I’ve had a blast doing it. If you want to take a teaching role in a subject you haven’t learned yourself, look for curriculum that gives you a script of exactly what to say. There are many of them out there. If you can read out loud, you can teach.
But what if you don’t know the answer to your child’s question? What if your child isn’t understanding a concept using the curriculum you’ve chosen? First, look for helps available with your particular curriculum. There are extra helps designed to go along with many curricula in the form of videos and additional worksheets. I include a list of helps for each lesson in Grammar Galaxy on a website for purchasers, for example. Many homeschool publishers like me also have user groups where someone will be happy to answer your question. If you prefer, you can reach out via phone or email for help, too.
Beyond using your particular curriulum resources, reach out to other homeschoolers for help. You can find other parents with strong skills in areas you feel weaker in. Get help solving a math problem, determining why an experiment didn’t work, or editing a paper. Homeschoolers love giving assistance. My Homeschool Sanity Circle group on Facebook is a great place to start.
That brings me to the last recommendation I have for you to move from COVID-schooling to true homeschooling. Go pro. Stop treating homeschooling like a part-time, emergency-use-authorization form of education. Embrace it as your career.
I know women who work full-time jobs and homeschool, too. But this path is not for the faint of heart. In most cases, it will require much assistance from a spouse or extended family member–especially if you have younger children. I did not work a business or outside job when I began homeschooling and I’m thankful I had that opportunity to focus on my family and their education. Homeschooling was more of a joy than a burden. If that’s not true for you, and you can afford to, I encourage you to reduce your working hours to make homeschooling a full-time career.
As a psychologist and someone who wanted to write and speak, I was worried that homeschooling wouldn’t be fulfilling. I thought I would be bored and miserable. My experience was the opposite. I’m not saying I never had days that were difficult. Dealing with messes and bad attitudes (mine and theirs) while changing diapers wasn’t a joy ride. But I know now why the Lord called me to homeschool. Here are a few reasons:
It taught me a love of learning and gave me a front-row seat to watch my children learn to do everything from read to cook to navigate conflict.
It gave me the opportunity to not just teach my children the faith but live it out in front of them.
It built a closeness in our family that I could only dream of.
We have had so much fun. We’ve built castles, hosted banquets, and toured prisons–usually with friends.
I wouldn’t trade these blessings for another career that offered me more free time, more money, or a cleaner house. Homeschooling isn’t for everyone, but if you think it’s for you, I encourage you to fully embrace it.
This summer I played tennis with a neighbor who told me she was planning on having her girls do online classes through the public school this year, though the experience hadn’t been good in the spring. I encouraged her to consider homeschooling, but I checked in with her and learned that she planned to stick with COVID-schooling. A week after school had begun, however, she contacted me, wanting to know more about homeschooling. COVID-schooling was beyond frustrating for her.
We talked and I shared much of what I have discussed in this episode. As a result, she decided to begin true homeschooling. A short time later, after adopting her own schedule and curriculum, spending time learning with her children, and embracing homeschooling as her career, she thanked me. It had not only been life-changing for her, she said, but she was actually thankful that COVID brought homeschooling into her life.
I would love to see more women find the joy that is available in true homeschooling. Please share this article with COVID-schoolers you know.
So, if you’re looking for someone who has an A+ rating in this area to give advice, someone who can guarantee good results for your kids, stop reading now and look for another expert. My kids and I will severely disappoint you. Meanwhile, anything we have done well has not been our doing but is by the grace of God.
Acknowledge that screen time is a challenge.
The first step, I think, is to acknowledge what a great challenge screen time is for most people. There are certainly people who successfully set themselves apart and have allowed few screens into their lives. In many respects I envy them, but I also see many positive ways the Lord has used screens in my family. One reason screens are such a dilemma in my opinion is their power to be used for the Gospel–making them a favorite tool of the enemy.
We recently watched the documentary The Social Dilemma, which explains how social media takes advantage of human psychology to increase usage. Although this particular documentary didn’t mention other mediums, we know that game developers and media companies like Netflix use similar strategies to keep people engaged, even when they have good reason not to be.
