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The Balance of Privileges and Consequences

Privileges & ConsequencesThe number one concern of nearly every parent I meet is “How do I set up rules my teen will follow?”  When adolescence hits, it can be frustrating as teens push, prod and run roughshod over the boundaries of the home.  Some teens have little to no regard for any parental policies.  In situations like these, mom and dad may be at a loss on how to get their child to follow their protective guidelines.  If you are looking for a game plan for your home, the best place to start is creating a balance of consequences and privileges for your household rules.


Josh McDowell said, “Rules without relationship cause rebellion.”  And while I completely agree with that statement, let me give you the flip side: “Relationship without rules causes chaos.”  Like a protective fence, rules and boundaries keep children from running away and getting hurt.  Rules are designed to keep a teenager’s poor choices from hurting themselves or others.  What they are not designed to do is burden our children or make them feel the force of our authority.  For instance, one of my rules for the more than 2,500 kids who have stayed with us at the Heartlight residential campus is this: “Disrespect is not allowed.”  Now, this guideline is not in place because I have sensitive feelings.  I have been screamed at, spit on and cussed out a number of times, and I have learned to see past such outbreaks.  Neither is this rule in place because I feel I deserve a teen’s unwavering admiration or esteem.  Kids don’t care if I am an author, radio host, or speaker.  The reason I have laid down this important guideline is that I realize how much disrespect hurts relationships and I want my kids to experience beneficial connections with others.  If they treat others with disrespect now, they are likely to hurt themselves in the long run by disrespecting spouses, bosses, and family members.  Disrespect undermines a teen’s chance at a healthy life.

If your teen is pushing, testing, or ignoring the rules of the home, take a few minutes to sit down and explain why these specific boundaries are in place.  Show your son or daughter how these principles will help them get ahead in life.  Explain that, when they break a certain rule, they are really working against themselves.  A rebellious path in life will not take them where they want to go.  But following the rules can!

Also, take a moment to evaluate the rules of the house to see if they are practical, attainable and beneficial.  Is that guideline you set for your teen useful?  Will it help them achieve their goals?  If there is no clear purpose for the rule, throw it out the window.  Also, ask yourself, “Is the rule attainable?”  Can your child really get all A’s on their report card?  If not, trying to live up to your expectations will only cause resentment.  And lastly, is the rule beneficial?  Is there a positive outcome for your teen if he or she follows your instructions?  Any guidelines that don’t match one of these three criteria should not be enforced.


If you reviewed the rules of your house and they are practical, attainable, and beneficial, the next step is to assign consequences for stepping outside the lines.  There should be penalties in place for each situation that might come up: dishonesty, disrespect, broken curfews, substance abuse, sexual experimentation, failing in school, stealing, and everything in between.  Let your teenage son know that if he lies, the car will be taken away.  Tell your daughter ahead of time that if she cheats on a test, she will lose her phone for a week.  Be specific!  Assign clear consequences to the rules, so everyone in the house is aware of the boundaries and the punishments.

You might ask, “Mark, what is an appropriate consequence for a certain behavior?”  While I can’t speak to every situation, I do have a recommendation.  Whatever rule has the greatest priority in your house should have your child’s greatest motivator attached as a consequence.  For example, let’s say your daughter enjoys the camaraderie and excitement of cheerleading.  Being a part of that group is the highlight of her week.  In this scenario, you would explain to your teen girl, “Honey, I can’t allow you to act disrespectful.  So whenever you scream, yell, or ignore your mom and me, you will not be able to attend cheerleading practice for that week.  I’ve spoken to your coach, and she agrees.”  Realizing that breaking a rule could mean the loss of what is most important to them, teens will be more careful to stay within the boundaries you have set up.

But realize this will only work if you stick to your guns!  Don’t back down.  If your daughter’s misbehavior earns her a week away from cheer practice, don’t let her go back after a couple of days.  Always offer forgiveness and grace, but let the consequences take their full effect.  There are no benefits to letting your teen off the hook.  It may seem like the loving thing to do, but it is actually causing them harm!  Take time to carefully formulate fair rules and consequences and then deliver them appropriately.  Consequences teach your teen the value of obeying good rules.


As you establish consequences for breaking the rules of the home, it is important you  balance them out with positive reinforcement.  I call them privileges.  They consist of things like video games, dinners out, vacations, new clothes, parties, use of the car, and other things that motivate your teen.  Use them as a reward when your child shows responsibility, maturity, and positive changes.  I can hear what might be going through your head right now: “Mark, that sounds a lot like bribing!”  And I guess you could consider rewarding good behavior as a form of bribery.  But here’s how I look at it.  Everything I have is eventually going to my kids anyway.  When I die, I am going to leave all my worldly possessions in their hands.  So why not use what I have now to help my child grow into a mature and responsible adult later on?  If the occasional special privilege, reward, and benefit spurs your teen towards right behavior, then by all means go for it!

An added benefit of offering privileges is the leverage it gives you for enforcing consequences.  Whatever you give to your child can also be taken away.  I once gave my granddaughter an iPod, but when I handed it to her, I said, “Sweetie, if you talk back to Grandma, I will take this away.”  Sure enough, a couple days later, my sweet grandchild said something mean to my wife, so I took the iPod from her for a while.  After that, my granddaughter never disrespected her Grandma again.  The privilege of having the iPod was greater than the temptation to pop off and throw a tantrum.  Privileges are a powerful tool to help your child practice right behavior.

Tie Them Together 

Rules, consequences, and privileges only work if you use them together.  Think of them as three separate but overlapping circles.  The intersection where these principles meet is the place your teen will thrive and mature the most.  Rules need consequences.  Rules also need privileges.  Cover them all with unconditional love and grace, and you will create an atmosphere in which your teen can flourish.



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.