Parenting

Discipline Looks Toward the Future

We are looking at the difference between discipline and punishment. You can read the first post in this series here.  Last week I mentioned that discipline takes a different view than punishment.  I am drawing from wisdom which Dr. Bruce Narramore lays out in his book, “Help, I’m A Parent!”  One of the key differences between discipline and punishment is our intention as a parent when we set out to “answer” our child’s behavior.

I find myself in a dilemma right off  the bat here and I have to go back and remind us all that the heart of parenting — good parenting — is a relationship.  God has a relationship with us and that is His heart: to have relationship.  Our relationship with our children reflects how much we have absorbed that precious truth about God.  If we perceive (even in the hidden parts of our heart) that God is “up there” just keeping track of our good and bad behavior, handing out goodies or striking down with lightning depending on our “goodness” or “badness” we will treat our children as though their behavior is the crux of life and we will see the primary function of parenting as doling out consequences and we will fixate on their outward behavior.  If, however, we believe that God loves us and enjoys us and that His primary focus is on having relationship with us, we will be relationship-focused parents who delight in our children and see “behaviors” as secondary.  To me, as I have grown as a parent, the challenging behaviors I see in my children are like little warning lights showing me areas where they have unmet needs or areas where they need to grow and learn.

 The view I am sharing does not dismiss the fact that both my children and I are sinners.  We are.  What I am saying is that most behaviors have roots and those roots are the heart of what we need to look at as we look at the whole picture of parenting.  You can learn more about that in my series on “What A Child Really Needs.”

So, the first key thought to remember when thinking about discipline is “relationship first.”  The second is “meet needs before doling consequences,” meaning look deeper, behind the troubling behavior to identify if your child has any unmet needs so you can address those before you give a consequence to their actions.

Now, there are occasions when we need to discipline – lots and lots of occasions.  This is true especially if we remember that the word discipline means to instruct.  Some of our life with our children will include times of connecting and delighting in one another.  Other times will require that we respond (not react) to their behavior so that we can help them learn and grow.  This brings up the key distinction I want to discuss here: 

Discipline looks to the future; Punishment pays back the past.  

To discern if we are disciplining or punishing our child, we need to look at our motives when we approach our children in their misbehavior.  First of all, as Dr. Narramore suggests in his book. we can ask ourselves how we are feeling as we respond.  Ask yourself if you are feeling anger or love.  Anger is actually usually rooted in fear.  Fear can play such a toxic role in our parenting.  We can fear what will happen to our children if they don’t change the behavior we are trying to address.  We can fear what others will think of us if our children are less than perfect.  We can fear feeling out of control.  We can also be burnt out and have a short fuse.  All of these factors can add up to an angry feeling in our heart towards our child.  When we are angry, we tend to punish.  We just want the behavior to stop and we want it to stop now.  Add to this a child’s natural propensity to test limits and our potential feelings that they should just listen to us (after all, we ARE the parent) and we can experience some ugly scenes in the name of “discipline.”  

True discipline has at its heart LOVE.  Love puts the welfare of the other person ahead of their own comfort.  We can read 1 Cor 13 (and we should) and see that Love is patient, kind, gentle … and we can ask ourselves if this is the picture of the tone of our discipline.  I have heard parents take a “he’s gonna get it” tone in their discussions about their children’s misbehavior.  I know the feeling when we are stretched thin and we just want life to smooth out and it feels like this child of ours is the one thing standing between us and a peaceful home.  The attitude of “he’s gonna get it” is a punishing heart that has at its core thoughts of retaliation for wrongdoing.  Instead of taking that approach, discipline says, “What is wrong here?”  “What does my child need to learn?”  “How can I best teach him/her that lesson?”  This may mean that there are consequences that come for misbehavior.  Sometimes that means allowing natural consequences to come and sometimes that means instituting some artificial, but related consequences if those will help instruct the child in the way he should go.  What we are not to do is just lay a heavy hand (physically or verbally or emotionally) on our child to make sure he feels bad about what he has done.  That is payback and it only damages the relationship between parent and child and hinders learning of lessons long term.  

Sure, children who are punished may learn — actually, they do learn.  They learn to avoid punishment at all costs.  This may look beautiful to an outside observer.  The child does what he is told and complies with authority (at least for a time and when the threat of punishment is present).  But what about the heart of that child?  In their heart they haven’t desired to walk a good path for its own sake.  They haven’t decided that a certain virtue has merit for its own sake, they have learned that they want to avoid pain and they will do what it takes to do so.  

