Care and Feeding

My Teen Got Into a Fight. What’s the Correct Amount of Punishment?

He got kicked out of sleepaway camp. Now what?

Teen boy with his arms crossed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ben Gingell/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son (about-to-be 9th grader) got kicked out of sleepaway camp for punching another kid. Without condoning the behavior, I feel the zero-tolerance policy is extreme—it was two adolescent boys pushing each other back and forth, and one (unfortunately mine) escalating to a punch, which left no mark.

I am having a difficult time coming up with consequences now that he is home. I don’t think keeping him away from his peers by “grounding” him after the year we’ve had is appropriate, nor am I comfortable going to work and having him home without his cell phone. That said, I do think this is serious and that he must understand why it can never happen again. He has spent these first few days at home doing some chores that needed doing (cleaning the garage, washing his gear from camp, etc.), but we are now facing over a month until school starts. I told him he can’t stay home all day, and he is participating in an afternoon special interest camp (there are limited options for kids his age unfortunately). He has agreed to go to a therapist (which he has been reluctant to before), which I consider a win but, as you might imagine, that isn’t going to start until Labor Day.

Any ideas of proportionate punishment? Is keeping him busy and the therapist sufficient? Some people have suggested that he write a letter of apology to the kid but honestly, I don’t know that an apology completely lacking in sincere regret is worth it. Thoughts?

—Bad Mom?

Dear B.M.,

I think that being sent home from camp, particularly if he wanted to be there, and having to do some extra chores around the house is enough of a “punishment” for what took place this summer; more importantly, you’ve been able to convince him to go to therapy, something that was on your mind prior to this fight. I do not see the “crime” here befitting any additional consequences. I don’t think you do either, so why do you feel he requires more penalties?

As far as a letter of apology, unless you feel that your son has wronged this other kid in some profound way, there’s no point; and even if he has, it may make more sense for him to write that once he’s clear on what he did wrong and can articulate it clearly. I’m not of the opinion that a teenager should have their entire life upended for making a mistake. Perhaps if he was fighting all the time, or if this was a clear-cut case of assault and bullying on his part, there may need to be a different line of consideration here, but it sounds like your kid got into a silly fight, didn’t cause any serious damage, and has paid a big price for it. Sounds like enough for me.  Focus on helping him to find more constructive ways to channel his emotions, but don’t feel like you need to destroy his access to fun and folly for the remainder of the summer.

—Jamilah