I’ve written before about our family’s approach to discipline — a combination of gentle discipline and spanking — as well as our desire to walk a line between Biblical Child Training and Attachment Parenting.
But over the last several weeks things keep smacking me over the head and causing me to reevaluate this approach. First, there was the post on Keeper of the Home where Sharon wrote about how her ‘legalistic’ approach to behavior produced well-behaved children…who were not professing Christians. She shared her revelations as to how shepherding a child’s heart was really more important than a child’s outward behavior.
Then, there was an experience we had while out of town — facing family members who do believe in obedience. Being confronted with it, we were turned off by it, finding it to be too simplistic and also unrealistic, especially for such young children.
And then there was our pastor’s message last weekend, which focused, for awhile, on why so many Christians homes raise “Pharisees” without meaning to — they’re too focused on teaching children to behave well and do good things, rather than to come into relationship with Christ.
And then there was another blog post from a Christian mother about how obedience isn’t her goal…good judgment was.
All of these were really along the same lines and challenged me to think about how I really want to raise my children and why. It also struck me as ironic that I was reading or hearing these things, agreeing with them…and then, turning around (especially on bad days) and saying “Stop hitting people!” while I hit them. I wonder how much of my son’s physical outbursts are really due to his personality (some…both my kids are really physical in a lot of ways, not just when angry) and how much was due to the way we treated him.
I don’t want them to grow up saying, “I wish you hadn’t hit me. I didn’t learn anything and it hurt me, physically and emotionally.” I don’t want them to grow up thinking I’m mean, or that I disciplined them in anger, or being afraid of me somehow.
This is requiring a total shift in my thinking. My husband’s totally on board. But I want to share this thought process with you, so you can see where I’m coming from (it’ll help me to write it out, too…and go back and read it on rough days) and maybe it can even speak to your parenting — I don’t know.
Why We Spanked
We were both raised in households where we were spanked, my husband much more so than I. I was probably spanked 3 or 4 times, ever — my husband was spanked several up until he was older, I think almost a teen. Neither of us had particularly negative associations with spanking. We both thought we probably deserved it, at least most of the time.
And so, our perception was, that was how loving parents disciplined their children when they needed to, in order to raise obedient children. This was before we had children or when our first was very young, when “obedience” seemed really important to us, and when it was the message we were getting from many of those around us.
However. “Proper” spanking is supposed to be calmly, gently, lovingly. It is supposed to be done out of a desire to correct a child, not out of anger. It is supposed to be used sparingly, for serious offenses.
We are incredibly passionate people. We are prone to strong moods. We get frustrated, we get angry. When we fight with each other (not very often), there may be harsh words and tears before we get anywhere, because ‘venting’ first is our style.
So when it comes to children, that passion is not so good. We get frustrated that they don’t obey. We lose sight of why they even need to obey, and if their behavior is really age-appropriate or not. We get angry. And sometimes, that leads to spanking. In anger. Which, let me tell you, never does a thing to change any behavior.
Our passion leads us to lose sight of the end goal. Instead we focus only on what we want the child to do, and the fact that the child is not doing it. It might be a power struggle. The child might have a need we’re not meeting. It might not be a fair request. But when we have spanking as a tool, even if we manage to calm down (or remain calm) before administering it, we know we have something to fall back on. But then if we’re angry and we start towards a child…they flinch. (They don’t, normally, only if they’ve done something wrong and we look angry.) This is not something we are proud of, at all.
But, we decided that in choosing to spank, we were not looking at what the end goal should be, what our children really needed and what was appropriate for them, and we were losing our ability to be patient and creative in handling them. *We* can’t handle spanking them, at least not all the time. (No, we did not always spank in anger and doing so was never our goal.)
Some reading we’ve done suggests that perhaps spanking is not really Biblical. “A rod” is mentioned once or twice, but there’s no section spelling out exactly how to discipline or punish a child. “Train a child up in the way he will go” is mentioned, and I think that (while not necessarily specific) is more important than ‘the rod.’
Look at the examples provided in the Bible, too. The prodigal son — he wasn’t punished for straying and disobeying; the father prayed for him and rejoiced in his return. Look at the way Jesus treats children — always gently, even when they’re running in the streets and clamoring to get to him. This, despite the disciples sometimes trying to discourage the children! Jesus seems to accept them where they are. He also uses parables to teach adults…and is never harsh with them, even when they have disappointed Him.
There is a Biblical model of gentleness, of being in relationship, of expressing disapproval and training a child carefully. There is not a model of harsh punishments. There is not a model of discipline and correction from someone who is removed or distant from the person being corrected.
Children Are Not Perfect
Somehow, we’ve been duped into believing our goal is to raise our children perfectly. We think that if we can only start with them really young, be very consistent, and not make the same mistakes our parents did, we can train all those annoying traits right out of them. And sure…there are certain traits (like laziness, or treating other people poorly) that we do want to train out of them.
But children aren’t perfect. They’re always going to have those quirks that make them who they are. Perhaps they’re spacy and tend to forget what they were doing…does that require punishment? No…gentle reminders and help to focus. Or perhaps they challenge authority and enjoy negotiating. Is that something that really requires punishment? No, I see a lot of positive in that…they won’t be easily swayed by peer pressure. And as they get older, we can show them why, sometimes, they may need to obey authority. Of course, we also show them maybe when they shouldn’t. As for negotiating, I’d much rather face a child who can get straight to the heart of why I’ve said no and address that concern head-on and logically, than a child who simply throws a fit because I said no. The former is a skill that could serve the child well later in life!
