One of my great passions is helping people live in the freedom and love that they are capable of living in. As a parent, children’s pastor and deep thinker I’m convinced that much of our limited view of ourselves and our potential is due to the disciplinary practices we were raised with, as well as the bad theology underpinning them. To help parents raise their standard I’ve introduced the concept of un-discipline: parenting that is rooted in the self-sacrificial love of God, which we see most clearly in God allowing us to crucify him for our own sake. His selfless love paying the price for us can be our model for parental discipline. I’ve also written about how most of our attempts at discipline are just a manifestation of our desire for punishment and control and how they damage the love connection with our children. I’ve also addressed a few of the methods we use at home, namely time-in and strategically ignoring bad behaviour, but a number of people have asked if I can write further practical tips on how sacrificial parenting really works out on a day-to-day basis.
Before I do so, I want to offer two further points of clarification.
Discipline vs Punishment
Discipline is about teaching and instilling values. It promotes and enriches a child’s personhood and their intrinsic worth. It equips them for a higher standard of living. It requires hard work, it requires you to lay down your life for them so that they may thrive. Conversely, punishment is about correcting, enforcing and controlling. It relies on fear and the power to take things away or to inflict pain. This is specifically the kind of power that God categorically rejects the use of. I have gone as far as calling Godly discipline un-discipline because they way God models it towards us, and the extravagant cost that he pays, is so far above our worldly values and what we expect from him.
Successful, life-laid-down parenting is not going to come about from lists of tips and tricks. It comes about from intentionally pursuing the heart of your child, listening to the Holy Spirit, and paying whatever price is necessary to accomplish what the Spirit wants to do in your child’s life. It’s hard and costly and painful and will take years to accomplish, but that’s the crux of it. And it’s why I hesitate to provide a simple checklist, because very often that puts us back into the realm of punishment: one-and-done external applications based on specific instances of bad-behaviour rather than an ongoing process of intentionality.
With that said, here are my practical tips for parental disciple that is non-violent, grace-filled and based on self-sacrificial love.
8 Tips for Godly Parental Discipline
1. Own your own sh*t.
Most of us don’t have a very strong awareness of our own inner emotional world but our hearts will not let us ignore them forever. Thus we often end up projecting our trauma, our anger, our confusion onto others around us including our children. If your children are triggering you, own that issue. Do the heart work necessary in order to be a pure and clean love conduit for your child.
Scenario: You are brushing your child’s teeth and they clamp their mouth shut and refuse to cooperate. You try to force their jaw open, which hurts them and they spit in your face. You shout at them never to spit in your face again and you send them to their room.
Alternative: Control your own reaction and breathe through the trigger. Remind yourself that dirty teeth are better than hurting hearts. Sacrifice your pride and let your child have their own way, then examine your heart. Why is this child’s lack of cooperation, followed by dishonour, causing me to have a level 10 reaction to a level 3 problem? What painful memory or trauma from my own past is my child triggering here? Seek help if you can’t identify and work through the issue yourself.
2. Model a higher standard of behaviour.
Let them see your consistency, your self-control and your grace. Your kids love you and look up to you. They already want to be like you, and repeat whatever behaviour they’re seeing. They’ll want to model poor behaviour even more than good behaviour because it looks powerful. By modeling a higher standard you are promoting self-control and positive behaviour, while building trust through your consistency.
3. Do be clear about expectations.
By being consistent and setting a high standard, you earn the right to establish clear expectations for your children. Don’t shackle them with a thousand rules and don’t come down hard on them when they fail, but do clearly establish what kind of home you expect to have and what kind of behaviours society will deem appropriate as the grow up. Do they want dessert? Dessert comes after dinner. This teaches the benefits of self-control, which you’re already modeling.
4. Match their energy, not their attitude.
As emotional, energetic children develop self-awareness they often feel at odds with their stoic, non-emotional parents. This can contribute to their sense of alienation and lack of trust with you. By intentionally allowing your emotions to display around them in a safe manner, and by working to reach their level of excitement, they will feel a sense of kinship and understanding with you. Contrast that with the shouting match that occurs if we get suckered in to matching our kids’ poor attitudes.
Scenario: You have been with your friends for dinner and it’s time to go home. You tell the kids and they start screaming and yelling because one of them hasn’t had their final turn on the Xbox. One shouts, “I hate you! I wish we hadn’t come here! I never wanted to come here.” You get angry, and shout back, “Fine! I wish I hadn’t brought you!”
Alternative: Breathe through the anger and remind yourself that your kids are tired and beyond the point of being able to control themselves peacefully. You probably should have been more attentive to them throughout the night. You’ll do that next time. Harness your own frustrated energy and use it to match theirs, allowing you to say, “Son/daughter, I know how frustrated you are. I’m sorry that you missed your last turn. Let’s make sure you get to play first thing tomorrow morning, and we’ll work harder to make sure everyone gets their fair turn. Now let’s race up to the front door and see who can get their jackets and boots on the fastest. Bonus screen-time for you tomorrow if you can beat me up the stairs!“
5. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
They’ll screw up and miss the mark. They’re kids. Let them misbehave and act out. Better now than when they’re adults. If you’ve done your heart work it will be easier to be a non-reactionary parent. Create a safe space for them to test the boundaries, explore their morality and learn about different types of power. Play the long game and don’t correct them all the time. At best it’s a distraction and at worse you’ll exasperate yourself and them. Your faithful witness will usually be more impactful than your words.
6. Do be intentional and communicative.
Don’t withdraw from them when they frustrate you, stay present and engaged. Don’t tune out from pain or frustration. Learn to lean in, embrace the fear that they will never change, and let love wash through you to them so that they do change. Don’t behave in ways that communicate your withdrawal, including sending kids to their room alone or taking privileges away in a punitive fashion.
Scenario: Your daughter has ignored your repeated instruction to finish her meal and clear her dishes from the table. Instead she has helped herself to desert and then run off to watch TV. You go to the TV room and tell her her behaviour was not acceptable. She ignores you and you take away her desert privileges for the week.
Alternative: You sacrifice your plans for the evening and join your daughter in front of the TV. At a suitable moment you turn it off and attempt to discuss the behaviour that you saw and the behaviour that you would rather see. She is silly and doesn’t appear to take you seriously. You escort her to her bedroom and remain in her presence while she plays and calms down, until she is eventually prepared to listen. You explain why the standard of behaviour matters and you ask her what might be an appropriate action for her to consider doing in response. Help her follow through with the action, and move on with your night.
7. Let the truth do its work.
You’re planting and watering seeds, not carving ice sculptures. God’s perfect, limitless love took time to manifest in your life, how much more will your own flawed loved take time to manifest in your children? But manifest it will, this is God’s promise. Learn to see the beautiful souls underneath the chaos and keep calling them out. It will keep your perspective healthy as the years tick by.
Pray for yourself and for your child. Pray that God’s good and perfect will would be accomplished in their lives, and offer yourself as a living sacrifice to see his will be done. Friend, I know it’s easy to read and write this stuff sitting in quiet isolation in my tidy living room and I know it’s a different thing to put it into practice on Monday morning or Friday night. But God loves you and your children more than you do, he gave his own life to show you his way of love, and his spirit gladly takes up residence within you if you invite him. Put all your successes and failures in his hands, and rest in his love for you and for your children.