One of most enduring influences on the lives of children is when, how and why they are disciplined. We have all heard (and some unfortunately have experienced) the nightmare of discipline gone far wrong, lurching into abuse and scars that go far beyond the physical. Many more in our culture have experienced the other extreme, a permissiveness that leads to a lack of self-control and inability to understand proper boundaries. As we consider how we might discipline our children in a way that reflects “the nurture and admonition of the Lord”, here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Discipline is Teaching – “discipline” and “disciple” come from the same root word. It might help to think about what Jesus did with his disciples. More than anything he taught them (by word and example). When correcting our children, it is always helpful to keep this in mind. What am I trying to teach them? If the goal of discipline is simply getting your children to stop doing something that is irritating or embarrassing you, you are missing the point. Any correction should really be about teaching something specific to your child. If your child is disobeying a specific instruction – the discipline should be about teaching the child how to obey. This goes way beyond just giving a negative consequence for disobedience, it is about teaching them what obedience looks like and why it matters. If your child is throwing a fit or exhibiting an outburst of anger – discipline is about helping your child learn to control themselves. Your child can only learn from you what you are actually teaching them in that moment. We need to be careful about what we are teaching.
2. Discipline Does Not Equal Punishment – If the only time we consider discipline for our child is when spanking is involved, we are failing to actually discipline. Giving out negative consequences is an important part of discipline (and yes, spanking can be a quite good tool here). But it isn’t all there is to it. Giving clear instructions to our children and rewarding their obedience and good attitude is every bit as important. Children don’t just learn to avoid what gives them negative consequences, they also can learn to embrace what gives them good consequences. Praise is one of the most powerful tools of discipline. Life-giving words of affirmation can give a child the fuel to overcome obstacles, finish tough tasks and become a good influence on those around them.
3. Discipline is About Building Relationship and Restoring Fellowship – Disciplining our children should bring them closer to us, not drive them away. No one enjoys being corrected or living out the negative consequences of poor choices. But when done well, the bonds of relationship can grow stronger during that time. It can test those bonds, but just as exercise can strengthen muscles by tearing them down temporarily in a controlled fashion, discipline allows for moments between parent and child that aren’t pleasant in the now, but builds up that relationship moving forward. And the goal of discipline, particularly when correction is sharp, is to restore the child to full fellowship. Forgiveness and restoration should be complete. When we communicate conditions on this front, it can do damage to our relationship with our children that can have far-reaching ramifications. Discipline is not primarily about behavior. It is about relationship. Behavior is temporary (even if consequences can be long lasting). Relationship is eternal.
I recently had an experience that reminded me of all of this. Micah, my oldest, has been exhibiting a bit of a temper lately. He wanted to watch a particular show, but it wasn’t his turn to pick. I overruled his choice and he exploded. I sent him to his room and he stomped up the stairs, punctuating his arrival by throwing a couple of toys (maximizing the noise in the process). This set me off and I followed him up the stairs. I asked him if this was how he was supposed to act and he gave me a pretty whiny and loud response. I sent him into our bathroom fully intending to give him a spanking that he wouldn’t quickly forget. But thankfully, the Holy Spirit nudged me (not too gently, either) with a little warning in my heart. Micah was struggling with self-control and I was about to reinforce that with a lack of self-control and an outburst of my own anger to react to his. I took a breath and talked to Micah. I reasoned with him about his behavior. I asked him how he wanted his brothers to react when it was his turn to pick the show to watch. I asked him if wanted to rejoin the rest of the family and enjoy the evening or if he wanted to be separated and on his own, in his room with nothing to watch. I told him that we don’t always get what we want, and that when we don’t, losing self-control only makes things worse. His attitude melted and he wanted to rejoin his brothers. I held him for a moment and that anger and tension in his countenance and body was gone. He told me he was sorry for losing his temper and I told him I was sorry for losing mine as well. We went downstairs and had a great night (popcorn and Star Wars always help). I want Micah to learn self-control and how to manage anger and disappointment when things don’t go his way. The way not to teach that would have been for me lose my self-control. But a bit of instruction, forgiveness given and received and restoration to fellowship are a lot more helpful.
There is a time for the rod of instruction applied firmly to the backside of learning. There is a time for grounding and losing of privileges. There is a time for tough consequences. But those times are specific and limited. Relationship, learning and fellowship are for all times. When people say that parenting is about being the parent and not being your child’s friend I understand what they mean. But that overstates the point. You aren’t a peer to your child. You are in authority. But Jesus said that we are his friends if we do what he commands. Authority and friendship aren’t exclusive on one another. When you are really a parent to your child, you are the best friend they could possibly have.