How to discipline an unruly child must be one of the most frequently asked questions by any parent. Countless books have been written on the subject, and countless seminars have sought to imbue parents with the keys for success. With little over 5 years of combined parenting behind me, I’m going to audaciously tell you why I believe discipline may be the least important issue in your family right now. My wife and I were both raised in spanking households, but from the very first I was deeply uncomfortable with spanking our own kids. We hold nothing against our parents in this regard, but as my wife and I began to examine our own beliefs and feelings surrounding spanking, we quickly found ourselves unable to justify the practice. We made a commitment with our community to no longer spank our children, and I more quietly continued questioning discipline beyond spanking. The parents in our circle were obviously eager to hear what we planned to do instead! For the last 12 months we’ve been trying to figure that out. We’ve experimented with time-outs, reduction of privileges, non-violent shows of physical force (don’t even ask), and various other tactics. The biggest reason Maija and I felt uncomfortable with spanking specifically, was that it was far too easy to spank the child and then feel that the issue was dealt with. This is a total fallacy, and as we looked at other methods of discipline we found that many of them suffered from the same ailment. What we’re discovering, day by day, is that the need for discipline is dependant on just about every other aspect of parenting. The parent who is fully engaged in their child’s life, having laid down their own life to serve their child, will find discipline barely registering on their radar. To get there, we need to examine the Biblical right to discipline your children, and re-discover a superior way of living.
Why strong discipline is so prevalent in the Christian community baffles me, but I suspect it relates to a faulty understanding of how God fathers us. Proverbs 13:24 in the NKJV says:
He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly.
Through the poetry of William Langland later modified by Samuel Butler, that scripture has come down to most of us as the saying “Spare the rod, spoil the child” and that is the interpretation that many of us read back into that scripture. The Hebrew word used for rod is shebet, and it refers to a number of things including authority, tribe, offshoot, as well as a literal rod or staff for striking things (including “striking the back”). In examining the language used in this passage and elsewhere, and in discussion with wiser scholars than I, I have done my best to find an escape clause for what sounds like tacit permission for corporal punishment. And you know what? I couldn’t find one. As I read through Numbers, Samuel, and Proverbs, I found there is simply too much support for discipline - and even punishment - to write off our right to discipline, both corporal and otherwise.
If that was the end of our study, we might conclude, as so many have done for so long, that a loving Father is one who strongly disciplines his children to bring about right behaviour. While this may be a comforting thought to some of us, it’s actually contrary to the character of God.
Did he just say that?
I did, and I’ll tell you why. God is righteous, holy and just. He has created us, created this world, and owes us absolutely nothing. As deedholder of the universe, he has every right to lay rules and regulations before us that would govern our lifestyle, our relationship with one another, our relationship and him, and so on. And He did in fact provide such rules. God gave a law, through Moses, that proved to be impossible for any of us to meet. But something incredible happened. This God set himself apart from all other gods by fulfilling that law himself, categorically and for all time. There is no stricture or rule that God has not already fulfilled from his own person. There is no altar requiring sacrifice, for which God has not provided the sacrificial lamb himself, who was Jesus Christ.
More than an elementary lesson in salvation, this stuff is critical to understanding the character of the Father. According to Paul, Christ is the explanation, the exegesis, of God the Father, so the life of Christ informs us of the character of our God. Let’s take a look.
Observe Jesus’s behaviour at the wedding at Cana. The wedding celebration is in full swing, and the wine has tragically run out. The situation is a major social problem for the bridegroom, whose responsibility it was to source the wine. Jesus now has two choices before him. He knows that the people have already drunk a lot of wine, and that they’re clamouring for more. Being Jewish, He knows just how much wine they like to throw back; if they somehow get their hands on more wine, they’re likely to get pretty drunk. However, right now, the bridegroom’s failure to provide enough wine is a major source of shame, on a day that should be joyously happy. In His first recorded miracle, Jesus provides roughly 150 gallons of the best wine the wedding guests have ever tasted, and categorically erases the shame of the bridegroom. By creating a better wine, He even elevates and glorifies the groom before the guests at his wedding.
I don’t think it’s insignificant that this is Jesus’ first recorded miracle. As the new Adam, sent to redeem His bride, the issue of his Earthly archetype’s failure and of his Bride’s shame must be foremost in his mind. This is highlighted beautifully in the story of the woman caught in adultery, from John 8. She’s dragged from wherever it is she’s caught, and thrown at the feet of Jesus. A group of men with murderous intent are ready to exact the punishment that the law prescribes for a women in this situation. Jesus knows the law, and Scripture indicates no question regarding the guilt of this woman, so the proposed punishment is indeed justified. The woman is probably wearing little more than the shame of her crime and it appears that once again shame tips Jesus’ hand as he sends the men away by exposing their own lack of righteousness.