So, discipline has an eye towards the future; Punishment pays back the past.  We need to ask ourselves: Am I looking ahead, helping my child to grow into a more whole, healthy, fully-functioning person?  Or, am I just angry or at my limit over something they have done? When we are burnt out or we feel angry, we can take space, call a friend, pray, do whatever it takes, but we need to pause before engaging with our child.  I will write more about this in a future series (the one I am working on after this series which will review Fenelon’s 20 principles for raising children).  For now, let’s suffice it to say that it does way more damage to continue to engage with our children when our fuse is short than it does to take some space and regroup.  

I’ll share a little personal story here since some of my friends who read this blog have told me how much my own sharing has helped them.  Just this morning my youngest son did something foolish and a bit disruptive.  I was taken aback by what he did.  We had been having a wonderful morning and then he did this one thing and I could feel my blood starting to boil.  I grew up in a home where tempers often ran high and life was volatile and sometimes even dangerous.  What was modeled to me was anger unchecked.  I had parents, who were good in many ways, but self-control when angry was not one of their skills.  As a result of this upbringing, when I did come to Christ, it took me years to reconcile what seemed to be the God of the Old Testament with what I would call the God of the New Testament.  It seemed to me that they were two different Gods or that He just decided to be nice after Jesus came to earth.  I felt that the God of the Old Testament was always angry and getting even or making rash judgements and lashing out in his anger.  He seemed powerful and sometimes good, but very dangerous and unpredictable.  (Sound familiar?)  I had projected onto God what I had grown up with and I saw Him through the lens of my childhood experiences.  We all tend to view God through our own lenses which are formed in childhood and shaped by the way we were parented.  My parents had been erratic and sometimes dangerous, so of course, God in His anger seemed to be just like them.  Over time I grew to experience God’s love and gentleness and I could say with the Psalmist, “He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  This transformation has wrought its way into my parenting.  My knee-jerk reaction as a parent used to be to have occasional and regrettable outbursts in my anger.  I was prone to this despite my inner resistance to anything that had been done to me as a child.  I was living out a subtle reflection of what I had grown up in.  I was not as damaging nor as dangerous my parents had been, but I had moments of yelling and getting angry and they echoed the uncontrolled anger of my parents.  I prayed and begged God to change me and He has.  

So, back to this morning. My son made a bad choice and I was upset.  Immediately when I felt my blood rise, I told him, “Please go to your room.  That was a foolish choice and I want to talk with you about it, but right now I am angry and I need a minute to calm down.”  You see, I have learned to give space when either one of us is angry or over-emotional.  No learning will happen when either of our emotions are high.  I started praying.  Oh, by the way, my son did leave the room.  He could tell I needed space.  We have learned to give one another space and it is a given in our home that we clear the decks when someone needs to cool off (either that person goes to their own room or others give them space depending on how things are going).  Sometimes my son gives me a hard time about going to his room, but we work through that and he does end up going there.  Today he knew.  He left the room and I prayed.  I breathed.  I asked God to give me grace towards my son.  I asked for clarity and wisdom.  I went to his room when I felt calm enough and I started by asking questions to clarify.  If I had been acting on anger I would have “shot first and asked questions later.”  Since I was calm, I could clarify with questions.  I found out that some of what had upset me was a total misperception on my part.  I wouldn’t have found that out had I not taken the time to ask the questions.  I then was able to say, “Sorry Mommy got frustrated and felt angry.  I sure appreciate you giving me space to calm down.  I saw you do {this} and I thought you were doing {this} and that is what got me upset.”  We talked through the whole thing.  He apologized (sincerely) for the part that he did do that was not okay and we hugged and moved on.  My eye was on him and his wellbeing and the future of our relationship and his growth.  I got my emotions under control and then I could enter the situation with a clear mind and loving heart. 

If we think about how our children feel overall about our interactions and tones with them it helps.  No discipline at the time is pleasant, so our children won’t always agree or be cheerful when we are helping them grow.  That being said, it does us well (and our children even moreso) if we can step back and see the world and our home and their childhood through their eyes.  What does it feel like to be this child?  Do they feel like your project or your precious beloved child?  Do they know they are treasured or do they feel like they are always in trouble?  We are creating a message to our child in how we discipline (or punish) them.  This message will go with them and carry much weight in their heart and life.  I want my message to be a message of love and encouragement which helps them sink their roots deep in God — the living God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 

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