6 Signs Your Kid Is Headed for Cuffs

Forget Sh*t My Dad Says; if you’re a dad, start saying “Let’s talk.”

Notes from a Non-Parent

1. Shoplifting – This may seem obvious, but it all begins with pocketknives: small, unexplained possessions that begin to appear among your child’s belongings. Even if you suspect that you’ve forgotten the origins of “stuff,” ask anyway. Don’t interrogate; it’s just a chat and chats can happen while laundry is being folded or the dog gets a bath.

2. Tagging and graffiti  – Ok, for a lot of us graffiti is an accepted art form. But appreciation for the talent found in graffiti is very different from the terminology of the craft entering your child’s daily vocabulary. Art supplies are different from easily concealable “spider” cans of spray paint, pens designed to smear and stain, and markers made from shoe polish containers. Graffiti is still vandalism, and tagging, far more confrontational these days, often results in handcuffs. If your kid has designs on becoming the next Banksy, tell him to do what Banksy does: get permission.

3. Adrenaline addiction – It’s up to you to be vigilant and set limits, even at the risk of being called “lame.” Athletes benefit from the rush of adrenalin and the discipline of sport, not children and teens that lack structure. Kids who are predisposed to chasing one adrenaline high after the next require extra attention because the behavior can turn into a need to stay wired. While a sense of adventure is healthy, kids can feel pressure from friends urging them to top the latest prank video clip. Hawthorne Effect anyone? People act differently when a camera is pointed at them; the increased interest amps up motivation, especially in kids. If your kid pulls risky, questionably legal stunts merely to gain his friends’ respect, imagine him thinking he might be the next YouTube sensation. If the prank also winds up on a surveillance camera or police car dash-mount, he just might be a sensation for a jury.

4. Bullying, Aggression and Assault – Verbal and physical aggression often creates more of the same, because problem-solving that centers on aggression normalizes hostility and sends the message that victims are small. For the victim, it is therefore immediately “normal” to increase his or her own size and stature by bullying someone else, so it’s a behavior that hardly ever corrects itself. Peer-to-peer aggression is a clear sign that somewhere along the line your child picked up a need to make others cower. Talk about this and work together to come up with other ways for your child to increase her self-esteem.

5. Sudden Changes in Friendships and Companions  – Something to heed carefully are the reasons your child has for rejecting an established friend or friends and vice-versa. For teens, acquaintances come and go frequently, but there are adjustments, say, in clothing and music that accompany new classmates or cliques. When these “adjustments” are unsettling, drastic, or secretive, it may be a sign that new terms and conditions of some sort have been set. Forget being inquisitive at that point: it’s time to get nosy.

6. Jailhouse ideation – There’s nothing sexy about jail, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at society at large. Almost daily, celebrities and those jockeying to be anointed as such bounce around the sidewalks of the bar scene and right into holding cells as if doing so were the only way to be taken seriously. Sadly, with America’s appetite for seeing damaging and criminal conduct rewarded with fame and reality television contracts, indeed a week in the county slammer provides a right to be heard and worse: it confers influence. To keep otherwise promising kids from making poor decisions, we need to help them identify (and face down) near-constant media bombardments about the omnipotence of celebrity, overt sexuality at too young an age, and the current climate of reward for truly dumb choices. Make this dialog a common one with your children. Drive home the adage, “Get character, or become one.” No need for lectures; just seek out ways to show your kids the consequences of not taking that into account. If this all seems a bit much for your young Jr. or Miss, it’ll be crystal clear when you get a load of his or her self-satisfied smile – in a mug shot.

Bonus Round: How good families produce bad behavior…Now, even with my 6 Signs in mind, good people can still produce offspring with rotten behavior. How? One example is a parent not digging in his or her heels to fully carry out a punishment or reprimand.  I’m here to tell you that kid being allowed to play one parent against the other can result in some seriously destructive behavior patterns – patterns that, in my case, progressed to character traits that I took with me into young adulthood. I was frequently able to escape consequence by “parent shopping” (appealing to the parent who was least affected by my behavior or the least angry with me), and that would often result in the one sending me to the other with the instruction, “Go see what your mother says,” or, “If your father agrees…” That little loophole was imminently exploitable. 

This was especially effective when I noticed that one parent hadn’t quite been paying attention to the event that led up to my needing punishment, or when it was clear to me that one parent didn’t fully agree with the severity of the other’s reaction to something I’d done. If neither of those mitigating circumstances were available to me, I’d go slightly more juvenile and simply harp on the most fed-up parent until he or she gave in to shut me up. If I felt that my goal was ultimately worth a yelling match, the ideal position into which to wrangle my parents was an argument with each other. An argument meant a distraction, and distraction usually meant I would get my way. If it meant being the first to raise my voice, so be it.

Parents don’t want to be disliked by their children: double that if it means one parent is usually singled out as “the bad guy.” But by diminishing the opportunity for one’s child to experience the value of consequence and penalty, a parent robs that child of context. Above all, selective or inconsistent follow-through distorts the scale and balance of not just consequences themselves, but of the messages parents are trying to convey in the first place. That’s where a good kid can go wrong.

My own folks also did a lot of things well, which is likely part of the reason I have never re-offended. For instance, I recall a Head & Shoulders shampoo commercial from my youth where those inside a crowded elevator back away from a man with dandruff as he gets on. The man returns later, having used the shampoo, and is then welcomed warmly by the others. My mom would ask my brother and I what we thought the commercial was telling us. “Buy Head & Shoulders,” we’d apathetically answer. “No,” she’d insist. “It’s telling you that if you buy this product, you’ll suddenly have friends.” Well, needless to say, this kind of training led us to question everything, including my parents, but it wasn’t long before we were applying the same principle to the pressures and proposals of our peers. All in all, this is the sort of parental guidance we should have more of these days.

So forget Sh*t My Dad Says, there’s no excuse for not talking to your children. Whatever comes out needn’t be trendy or perfect or stoic; it just needs to be from the heart and happen often.