Unfortunately, simply being told how screen purveyors use tricks to suck you in isn’t enough to stop a compulsion. But explaining this to our kids at least helps them see that the deck is stacked against them. Maintaining healthy screen boundaries requires concerted and consistent effort. And it’s harder for some kids than others.
Develop teens’ social skills.
In an article I wrote on alternatives to video games, I mentioned research that connects poor social skills to screen time addiction. If you have a teen who struggles to make friends, developing social skills is a top priority.
The best way I found to help my kids develop social skills is to have them involved in a home-based co-op. A few families did classes together once a week in our home for years. As a result, my kids had the opportunity to develop close friendships that have continued into adulthood. But the parents were also there to work through conflicts and take advantage of teaching moments.
Classes in larger learning centers have not had the same results for us. Kids tend to form cliques just as they do in school. It’s difficult for kids to make friends unless they spend a lot of time on campus. Parents generally aren’t there to supervise. Instead, learning center teachers and administrators set and enforce the rules and make judgements about who is at fault. And yes, I am speaking from experience.
Participating in a homeschool P.E. class was another excellent way of building social skills for our teens. Friendships and conflicts both developed, and again parents were there to supervise and take advantage of teaching moments. A dad from the class, whom we knew, called my husband and explained that our son was bullying his son. I told you my family isn’t perfect! We addressed the matter with our son and the problem was solved. This kind of resolution is less likely in a large learning center.
Having our kids work outside jobs has been another fantastic social skill builder. Kids will be exposed to others who don’t share your family’s values, but this can be eye opening for them. They learn how to work with difficult people. And working outside jobs also teaches responsibility. For example, they learn not to stay up late using screens when they have to be at work early.
Why I don’t use tech tools to limit my teens’ screen time
Developing social skills in our homeschool has been more important than strategies to limit screen time or inappropriate content. Earlier on in my homeschooling, I tried many website and screen blockers for computers and kids’ devices. When the program became a nightmare to use, I would search for something that was simple. Invariably I would read a review of how the kids could circumvent the new system I was considering. That’s when I realized something: I didn’t want to keep trying to outsmart my kids’ use of devices when the real issue was their poor boundaries.
This is where I depart from homeschoolers who desire to keep all teen screen use under control. I am not saying that this approach never succeeds. I have seen families who make it work. But these are the reasons I have stopped controlling teen screen time in a Stalinist manner:
First, this approach backfires with many strong-willed kids. I have some of those. I didn’t want to risk removing the power of relationship to influence my kids. I have seen some strong-willed kids go into full rebellion over this issue of screens and I didn’t want that.
Second, this approach puts the responsibility on me as parent instead of on my kids. I knew that without tech solutions and controls from me that my kids would struggle with screen time, and they have. But if I keep them from every struggle, how will they ever learn to seek God? Believe me, I don’t want my kids to experience any of the horrors associated with screen time. But an even greater horror to me is that my kids would leave my home thinking that they don’t need God.
Third, my kids will be making independent choices soon. My kids go to college out of town and I have no idea how late they’re using screens or what kinds of sites they’re visiting. I want them to have my help managing screens and handling consequences of poor decisions before they leave home.
What I do to guide and protect my teens’ screen time
You may be curious then about what I do to guide and protect my kids with screen time.
The first principle I rely on is coaching. When our kids became teens, we took on more of a coaching than an authoritarian role. Reb Bradly has some excellent parenting videos on this changing role. Rather than switching off the Internet at night, we have asked our teens who struggle with going to bed early what an appropriate bedtime is for his work and life. We have pointed out the problems with staying up all hours playing games and even doing homework. We have made our case for an earlier time and have negotiated a reasonable time.
Coaching has included having our kids watch documentaries on the risks of excessive screen time and inappropriate use of social media. It has also included discussions of God’s Word with respect to sexuality and the dangers of pornography.
