Pre-Teen Discipline

“As a public school teacher for over 12 years, as well as a formerly rebellious teen, I can give you a bit of insight on two levels. It’s not a short and simple answer, but it will definitely help you make progress in reconnecting with your sweetie.”

Question from Deanna:
My 12 y/o in the past 12 months has snuck out at least 2X in the middle of the night. Smoked a cigarette in her room and most recently last week skipped school. I am an Agnositc Single Mother who quit smoking over 5 years ago. When I did these kind of things I was in high school and almost never got caught. So either she is not good at covering her tracks or she is doing more than I know. Regardless, what suggestions do you have besides the traditional grounding taking away the phone discipline for an agnostic child. I am trying to teach her to make good decisions and use critical thinking but it doesn’t seem to be working. I live in the South and most of my contacts including family are going to say take her to church. I agree she probably needs more positive influences in her life but church is not a real option for me because I really don’t think that type of teaching will help. Any books on raising kids atheist/agnostic that you know of? What I found in the past always referred back to religion.
Thanks for your help

Answer by Andrea:
Hi Deanna.

As a public school teacher for over 12 years, as well as a formerly rebellious teen, I can give you a bit of insight on two levels. It’s not a short and simple answer, but it will definitely help you make progress in reconnecting with your sweetie.

I was rebellious as a teen mainly because I was angry and also hurt. Why? I’m not sure, maybe it had to do with my parents’ divorce, in part. It was also fun to smoke and be rebellious back in jr. high school. But I think the turbulent feelings apply to a lot of teens simply because studies show there are vast fluctuations in hormonal levels which can impact behavior, so she may be acting out partly because she has so many feelings and she doesn’t know what to do with them all. Critical thinking is great a lot of the time, but it might not help so much at this stage of her life.

However, there are other ways to make good behavior a habit. (See below for some info in that vein.) But regarding the smoking and sneaking out, does your daughter sneak out just to smoke? If so, she’s probably already hooked, in which case you might want to let her smoke in the garage or something just so you can keep an eye on her and she doesn’t get into more trouble. If she’s not already addicted to cigarettes, or just in the beginning stages, it would be good to show her pictures of the lungs of a smoker, as well as a wrinkly face that can come with just 10 years of depriving your skin cells of oxygen. The most effective approach is probably to let her read first-hand accounts of teen role models that think smoking is gross and disgusting, of which there are many these days –fortunately. I remember trying to quit at age 16 and I cried so hard because I couldn’t do it (after proudly smoking my first pack a day at age 12).

Re religious indoctrination: My parents tried sending me to a Catholic school, which didn’t help because not only were the nuns mean, but the crowd was just as bad there. This would make sense, since studies show Catholics and then Protestants and Baptists make up a majority of inmates per capita in federal prison, whereas atheists make up the lowest numbers per capita. Therefore, I would suggest you check out Camp Quest, which is a children’s camp for freethinking families. There are more such camps, the best way to find them is to type in “secular” and “children” and then “camp” and/or “volunteer activities.” Also check out

Other recommendations I have as a teacher practicing “loving discipline,” which helps to make good behavior a habit (which most behaviors are) include the following:
– Make your conversations with her respectful and courteous and listen with genuine attention without sounding critical or judgmental, Heart-to-heart talks may be more fruitful while you’re doing something else like washing the dishes or driving her somewhere in the car.
– Explain your requests. If you tell them why you want something, children accept your requests more readily because they will see you as being fair and reasonable, not arbitrary and capricious and “mean.”
– Ask questions about what kids think they should do instead of giving orders.
– Ask her what you can do to make the two of you closer, or try engaging in a “mother-daughter adventure” every week like hiking or involving one of her hobbies if she is amenable.
– Don’t overlook the importance of physical presence. You can still connect with your kid by being in close proximity while she is doing things such as putting together puzzles, reading books or doing homework.
– Add structure to your home life (as in a regular schedule).
– Studies show kids do better academicaly and socio-emotionally with regular family meals.
– Rather than disciplining through punishment, motivate her into good behavior with an inducement — something so she can work toward a day at a time. A fellow teacher of mine uses raffle tickets she buys at Longs. Her daughter earns a certain number of them for choosing appropriate behavior, and those raffle tickets go toward something she really wants.
– Don’t expect perfection and praise every small step she makes in her behavior.
– You might also go through a depression checklist to see if she suffers from depression.
– Everyone needs to have something to give their life meaning. Find out what her dreams are, and then work together to toward that goal. It may be a dream that you’re not too crazy about (I wanted to be a street musician), but dreams change, sometimes several times a year at that age. So get her into a habit that can add pleasure and meaning to her life. (I ended up spending 8 hours a day playing the flute, which took me away from the “bad crowd.” A couple years later, I showed up on my mom’s doorstep in a business suit with briefcase.)
– Try to use a humorous and playful manner wherever possible. Give her lots of smiles.

There are hundreds of secular organizations for nontheists as well as agnostics across the country, including the South. If you give me a state I can help you find them, or try the suggestions for search engine terms above.

It may seem like your daughter is distant and aloof right now, Deanna, but remember this is only a phase. My mom now is my very best friend and there’s a good chance your daughter will feel the same way about you, in time.

I would love to know how it all works out.

– Andrea

P.S. Some more secular and freethinking parenting advice can be found here.

P.P.S. Unrelated but interesting article: half a million dollars of grant money for secularists.