We always believed in the power of positive reinforcement. Our parenting strategy has reflected the philosophy that bribes work better than threats –and that threats should be used only if you really plan to carry them out. (A word to the wise: be extra careful; sometimes the punishment i.e. staying home from a fun experience with friends – ends up being at our expense!) In general, this approach has been successful and we have stuck with it.

That’s why we were stumped the other night when a situation arose that didn’t fit our heretofore successful model. We gave our teenage son a certain curfew. Like all adolescents, he complained that it was too early. (I think it wouldn’t matter what time it was, that is the standard response!) We didn’t budge. He argued that he wasn’t driving so he didn’t have control. We argued that he needed to alert his friends to his situation. And so it went – back and forth and back and forth. He argued that he couldn’t “make” his friends listen to him. We were adamant that it wasn’t safe to be out any later, than our ability to sleep required he be home at a reasonable hour. Finally he gave in (it was either that or stay home).

You can probably see where this story is going. He arrived home past his curfew. We were upset, frustrated – and exhausted. “You’re grounded,” my husband told him. “But, but, but…” our son sputtered but we stood our ground. We had rules and they weren’t followed. So far so good.

We were now able to relax and go to sleep. The real trouble began in the morning. “What does it mean to be grounded?” asked the teenager in question. We were stumped. We hadn’t grounded anyone before. This didn’t fit within our “positive reinforcement” style of parenting. What was the answer to that question?

In addition, since he doesn’t drive what new limitations were we actually imposing on him? It was a dilemma and we didn’t resolve it so easily. In the meantime, the rest of the family thought it was very humorous and got a good laugh out of the absurdity of asserting that a child is grounded and having absolutely no idea what that meant.

Ultimately we resolved upon a compromise. My son argued yet again that he told his friends when he needed to be home and that he (and they) made a good faith effort to comply, that it was only a matter of a few minutes and that a little flexibility might be called for. At this point we accepted his argument, either because we were worn down, because it made sense or because we couldn’t really define what being grounded meant.

It certainly wasn’t our best parenting moment (!) but I actually think our teenager got the message. He knew we were upset. He understood that the curfew meant something, that some boundaries are necessary and even (well maybe I’m carrying this too far) that some sensitivity to a parent’s needs and feelings is called for.

The lesson was learned – by all of us. And he hasn’t missed curfew since (but don’t test us; we’ll be better prepared next time!).