‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’ Proverbs 22:6
Yesterday was just one of those days. I think we all must have them. There were some lovely moments, and even today looking back, it is those I remember. But at the time, I felt like I was continually having to correct, discipline, explain, rebuke and so on, round and round. Even during the ‘fun’ things, like baking a special cake for daddy - which was the boys’ idea having seen a picture of one in a book - there was so much need for discipline that I found myself wondering whether it was all worth the effort!
That huge area... Discipline. I have been reluctant to post about discipline so far, as it is such a controversial issue and so much has already been written on the topic. For those who are interested (and I would suggest that this should be every parent, and that there are good reasons why pregnancy gives parents time to prepare for the arrival of their child!) there are whole books written on the matter. But it can be difficult to be discerning about what to read. But it seems so controversial, that even within the church I encounter a reluctance to really get down to the nitty gritty behind how we actually discipline our children. What is a true discussion of Biblical principles, and what is the ‘wisdom of this world’ which is ‘foolishness with God’ (1 Corinthians 3:19)? I have been astonished how, given the postmodern culture in which we live (ie anything is fine as long as it works for you, and does not impose itself upon me), many people have strong views on this area of discipline. I remember being at dinner on a (secular) management course I was attending, and we were all discussing the challenges of parenting, particularly issues relating to boundaries and discipline. It seemed relevant, so I asked, ‘OK, so who around this table spanks their children?’ and you would have thought I had uttered something absolutely disgraceful!
Is a post on discipline relevant to a blog on home education? Absolutely! Indeed many people cite discipline and the need to maintain consistent standards as a major reason they choose home education. This would apply to both those who seek to apply Biblical principles and those who feel that ‘children should be free’ and have no boundaries whatsoever. The issue of discipline permeates every aspect of our parenting, and of our child’s education.
So, what does the Bible say? Does it give me specific instructions for what to do when my toddlers are fighting over a toy? Or where one of them has deliberately done something that they know to be wrong (often something small, such as tipping their milk into their dinner, or throwing toys into the washing up water)? Does it provide me with a list of punishments appropriate for every nature and degree of offence? No. As with many other areas of Christian living, the Bible gives us some clear guiding principles. And we are encouraged, ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives liberally to all and without reproach, and it will be given to him.’ (James 1:5) This is where carefully chosen resources such as books, sermons and conversations with friends whose opinion you can trust is of immense benefit. And I shall continue to use this blog to provide links to resources which I find helpful as I seek wisdom in this area of our family life.
The book of Proverbs overflows with timeless nuggets of wisdom for Christian families. Several well known examples include:
‘Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of correction will drive it far from him.’ Proverbs 22:15
This explains clearly that all children will naturally make unwise choices, and need firm correction and discipline to help them understand what is right and what is wrong. Another huge debate among some circles is whether wrong behaviour is learnt or from within the child. It is easy to dismiss something as a ‘lbit naughty’, or ‘silly’, or ‘typical two year old behaviour’, but that is not what the Bible teaches us; in the words of David the Psalmist, ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity’ (Psalm 51:5), and Paul, writing to the Romans, reminds us that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). No, even the cutest newborn baby is born with a sinful nature that has a natural tendency to selfishness, disobedience and sin.
‘Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.’ Proverbs 23:12
The converse of this statement implies that if you do not adequately discipline (and by using the word ‘rod’, a mandate for physical punishment is given) then you will actually harm your child. Physical discipline with the desire to bring a child to correction and an understanding of where they stand before God may actually prevent them from spiritual death. Whereas indulging the whims and selfish desires of a child, in the name of ‘love’ may actually cause eternal harm.
‘The rod and rebuke give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.’ Proverbs 29:15
Modern parenting does indeed seem to leave children to themselves. They find their own way. We are told to ignore bad behaviour, and try to reward the good. We are told that nothing is really wrong, it is merely the child trying to find their way in life. No, no, no! A combination of the ‘rod’ – where necessary, a spank – and ‘rebuke’ – words of discipline which may include an explanation of why the behaviour was wrong – enable a child to become wise.
The letter to the Hebrews expands upon this, drawing the parallel between the discipline we experience from our children, and the discipline that Christians receive from God as we grow and seek to live lives that honour Him in this world. I will quote from this at length, as I find it extremely helpful in my considerations of discipline and in particular what my ultimate aims for my children are.
