Using an Object Lesson to Correct Adolescent Misbehavior

Imitating adolescent mistreatment to show what not to do is a gamble.

Posted Aug 20, 2018

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

After other communication and correction have been unconvincing, parents may sometimes choose to use an object lesson to teach what repeated words have failed to convey to get an adolescent to cease some stubborn misbehavior. 

An object lesson is a staged experience to show a young person what it’s like to be on the receiving end of some misbehavior or mistreatment in hopes of discouraging the young person from doing it again. “By breaking my promise to you, now you know what it feels like when you break a promise to me!”

Ouch! Object lessons can hurt because that is their intent.

Object lessons turn The Golden Rule–treat others as you wish to be treated–on its head for The Getting Back At Rule–treat others as you don’t want them to keep treating you. Parents use deliberate mistreatment in hopes of correcting mistreatment they are receiving. 

From my limited counseling experience, I have seen parental object lessons do more harm than good. They often miscarry when the injury they inflict and the example they set only make the teenager more determined to continue behavior the parent wanted stopped. 

This is why, before considering an object lesson, parents might want to suggest it first: “Suppose I were to take your things without asking; how would that feel for you?” Sometimes just considering the possibility will drive the parental point home for the teenager.

And for sure, after having a given an object lesson, have adequate discussion to debrief the experience to make sure that the lesson intended was what the young person interpreted. “I can see why my refusing to answer your texts got you worried when you started refusing to answer mine.”  

There are a number of drawbacks to object lessons, Consider a few.

  • The parents place themselves on the adolescent’s misbehaving level.
  • The parents deliberately injure the teenager’s feelings.
  • The parents carry on behavior they want the teenager to stop
  • The parents sacrifice positive leadership through negative modeling.
  • The parents’ negative behavior may inspire more negative behavior back.

This is a very tricky kind of corrective to use without incurring some cost that may or may not be worth the expense. 

Consider two examples of object lessons in response to adolescent lying. The first one worked out badly (received as a mean act of retaliation); the second worked out better. (as a painful but profitable instructional lesson.) Both were a gamble.

The first example: When told an outright lie by her hitherto truthful adolescent in order to get some forbidden freedom, the parent feels truly heartbroken. “You broke something incredibly precious with me when you lied to me–something I thought I could always count on–trust in your word. To show you how badly I’ve been hurt by your dishonesty and how much lying can hurt and so you’ll never do it again, I broke something very precious for you–one of your prized possessions! There! See how painful that feels? Well, that shows how badly your lying hurts me! Now you know not to lie to me again!” In the parent’s mind, this object lesson was meant to be truly corrective. But in the resentful teenager’s mind, the angry parent has only inflicted unjustifiable and un-forgivable harm.        

The second example I mentioned in my 2007 book, “The Connected Father.” Seeing a ten-year-old only child beginning to venture down an early adolescent path of small deceits to see what freedom dishonesty could get away with, the parent at a workshop gave an object lesson. The purpose of the corrective was to teach the daughter what words had failed to convey–that even small lies, what she dismissed as “just fibs,” were not okay.  

So, one day the parent said to the daughter: “Just so you know, sometime in the next two weeks I’m going to tell you a really big lie.” “You wouldn’t lie to me,” replied the girl. “You don’t believe in lying, you’ve told me so.” “None-the-less,” answered the parent, “in the next two weeks I’m going to tell you a lie.” So the daughter watched, waited, wondered, and worried. “Permission to go overnight this weekend, is that the lie?” she wanted to know. “No, that’s not the lie,” reassured the parent.  Later, the daughter asks: “Being allowed to get the CD with what I’ve worked to earn, is that the lie?” “No,” says the parent, “you earned the money.” “Being able to take dance lessons, is that it, is that the lie?” Now the daughter was feeling frantic to know. “No,” says the parent, “that’s not the lie.” And finally the two weeks were up. “Where’s the lie?” asked the daughter. “You promised I could expect a lie!” “That’s right,” said the parent. “That was the lie. That’s how it feels to be lied to.” And from that simple object lesson, the precocious only child at age ten learned a life lesson from her parent about the emotional power of being on the receiving end of lies. “We had a good discussion after it was over when I told her how hard it felt being in a false position with her when the operating principle between us was, and still is, speaking truth.” 

In general, I believe that parental object lessons are usually not worth the risks. Modeling positive behavior they would like the teenager to follow works better in the long run, and is less likely to misfire, than modeling negative behavior they want the adolescent to stop. At least try other correctives first: like sincere communication about why the issue matters, or persuasive reasoning, or making continued parental services contingent on reform, or temporarily taking away a freedom until compliance is restored. 

If you decide to use an object lesson, proceed with care. When taken as an act of parents getting even, an object lesson can generate a lot of adolescent ill will.

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Ambivalence about Growing Up