Excellent coaching includes if-then questions.For example, “If you miss work because you stayed up late watching a movie, what will you do? If you stumble on to a pornographic site, what will you do? If someone messages you something inappropriate, what will you do? What have you done?” These kinds of questions can help you guage the maturity of your teen.
The second principle I rely on is safety in numbers. I have six kids who still play games together, though one son lives on his own and two are in college. My kids know what the others are up to, frequently call them out on it, and sometimes tattle on them. In addition, they connect with friends whose parents I know well. Several times I have been alerted to a problem that another parent has discovered and vice versa. I don’t feel comfortable having a teen spend time online without friends or family members being there for safety. That hasn’t been an issue in our family but if it were, I would make having a friend participate a rule.
The third principle I rely on is intervention. Rather than trying to prevent our teens from making mistakes, we intervene when we discover bad judgment and poor boundaries. When there is evidence of poor choices, we have reviewed our teens’ posts and usage. We have had our kids delete posts and write formal apologies for things they have shared. We have taken devices away for short periods and enforced earlier bedtimes. We follow up intervention with more coaching on how to make better choices.
I see a lot of discussion on what age is appropriate for a teen to have a phone and which kinds of phones and games are appropriate. I don’t think details on what we do will be useful because some of you will think we’re too stringent and others will think we are too lax. My advice is to consider your children as individuals. I have kids who were mature enough at 13 to handle having a phone and others who had struggles at 18. I also think we have to consider each teen’s motivation for using screens. For example, I had a child who felt entitled to a phone. That child didn’t get one until the attitude and motivation changed. I had another who benefited from the humility of having to borrow phones until he was an older teen.
If you are disappointed that I didn’t tell you which types of screens your teen should have at certain ages and for how long, and that I didn’t give you a list of tech solutions to keep their screen time under control, I am sorry. If you feel strongly that these kinds of controls are what you need, I will provide some resources below. I don’t know your kids and your circumstances, and I am in no position to judge another family’s choices on screen time.
But if that’s not your situation, I hope that I have given you some encouragement. I am much more relaxed now that I know the primary responsibility for screen usage and management is my teen’s. I believe it is our job to train them up in the way they should go rather than making sure that’s the way they go.
As a clinical psychologist, I know that most organizing plans and programs will work if someone is motivated. The trouble is that motivation wanes after the initial excitement of starting a new plan. I had a woman call me to ask what book she had purchased from me months before at a Great Homeschool Convention. It was The Organized Homeschool Life. We both laughed.
I want to help women maintain their motivation for organizing because I know the peace and joy that are available when we establish the habit of organizing. To that end, I am writing devotions for an organized life. They will include a tiny organizing task to complete each day. When published, there will be a devotion for each day of the year. But for my own accountability and your benefit until then, I will publish a devotion here and to my subscribers each Friday. Click here to subscribe to the Psychowith6 newsletter to receive your weekly devotion.
All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of god may be competent, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
I had read a number of books I hoped would help me get my act together. But I had never read the entire Bible. I didn’t even think that was advisable! To me, the Bible was a reference book. You looked up the verses you needed and back on the shelf it went.
That is until I heard Becky Tirabassi speak. She gave a full-day seminar on changing your life as part of a Women of Faith conference. Becky shared how God had lovingly and dramatically delivered her from alcoholism. After she came to know Jesus, she committed herself to what she called “an appointment with the King” each day.
Her daily appointments with God included reading enough of the book He had written that she would finish the entire Bible in a year. I didn’t know what that entailed, but I knew I wanted to change my life. I stood up when she asked who was committed to having an appointment with the King each day.
There were challenging days of reading ahead, like the day I gave birth to a nine-and-half-pound baby and could barely keep my eyes open. But I persevered, spending an average of just 12 minutes a day reading the Bible.
A year later I had read the entire Bible and could honestly testify that my life was changed. I still needed help in the organizing department, but I knew that God loved me. And I knew there was hope for a messy woman like me.
TINY TASK: Commit to having an appointment with the King each day. Choose a Bible or Bible reading plan that will allow you to read the entire Bible in one to three years.