‘In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined – and everyone undergoes discipline – then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’ Hebrews 12:4-11
The passage above makes clear that discipline comes from love, and has the best interests of the recipient at heart. Contrary to the wisdom of the world, it is not kind nor loving to allow your children to pursue their own way. As a child, I was given few boundaries. As a teenager, I really was allowed to do what I wanted (I could romanticise this using cliches such as 'sex, drugs and rock and roll', but in fact it caused much harm, and I still face consequences at times). It seemed that as long as I continued to get straight A grades at school, then other aspects of life did not matter. And even at the time, I was aware I craved discipline and craved boundaries. I was almost envious of friends whose parents ‘grounded’ them or used another form of discipline as it showed me that these parents cared about their children. At times I did things in attempt to elicit a response, and felt that even outrageous acts of rebellion (as they seemed to me at the time) were not noticed. I can fully understand that discipline, in the manner that God intends, arises from love.
And at what age should we start to discipline our young children? I have often heard people comment to me, ‘Oh, he’s only two...’ or similar, to excuse the disobedience of one of my sons. OK, but at what age does it become right to challenge? Three? Five? Older than that? ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ is a well known Jesuit motto, often attributed to Francis Xavier. Yes, worldly wisdom perhaps, but I find myself in agreement. Again, it may simply be my personal reflection, but looking back to my village primary school, we all knew who the ‘naughty boys’ were from the very first lessons at age five; and I was saddened, but not surprised, to hear that some of them are now in prison.
Those who speak out against discipline often have a well-meaning agenda. They are wary of abusive situations, and see a fine line between punishment and abuse. I think this does not follow logic. Every day on the bus, or in the park, or in a shop, I will hear a parent yelling at a young child in a manner that I consider to be abusive. Yet I have yet to see such a parent quietly take the child aside to spank them and correct their behaviour. However, if I were to spank one of my boys on the bus, it is possible that somebody would report me for alleged abuse. I would contend that it takes a lot of time and effort – physical, emotional and spiritual – to be continually engaged with your children so that you can identify and correct behaviours time after time. Hence the very reason for this post; by the end of yesterday I felt somewhat exhausted! It would have been far easier in some respects to have just let the boys run wild and do as they pleased whilst I sat and had a cup of tea. But I love them too much for that...
So are there any times when discipline becomes misplaced or abused? Yes, of course there will be. We are sinful human beings too. When we discipline our children, as the passage to the Hebrews makes clear, we should be doing it to further their own interests. This could be a whole separate topic, but I think in a post endorsing the appropriate use of physical discipline, I should conclude by giving several safeguards I try to put in place:
- Why am I disciplining at this point? Is it for the best interests of the child, or my own interests?
- Do I discipline differently (either more or less) when around certain people? Why is that? Is it because I am ashamed of something I am doing? (OK, so there are times when it is appropriate to wait until you are alone with a child, perhaps back home, but for younger children things need to be dealt with pretty much as they arise.
- Am I reacting out of anger? It is never a good idea to discipline a child either verbally or physically when you feel your own emotions getting out of control.
- Do I punish offences more when they have an irritating consequence? For example, am I more likely to spank if the milk is tipped onto the carpet than I am if it is tipped onto the laminate floor? What is the reason for that inconsistency? (Usually my own irritation and the consequence, as the incorrect action is the same in both situations).
- Am I too quick to jump to conclusions? Without tolerating excuses, sometimes a child simply does not know that something is wrong. Or, they might do something they consider to be kind. For example, ‘Mummy I picked you some delicious strawberries from the garden’ (yes, but they are completely green and now are wasted). Or, ‘We’ve made a volcano! Come and see!’ (we have made a muddy mess in the garden). Or other such things. I am aware I can be quick to respond, and it does help me to take a few minutes to consider the context, and whether there was truly an act of disobedience or wrongdoing, or whether it truly was childlike exploring!
- If I do think I have overstepped the mark and responded emotionally, I should show my child an example by apologising to them.
- My husband and I often talk things through in the evenings, with conversations like, ‘What would you have done about this?’ or, ‘Was I too harsh or too soft at that point?’ Of course it helps greatly if you have a spouse who shares your values and principles!
This may be my first post on discipline, but it will certainly not be my last! Some of the questions, dilemmas, principles and outworkings are best illustrated with specific examples. And so, I will try and post as things arise in our family. I get very frustrated when sermons or Christian books rely heavily on illustrations which relate to the lives of people we do not know, who may have lived in another time or culture, and where the illustration itself may not even be correct. Titus Chapter 2 encourages ‘older women likewise, that they be reverent in behaviour, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things – that they may admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed.’ (Titus 2:3-5). This is a passage which I believe to be oft misquoted and misapplied, but the clear principal here is that we should be teaching and encouraging one another from our own experiences as we all seek to grow as Christians and so honour God in our lives. And that is my intent with this blog.