Dear Dr. Ray,
Our ten-year-old son accepts discipline pretty well. In fact, he accepts it too well. Whenever I discipline him, I meet with an “I don’t care.” I’m frustrated by his total lack of reaction. What can I do if he really doesn’t care? ―I Care

Apathy―kids put a lot of effort into it. They deliberately work hard to convince you that discipline doesn’t faze them. In other words, they care that you care that they don’t care.

There are two basic parent-tested tactics kids use to convey apathy. Each sends a surge of frustration up parents’ spines. Some kids will proclaim loud and clear, “I don’t care”; for example, upon hearing that their phone privileges are disconnected until they pay off a phone bill listing 2,724 call-in votes (at 50 cents apiece) naming their favorite green-haired rock star. Other kids elevate feigned indifference to its purest form. Barely giving you a listless shoulder shrug or mouth twist, Joy wants you to know she doesn’t even care enough to tell you she doesn’t care.

Most, if not all, I don’t care messages are facade. If Nielson truly didn’t mind losing TV until his room is clean enough to find the window, why would he spend time watching TV in the first place? If Penny genuinely wasn’t bothered about paying you 25 cents for drying the dishes she “forgot” about, she’d walk up and hand you a quarter every so often, just out of gratitude that you’re her mother.

Kids care about discipline. They just don’t want you to think they do, for two reasons. One, if you think that your 25-cent penalty affected Penny, you just might try this fine approach more often in the future, and she certainly wouldn’t want that. In any given year, she’d need to win the state lottery to pay you off. And two, Penny knows you’re upset over her apathy, so at least she salvages something for her quarter.

On occasion, kids genuinely don’t care about what you did. Carlisle’s thinking, “So what if I can’t have the car for a week. I don’t need it.” But on his third carless day, Carlisle gets a call from Carla, who says, “I have three free tickets to the Strawberry Asphalt concert, including a complimentary meal and autograph session with the band. Can you drive?” It took a few days, but Carlisle did find out that seemingly carefree consequences can lead to complications.

Too, always remember this discipline maxim: Your purpose is not solely to make kids care about your discipline. Your purpose is to place what you (or they) think is a fair consequence for their actions and then stick with it. Your goal is to teach Carlisle something about life, that is, that people are held accountable for their behavior, whether they care or not.

So what can you say or do in the face of apathy? Try meeting apathy with apathy. Don’t say or do anything. Your calm will convey quite nicely that it doesn’t matter to you that it doesn’t matter to Joy. If you bounce all over looking for consequences that do seem to matter to her, you’ll search endlessly, because Joy will most likely convey the same reaction regardless of what you try. Kids stick with tactics that work on parents.

If you must say something or you’ll just burst, try “I’m glad you’re taking this so calmly.” That usually takes the fire right out of apathy.

Apathy may be nerve-wracking, but it’s simpler to handle than an argument or outright resistance. Kids who don’t care do care, especially if we don’t care that they don’t care.

Dr. Ray