After 21 years of homeschooling, I know that motivation runs high at the beginning of the year. But it doesn’t take many weeks before that initial enthusiasm starts to cool. You begin looking forward to Christmas break sooner than you thought you would.
We realize that we need to use some motivational tricks for ourselves and our kids in order to finish the things that we’ve planned. The problem with our motivating efforts is we often buy into several motivation myths that I’m going to describe in this episode. If we do, we will likely continue to struggle.
If you are interested in motivating your homeschooler, I’ve created a video class that you can you use with your spouse or other caregiver that will help you create an effective motivational plan. It includes a handbook for taking action and not just taking in information.
Myth #1: Being the Tough Coach Gets Better Results
The first motivation myth we need to let go of is that being the tough coach will get better results. We had a basketball coach in my high school who was a tough coach and that is putting it nicely. He constantly yelled at players, mocked players, and gave serious harsh consequences for what he considered to be lack of effort. You will not be surprised to learn that he was not loved.
When we play the tough coach, we may think we are motivating but what we are really doing is cutting off relationship, which is the most motivating tool we have. Most kids and adults are motivated more by an encouraging coach who likes and respects them than someone whose own ego is driving their behavior. The basketball coach didn’t want to look bad in front of the fans. He wasn’t as concerned with his players’ feelings and needs. He also lacked a sense of humor. He took being a high school basketball coach in a small town way too seriously. If he had been able to laugh at himself and apologize when he got carried away and yelled, little harm would have been done. But as it is, I only remember his negative behavior.
My 5th grade English teacher was also a tough coach. She didn’t tolerate any nonsense. We were all terrified of her, even though she hadn’t hit us. One severe look from her was enough to have us shaking in our desks.
I wrote a research paper for her class on violent behavior of elephants in captivity. Why I chose that topic, I have no idea. But I took notes on the physical signs of impending elephant violence. After turning in my notecards, my teacher informed me that she was destroying those notes because they were inappropriate. She looked at me as if I had submitted pornography, and that’s exactly how I felt. I am in my 50s and cannot remember a word of praise from her, but I remember that reprimand.
Both the basketball coach and my 5th grade English teacher had skills in their respective areas, but their tough coach approach did not motivate.
Myth #2: The Approving Friend Motivates
The second motivation myth many of us believe is related to the first. If the tough coach approach doesn’t work, we try to be the approving friend. Anything our child does is good and anything our child doesn’t see fit to do is okay. The approving friend doesn’t necessarily have to applaud our choices, but staying silent serves the same purpose.
I had a German teacher who played the approving friend. He would begin teaching and someone in the class would crack a joke, start talking, or interrupt in another way. Rather than take points off for bad behavior or send disruptive students to the principal’s office, he laughed along with us and ignored the lesson for the day. Sometimes he pleaded with us to cooperate. “Come on, guys!” he would say as though he were helpless to stop the melee.
Do you think we were motivated to learn German in his classroom? We were not. My memory of him is of someone who did not deserve our respect.
My chemistry teacher was also the approving friend. He would hand out solutions for us to analyze. If we were stuck at any point, we approached him for help. Rather than ask us what the difficulty was and suggest ways of getting past it, he would tell us exactly what was in the solution. Everyone loved having him as a teacher for an easy A, but we weren’t motivated to learn chemistry.
Students who have an approving friend teacher will be motivated in the short term to get out of challenging work. But with time, behavior problems are added to incomplete studies. Your home is disrupted and everyone is miserable.
Motivation Myth #3: Your Child Has to Agree
Motivation Myth #3 is that your child has to agree. It’s wonderful to give children a voice in decisions like which curriculum to choose, when school and chores will be done, and how much screen time is appropriate. But children do not have to agree to what you decide. Too often we are in a filibuster as we negotiate to motivate them. Only if our child agrees will he be motivated, we think, when our own lives argue the opposite.
How many times have you disagreed with a work or church policy and followed it anyway? Most of us also obey laws we don’t agree with. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that we are to submit to authority because authority is God-given. Only when authority is in conflict with God’s law are we to resist. Just as an aside, that doesn’t preclude political resistance in a democracy. We currently enjoy that privilege.