Jesus: “Sweetheart, who is it that condemns you?” Girl: “No one... [except the law, of course.]” Jesus: “Then neither do I condemn you. Go, be free, and sin no more.”
This issue of shame appears to trump a lot of things for Jesus. I personally think shame is Job 1 for the Son of God, because shame causes his beautiful bride to be ignorant of her worth, and nothing less than his Bride has drawn the Son of God to earth in the first place. It draws Jesus to touch lepers & bleeding women, to talk with Samaritans, to sit and eat with the scum of Jerusalem’s underbelly.
The stories matter because they expose the character of Christ, and this Christ is God in all His fulness. At no point in Cana does Jesus (God) show concern for the drunkenness of the guests, when love is on the line. At no point does Jesus (God) remind the adulterous woman what she has done. At no point in the story of the Prodigal Son does the good father talk of his boy’s foolishness; rather he kills the best animal, and showers his wayward son with affection. The love of God is fundamentally unfair. The grace of God is even scandalous, in the words of Mike Bickle.
While God has every right to punish us, he instead took the punishment upon his own self, scandalizing himself with the love that he has shown us. Why would he do this? Because we were created in the first place, to be loved, to be the object of Christ’s affection. We’re not put on this earth to love God, rather to be loved by God.
The church has been steadily rediscovering this kind of stuff for the last 500 years, but so much of this has been lost from our parenting specifically. So much of Christian behaviour today has devolved from a dynamic relationship with God through his living Christ, to excerpts and interpretations of Mosaic law and the wisdom of Solomon. We are so convinced that our sins are a problem. I believe our parenting has followed the same path, and this faulty theology is part of the reason we are so obsessed with our children’s disobedience. Did you know that almost every piece of empirical research condemns corporal punishment, while practically every Christian parenting book supports it? (See footnote for details.) While the idealist in me would love to say something like “God’s intimacy with his children is morally superior to any law” that actually even doesn’t do justice to the model God has shown us. What is apparent even in the Old Testament, throws itself vividly into view in the New Testament. Throughout Scripture, Father God is violently and repeatedly declaring the scandalous news that the shame, condemnation, accusation and punishment that we are due shall in fact be meted out on God himself instead (Jesus Christ).
For the parent that wants to love as God loves, any attempt at behavioural correction that even runs the risk of bringing shame or condemnation to our children is categorically off the table. I’ll say that again; if timeout, spanking, grounding, yelling, washing-their-mouth-out-with-soap, or reduction of privileges, hints at punishment, shame, or guilt, then it is out-of-bounds for us. Instead, I’m inviting you to join me in laying down our God-given right to discipline, and discover a better way of living.
It’s worth pointing out right now that if you have not received a revelation of this grace from your Heavenly Father, it will be impossible to lay down the right to discipline, and equally impossible to show grace to anyone else. If you have any interest in justifying your parental behaviour to me, then I’d like to gently suggest that the quest to justify any behaviour stems from the root fear that you are not behaving right. And if correct behaviour is remains a fear, then you have yet to receive the whole truth of your Father's love.
Our eternal purpose is to be loved by God. Since God has loved us, we can now reflect that to our children. Consequently, fully engaged intimacy with your children is the single most effective method of behavioural correction you will ever find.
What does this look like practically? My wife and I are shockingly human, and we struggle with implementing this ideal, but we've found "time in" with our unruly kids to be just about as life-changing as we could want. It is of paramount importance that shame and condemnation are as far from you and your child as the east is from the west. When you sit your child down, look them in the eyes, and minister truth right into their soul. The first thing out of my mouth, every time that one of my kids and I do this is “I love you.” In order to build & maintain safety and trust, and to honour your children, you must let them reciprocate however they want to. My kids are used to this routine, and I usually hear something like “Me no love Daddy! Me mad!” If you’ve got this far, then you’re doing excellent, because your child has just confided in you that they are upset, and that they don’t like you right now. That is communication, and it will diffuse the situation faster than anything else.
How the conversation proceeds will be a little different in each circumstance, but your job in this intimate moment is two-fold:
- Speak the truth of who they are. Your children are good. Never, ever call your child a bad boy/girl. You must crush the lies of the accuser. When my 3 year old son sits in my lap and tells me how mad he is, followed by “Me bad boy” it’s clear that he already suffers from the whispering lies of the enemy of our souls. Look your child in the eye, and Crush. Those. Lies.