No matter how good a job we do, our children will end up with annoying traits and quirks. It is just part of being an imperfect person. We are not supposed to, or able to, train that out of them. Once we accept that our childre just have certain quirks, and we are willing to let those go, deciding what’s really important becomes a lot easier.
Training is the Goal, Not Punishment
I’m not raising children. I am raising people. These people will spend a comparatively short time under my roof, and a long time as adults. I’m not trying to have perfect children; I’m trying to raise functional adults. So when I’m deciding what is important, I have to keep that end goal in mind. Whether or not they obey me today just ‘because I said so’ is really not that important. Whether or not they grow up to make good moral choices and love the Lord is very important.
With that in mind, training them to become good adults is my primary goal, and anything I am choosing as a tool to help us get there must meet that goal. Arbitrary rules and punishments for not following them are not helpful.
I’ve chosen, instead, to focus on simple rules, like:
- Don’t make unnecessary messes. If you do, you must clean it up.
- Treat your belongings gently and with respect. If you don’t, they will be taken away.
- Treat people gently and with respect. If you don’t, you will need a moment to calm down and then to apologize.
- Don’t take things that don’t belong to you. If you do, you will have to return it and apologize.
There are others, those are just examples. And there are sub-rules under there which, at their young ages, help them to understand ‘what it means’ to follow these. For example, we don’t allow food outside the kitchen ‘because it will make a mess.’ We don’t rip the sheets off beds, or pull all the clothes out of drawers. And yes, if they do any of these things…they do have to clean them up. At first they said, “But I don’t want to clean up. I just want to make messes.” And we explained that if we make a mess, we have to clean it up…and so do they. Now it’s becoming more a part of our routine to take time to clean up any messes we’ve made.
The ultimate goal of discipline or punishment is, frankly, to force your will onto others. You have decided what the rules are, and you have decided what to mete out for not following your rules, whether arbitrary or not. If the rule doesn’t have a reason…why is it a rule?
As I’ve adopted this thinking, I’ve actually spent a lot more time training my children. When I see them break a rule (and I try to always give them the reason why it’s a rule), I have to get up and stop them and reinforce why we don’t do that. I might have to do it 50 times. “No, we don’t climb in the baby swing, you’re too big and you could get hurt.” I have to be creative, patient, and involved in what’s going on. I can’t just sit there and yell, “Get out of the swing!” then spank if the kid doesn’t listen.
I have to spend a lot of time being very deliberate. When I see misbehavior I have to stop what I’m doing to address it instantly, even if what I’m doing is necessary, or more fun, or I don’t feel well…. I can’t ignore it or yell about it or punish it. I have to solve whatever the problem is and help the child(ren) see the problem with the behavior. I have to spend time separating them, encouraging them to use their words instead of hands or feet, and actually listen when the other is using words. I have to be in constant, deep relationship with them to accomplish this so that they will listen, and trust me.
It’s exhausting sometimes, and nearly constant on some days. And sometimes there’s “nothing” I can do, because the reason for the behavior is due to illness, being overtired, over-stimulated, hungry, etc. The other day my son threw a massive fit about eating lunch because he was so overtired — so I had to hold him on my lap to keep him calm so he’d eat, then put him to bed (he would not go to bed without eating — we took him upstairs and he kept saying “door, help, eat”).
But when I listen, when I intervene gently, they seem to ‘get it.’ I’ve introduced the language “being under control” to them, and any discipline is usually related to helping them to get themselves under control. “When you shove your brother in anger, you are not under control. Come over here and sit down with me until you can calm down. You need to use your words, not your hands.”
It is a struggle, but it is a process. They will not learn overnight. They will not remember the first time…or the tenth…or the hundredth. But consistently and lovingly reminding them, and meeting their need (whether it’s to snuggle, separate from each other, sit with me for awhile, remove offending object, etc.) will teach them, in time, to control themselves. I have to remember that when I am getting frustrated that they “just won’t listen.” No…they won’t…they are kids! They will forget. Curiosity will get the best of them.
But as I continue to explain the rules, and enforce natural consequences, they will ‘get it.’ My daughter knows better than to touch knives now because she knows they could cut her and it’s not safe. She will tell me this if she sees me putting them away or using them, and warn me to be careful too! And isn’t that the goal? That they fully understand and absorb the message, the underlying reason, and take it to heart? That they believe in following the rule because they understand why they need to? That they learn to absorb methods of judgment about good and bad, safe and unsafe, so that when they encounter new situations, they can make appropriate decisions about what it is best to do?
I always have to keep in mind my goal: training. Not punishment. Not even discipline. Training. If my reaction isn’t serving a training purpose, it isn’t appropriate.
It’s just been on my mind and heart lately to be much more intentional about what I do in my life. I spend more time showing my children the garden, how to cook, and more. My son follows me around says “See, see!” until I show him what I’m doing. It’s ironic to me that it’s happening now, at the end of my pregnancy (35 weeks already!), when I’m already tired and preparing for monumental changes. But it’s good, too, because I’ll be starting out as a different parent to #3. I know a lot of stuff about the early months and years that I didn’t know before.
In life in general I must have clear goals in mind, and I must be intentional towards reaching those goals. I will fail, I will have bad days, I will say and do things I shouldn’t in anger. That’s why I need God’s grace. But my goal is to be intentional. I believe that always keeping this in mind will help me to be a more patient and creative mother, and to stay on top of the things I know I should do!
Have you ever thought heavily about discipline or training?