If you as your child’s authority decide that a certain curriculum, workload, or schedule should be used, your child does not have to agree. But they do have to submit to it. Your home is not a democracy. If you are a Christian homeschooler, your home is a theocracy. God is the head of your homeschool, you and your spouse are under His authority, and your children are under yours.
Motivation Myth #4: Punishments Are the Best Motivator
When you believe that you are the authority, you can fall prey to motivation myth #4 that punishments are the best motivator. Punishment can absolutely be a powerful motivator. We obeyed my 5th grade teacher because we were afraid of what she would do to us. What’s funny to me is I don’t remember her doing anything but giving us the Clint Eastwood “Go ahead and make my day” kinda look. We were also motivated by our track coach to work hard or face the punishment of wind sprints.
But the problem with punishment is fear of it fades. We simply can’t stay afraid all the time. When you first start homeschooling, you may be terrified of being investigated by family services. The fear has you keeping meticulous records. But that fear fades when months and even years go by and there is no knock on the door and no recent terrifying tale of someone who knows someone being investigated.
Our kids are also not motivated by fear of punishment long-term. And punishment has an unintended consequence of making us seem like the tough coach. Our kids can resent us as they see us as the speed trap cop who is always trying to give them a ticket.
Punishment can be effective in your homeschool, but if it isn’t working and you keep trying to make the punishment harsher to motivate, break out of that vicious cycle. Begin using rewards to motivate instead.
Motivation Myth #5: We Shouldn’t Have to Reward Good Behavior
That brings me to motivation myth #5: We shouldn’t have to reward good behavior.
The idea is that our kids should do their work and obey out of respect for us and for the Lord. And that is correct. They should. But in all likelihood they will not. Am I suggesting that we have to pay kids to do their homework and their chores? No. But I am saying that there has to be something in it for them until the desired behavior becomes naturally rewarding.
A reward can be praise. And depending on your child’s personality, that can be very powerful.
Reward can be performing well in front of peers. Typically that reward is avoiding the punishment of looking foolish or being ridiculed. My kids and my friends’ kids were more motivated in their writing, literature studies, and public speaking when in a homeschool co-op class with friends.
Reward can be time with you, privileges, and yes, cash. Rewards given consistently for completed work–not perfect work– can motivate your child.
Motivation Myth #6: Nothing Motivates My Child
But that brings me to motivation myth #6: nothing motivates my child. If that myth speaks to you, my question is what does your child like to do? Even if your answer is nothing, you have told me that your child is motivated by leisure time. Giving leisure time in return for completed work can motivate.
Some children exert their power like POWs in pretending to be unaffected by anything you do. Don’t fall for that act. Loving consistency can motivate kids like these who may be testing your love for them. Your child may wonder if there’s something they can do that will cause you to give up on them. That’s such a terrifying proposition that they’d like to find out now if that’s what you’re going to do. We can use our words to reassure our kids that we will always love them, but our actions speak louder in this case. Children want to be disciplined. That’s how they know we care enough to take the time and energy that discipline requires. I encourage you to listen to a recent episode I did on discipline. I’ll link it in the show notes.
If a reward works for a while and then quits working, your child is normal. We all get tired of things that used to motivate us. In this case, you have a child who craves variety. You can create a reward jar or use an app like the Random app to give your child a surprise reward every time. You will have to change these out regularly too, but you can motivate your child.
To encourage you, I just want to say that now that my kids are self-motivated teens, I don’t have to use reward strategies. If you invest the time and energy into motivating your kids when they are young, they are much more likely to form good habits later on.
If you want a motivated child, get my motivated student class and then stop acting out of the motivation myths I describe above. Stop playing the tough coach and the approving friend. Stop waiting for your child to agree and relying on ever harsher punishments to motivate. Finally, understand that using rewards is natural and that every child is motivated by something. Your job is to keep harnessing the power of rewards until your child finds the rewards that are intrinsic to studying, hard work, and respectful relationships.