When our kids misbehave, most of us have a strong tendency to lash out. Unless we have truly done the long, hard work of dying to self (which is an ongoing process), then most of the time, even if we dress it up in fancy language and justifications, in the heat of the moment, we just want revenge. We want to feel powerful. We want to tip the scales back in our favour. We want to punish and teach our kids a lesson.
In my observation there are 5 languages of punishment that we naturally gravitate towards:
Spanking / physical punishment
Taking things away / threatening
Yelling or unkind language
Forced labour / chores
The way that we were raised will have a lot do with the methods we gravitate towards with our children, but here’s the catch: each of these approaches are uniquely damaging to the heart of a child.
Over 20 years ago, Dr. Gary Chapman, a pastor and clinical psychologist trained in anthropology, identified five “languages” of love that humans use to show love to one another. Each of us are wired to “hear” love most clearly through 1 or 2 of these languages, and we also have a natural tendency to use 1 or 2 of these languages more than the others when trying to communicate love to others. The opportunity for each of us is to learn how those we care for receive love most effectively, and develop skills in those languages if they’re not our own strong languages. Your children each receive love most clearly and impactfully through one or two of the five languages, as follows:
Receiving of Gifts
Words of Affirmation
Acts of Service
My top 2 languages are physical touch, and words of affirmation. Early in our marriage, Maija would pour herself out with acts of service, and buy me loads of gifts, because those are her natural ways to express love. But they didn’t do anything for me. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t appreciate everything she was doing and buying for me, and I didn’t understand why she didn’t love me. For her part, she had to learn that the most effective way to communicate love and affection to me is a touch on the back, reaching out and touching my arm during conversation, making eye contact, affirming me with her words, etc. And I had to learn that when she served me and bought things for me, she was communicating her love to me. We both had to grow in these languages. I recently met Dr Chapman and was impressed by his kindness, his humour, and his down-to-earth nature. He’s a proper Southern Gentleman. If you haven’t read his books, I highly recommend them.
If you don’t know your children’s love languages, identifying them isn’t particularly difficult. If you consider your child and think about how they respond to you, you may quickly see some trends emerge. Depending on their EQ and how self aware they are, they might even be able to identify their own love languages.
Can you see the parallels between Dr Chapman’s five love languages, and the five languages of punishment that I listed above? When we utilize these methods, we do not simply communicate that a child has misbehaved or missed the mark. That might be all we are trying to communicate, but punishment actually damages the love relationship between us. Rather than hold up a warning sign or place a healthy boundary marker, by punishing we exert power over the child which wounds their heart, causes them to fear and mistrust us, and places them into a love deficit. That love deficit and the associated trust issues will only serve to exacerbate the behavioural issues that we’re already facing. Here’s the bad news:
If you spank a child who’s love language is physical touch, you will crush their spirit and confuse them about the safety of physicality and healthy touch. At the extreme end of this path lies assault and rape.
If you send a child whose love language is quality time to be alone in their room, you will crush their spirit and communicate to them that they are not worthy of having time spent with them. At the extreme end of this path lies isolation and suicide.
If you withdraw privileges or threaten to remove things from a child whose love language is the receiving of gifts, you will crush their spirit and teach them a false relationship between behaviour and possessions. At the extreme end of this path lies greed and poverty.
If you yell at or verbally abuse a child whose love language is words of affirmation, you will crush their spirit and bewilder them about the power of communication and the nature of truth. At the extreme end of this path is lying, deception and manipulation.
If you force a child to do chores or other kinds of labour whose love language is acts of service, you will crush their spirit and teach them that they must perform perfectly to be worthy of special things. At the extreme end of this path lies perfectionism and workaholism.
You are might argue that we should simply use a punishment method that is not going to harm our specific child. If my child isn’t a quality time kid, then what’s the harm in time out? The fact is, a wealth of research affirms that all forms of punishment are damaging to a child’s heart, and damaging to the parent-child relationship (the single most important relationship in a child’s life). Successful discipline has very little to do with behaviour correction, and almost everything to do with connection, boundaries and helping a person learn to self-regulate and live up to their full potential. That requires an intentional investment of time, of love and of other resources which are aimed specifically at your child and based upon their unique needs. Your response to their bad behaviour is important, but it’s far less important than your intentionality with them at every other moment of the day. The love languages are a useful starting point for your discovery of how to unlock your child’s potential for self-regulation.
Let me quickly say that I know how difficult this is. Parenting is incredibly hard. I have three of my own and I’m a Children’s Pastor of 25 children between the ages of 2 and 13, who all meet in one room. I keenly understanding the anger, the frustration, the fear, the shame and the guilt that can typify so much of our feelings towards our children. But there is hope! God is a perfect father and he has endured everything you and I could ever face, and he does it with boundless grace, mercy and humility. He never sends us away from his presence, and he never lashes out. He lets us nail him to a cross to demonstrate that he will never lift a hand in violence against us. If you submit yourself to him then his spirit takes up residence inside you and will give you his grace and mercy. That’s the good news.
I’ll talk about practical, God-centred, self-sacrificial alternatives to punishment in the next few articles in this series. Grace and peace to you, dear parents. You’re doing the work of God.