- Using all grace and gentleness, make clear to them the standard of behaviour that is expected. My kids can put the dots together on the behaviour that I expect with a lot less instruction from me than I would give them credit for. If they’re older than two years, then like the woman at Jesus’ feet, they know what they’ve done. While they might seek to justify their behaviour in the short term, the last person they’ll truly fool is themselves, and step 1 will in time break through this.
There is no room here for punishment. If step 2 doesn’t produce results, then I’m repeat step 1 ad nauseum. Here’s a sobering truth: your child might not ever obey you. The thing is, if you haven’t figured out yet, is that this expectation was never really meant to be on the cards. God has not promised that your children will obey you. (And I’m certainly not going to promise it). If you are still holding on to the notion that your children owe you obedience, I hate to break it to you, but they simply don’t. God’s call to honour your parents is between Him and them, just as it was always between Him and you regarding your own parents. Philippians gives us critical insight that makes any question of obedience, punishment and control completely irrelevant in light of the Love Quest of Christ:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!
Just as you and your children are all sinners, so are you and your children are co-heirs with Christ! You are both equal partners in the Bride and the Body of Christ. You are ministers of reconciliation, and you have the greater right to begin the reconciliation of your children back to their Father. So do nothing out of selfish ambition, and look not to your own interests. Christ was God, He had all Godly authority, and He used that authority to become the servant of all. You now can use your God given right of discipline, to un-discipline your kids, by becoming your child’s servant, in the same manner that Christ became the servant of all. For a time on this earth, you have been entrusted with a child’s care and upbringing, and this is an incredible calling. Your primary role in this calling is to shepherd your kids through the journey from slaves to sons, and to then show them the beauty of servanthood. Your child will never disrespect you for lowering yourself in their eyes, for lifting them above yourself. But only your child can choose to honour you, and only your child can choose to become a servant later in life. Your daily actions are planting seeds that have immeasurable influence on whether your children grow into slaves, sons, or servants.
The good news, is that living through this kind of intentional engagement in my own family for 12 months has shown that my children are positively responsive practically 100% of the time. I could tell you of many occasions in the past month alone when my 3-year-old, after having time with Daddy where he’s told he’s loved and is a source of pride (and sometimes that’s it) has returned to me within minutes, keenly discerning what he had done wrong, apologizing for it, and saying he wouldn’t do it again. And then following through on his tiny, 3-year-old promise, as best as a rambunctious older-sibling can.
It may be worth mentioning that this will be incredibly difficult for you if you are a single-parent, as if you didn’t already have enough stacked against you. The only consolation I can offer you is that I believe this to be the most sustainable way to raise your children. While my own parents didn’t understand all of this when they raised us, they did plant incredible seeds, and I can say with authority that neither me nor any of my brothers went through any teenage rebellion or caused my parents any particular behavioural stress as we grew up. How much more-so will your children be a blessing to you, when the seeds of servanthood you have planted come to bear fruit.
You can provide no better preparation for a life of loving God, than by setting this stage of intentional, loving, un-discipline. What your children need is to be honoured by you, to be served by you, to be 100% engaged by you. Intentional time-in after episodes of troubled behaviour should be just the baseline for a lifestyle of active emotional presence and of loving, watchful, truth-declaring servanthood. If that is your child’s reality, then you will develop a relationship of mutual servanthood and honour that will wipe bad behaviour off the table.
Until that time comes, put before yourself the dream of the day when your kids come to you and say "No one I know loves their children this way." Scandalizing yourself in this way might be the hardest thing you ever do. But it might also be the most important.
Editors Note: A number of people have told me I need to read Danny Silk's book Loving Our Kids on Purpose. I have yet to read it, but am very much looking forward to it.
For empirical research on spanking, see:
- Study printed in February 2012 Canadian Medical Association Journal analyzes 20 years of data and finds no upside to spanking and downsides including depression, anxiety, substance abuse and aggressive behaviour. http://www.cmaj.ca/content/early/2012/02/06/cmaj.101314.full.pdf+html?sid=44c528fa-278e-41ce-9a59-5a65697e585a
- Study printed in Pediatrics journal by researchers at Tulane University found that children who spanked as often as twice a month at age 3 are twice as likely to become aggressive, destructive and mean when they are age 5. http://tulane.edu/news/releases/pr_03122010.cfm
- Study from Columbia University psychologists that analyzed 80 prior studies over 62 years and found that corporal punishment had a strong correlation with only 1 positive behaviour (immediate compliance) but 10 negative behaviours including increased aggression and increased anti-social behaviour. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2002/06/spanking.aspx
- Over 30 countries have banned spanking, Sweden did so as early as 1979.
The powerful photo of the boy in the corner is called "Shame" and is found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tcatcarson/5438345878/