Ex-Etiquette Column

Articles on dealing with the "ex" in your life--anyone's ex--yours, their's, even "ex"tended family.

Using Cell Phone to Discipline Your Teen

Q. Last year I bought a cell phone for my son. He’s 12 and I thought he was ready for the responsibility, but I caught him surfing sites he shouldn’t and have decided to take away the phone for a while. His father is fighting me on it because they spend a lot of time chatting and I think he feels it fills in the gaps–he cancels his weekends a lot. My son is watching out for who wins this one.  What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. The fact that you and dad are discussing this rather than you just arbitrarily taking away the phone is great ex-etiquette. Good for you. But, there’s a liiiittle red flag waving–from the beginning it should have been agreed what will happen if your child misuses the phone.  Will he be grounded? Will the phone be taken away? If so, for how long? And, if the length of grounding runs into the other parent’s custodial time, will the grounding continue at the other home? A phone should serve as a tool for communication, not as a weapon to undermine the other parent.

The key to successful co-parenting is to take a proactive, not a reactive stance to child rearing, and to communicate on a regular basis with the other parent. Sounds like you’re communicating, but you’re playing catch-up. That may set you up for failure. If you don’t agree how to handle a situation prior to being faced with the situation, you may find yourselves fighting about it. And, as you said, your child will witness the power struggle and it won’t take him long to figure out how to play the two of you.

It sounds like you think Dad relies a little too much on the phone to stay in touch with his son. If he was a long distance dad I would be commeding him, but since he’s not, it may feel like an easy out to your son. Any form of communication is good, but the best time is spent one-on-one and face-to-face. Parents must remember that their child is more than just a text away. Time spent with your child will never be wasted time.

For the record, I caution parents about grounding their children from their phones because then they will not be able to contact them when they are out and about.

For example, the child is grounded from his phone, but is still participating in after school sports. Practice runs late or gets out early and he can’t call you. For this reason, when a child has been grounded from the phone, I suggest parents designate a “phone place” in the home.  When the child comes home, that’s where the phone goes and they can’t use it–unless their other parent calls. That is the only exception. If the child leaves for school, he may take the phone for emergencies only, but he immediately comes home after school and the phone goes back to the phone place. If friends are allowed to come over, their phone goes to the phone place, as well. (I always allowed friends to come over, but they could not hang out in my child’s room. If they wanted to watch TV they watched in the living room. That was torture at first, but it soon became a blessing.)  If the friends can’t abide by that rule, they don’t come over until your child is no longer grounded.

A a little side note, although grounding is regarded as an effective disciplinary tool for teens, grounding for long periods of time may be an impractical form of punishment if the child goes back and forth between homes on a regular basis. If you have grounded your teen for a month, but during that month he is scheduled to go to the other parent’s home, there is no guarantee the grounding will continue. You may find your 15-year-old calling to say they don’t want to come home for a while. If grounding is in the cards, consider more extreme measures for smaller lengths of time.

Case in point, I had the cleanest floor boards in town around report card time–and that only took a Saturday and a Sunday–all day, no friends.

You’ll figure out a rule that works for your child, but it begins with communicating with mom, in your case. Use the 10 rules of good ex-etiquette as your guide.

Ex-Etiquette®, runs in countless newspapers and websites all over the world. It is written by Dr. Jann Blackstone, who specializes in child custody, divorce, and stepfamily mediation. Dr. Jann is the author of seven books on divorce, remarriage, and co-parenting, specifically, Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce and Separation, Ex-Etiquette for Weddings, and Ex-Etiquette for Holidays. Dr. Blackstone is also the founder of Bonus Families,501 c3 non-profit organization dedicated to peaceful coexistence between divorced or separated parents and their combined families.

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