I watched the child at the end of the service. He was only around six or seven years old and he was acting suspiciously. He looked around him to see if anyone was watching then knelt down and dived into a lady’s handbag. He came up triumphant, sneaking a sweet into his pocket and scurrying off to a quiet corner of the church. The lady was not his mother, or a relative, or even a friend of the family. To this boy she was a complete stranger.
When I approached the young boy, he was hid in a corner, busy chewing a sweet. He looked up at me, startled from his seclusion. “Where did you get the sweet from?” I asked him. I told him I had been watching him for the past ten minutes and had seen what he had done. He had no answer to give.
In my mind, this event was serious. Sure, he had not stolen her purse, or her money, or anything of real value, but he had gone into a stranger’s bag to take something he wanted. ‘I will have to tell you parents about this,’ I said, gravely.
‘Please don’t tell my parents,’ he said. I refused to change my mind. He started to cry and to beg me not to tell his parents. He wept and clung on to me, pleading me not to say anything. His reaction was so extreme I began to wonder what kind of reaction his parents would have, I started to think. Was there some covert physical abuse going on in the home that made him so fearful. Was he being neglected at home in some way? Was he so hungry and desperate for food that this was his only way of finding something to satisfy his basic needs?
My resolve to tell his parents was starting to waver as I thought of the possible ramifications in this boy’s life. Then the Holy Spirit spoke to me, ‘It is My grace that he has been caught - tell his parents.’
With this simple word I could see God’s grace at work. If he had got away with stealing a sweet, what would he steal next? Where would this habit end? God’s intervention in his life now was preventing a disaster in the future. His parents’ discipline would be the very thing that would help him choose life in the future.
It is far better that secret sins of our children are uncovered when they are young and still in our home, so that we can support and encourage them to change.
Discipline is an important part of our discipleship. Well-disciplined children grow to be well rounded adults. The greatest challenge is when we start to notice flaws in our children that they have learnt from us – at this point we have to start by disciplining ourselves, working on our character to become more like Jesus.
One of our children started to raise their voice at us. After thinking about this, we realized that we had been raising our voice at them first. Once we spotted this we changed tact quickly: the louder he spoke to us the quieter we spoke back to him.
One day, in the middle of a clash he said to us, ‘I hate the way you use that quiet voice when you speak to me!’
‘Why?’ we asked.
‘Because when you talk quietly I can’t shout back.’
We had modelled to him how to change our behaviour and it had impacted his life.
So how should we discipline?
We should discipline our children consistently. By this I mean that we discipline them when we are tired not just when we have the energy to do so. We should discipline them when we are busy, as well as when we have time. We should discipline them when life is running smoothly and when we are facing trials. When we are in public or in the privacy of our home we should discipline our children. Consistent discipline sends a consistent message to our children so they learn that ‘No,’ means no. When we put in the work to be consistent with our discipline we reap the fruits of having to discipline our children less.
We noticed this around bedtimes. We work hard when they were young to keep to a regular bedtime (not just going to bed on time, but staying in bed). It was hard doing this even when we were tired, but as our children grew they would happily go to bed when told. The work we put in during their toddler years paid off in their later years.
We also have to keep our word to our children consistently. If our children learn that if they cry enough, they will get what they want eventually, then it should be no surprise if they start to cry more. If our children learn that crying does not help them get their own way, they will soon stop using tears to try to get their own way.
Worse than changing boundaries, would be no boundaries. If our children learn that there are no boundaries, because we never discipline them, they will never learn the self-discipline that they need to navigate life in the future.
Our discipline should also be consistent across our children. Different children will respond to discipline in different ways. One child may only need a slight raise of an eyebrow before they put down your never to be touched priceless China, another may require consequences and follow through.
One of our children asked us why he was always punished more than his brother. The reason was simple – we were being consistent. That may seem a strange answer so let me explain. When the two brothers were doing something they knew they shouldn’t they both received a warning. One brother responded to the warning, the other ignored it, leading to further consequences. When we pointed this out to him (and made a point of showing him that he was ignoring the warning) he learnt that we weren’t being unfair we were simply responding to his choice to ignore the warning. It was not long before he started to respond to this consistent approach.
Our discipline, wherever possible, should also be consistent between parents. Discussions on where the boundaries lie can take place away from the children and as much as possible we should support each other in front of our children (even if we disagree).
We should never discipline out of anger: we discipline our children because we love them, not because they annoy us. Our children are experts at ‘pressing out buttons,’ but if we feel anger rising then we should walk away. We discipline not to vent our emotions on our children but to help them grow in a right way. It is an act of love (Proverbs 13:24). External discipline when they are young leads to self-discipline when they are older. Proverbs 29:17 puts it this way, ‘Discipline your children, and they will give you peace; they will bring you the delights you desire.’ When we discipline out of a motive of love our children feel safer and will show more respect over time.
This is the pattern of discipline in scripture. We discipline our children not out of anger, but as an act of love to train them to live their life in a way that is good for them. This kind of loving discipline is exactly what is referred to in Hebrews 12:6. The Lord disciplines those he loves. It is his love for us that causes us to be discipline so that we can grow to be the person he has made us to be.
The younger our children are the more important it is that our discipline promptly (Proverbs 13:24). Waiting three hours between the poor behaviour and discipline being given detaches the consequence from the action and will not have the same impact on changing future behaviour.
What tools do we have at our disposal?
Tools for discipline:
Different families will choose different tools of discipline to instruct our children. It is clear that discipline is not meant to be pleasant. As Hebrews 12:11 says, ‘ Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’ but nor is it meant to be cruel. That’s why it is important that we are under control of our own emotions when we discipline. If we know what tools we can use in advance this can help us to create consequences that are appropriate when under stress of the moment.
Some useful tools for parents include:
1. Positive reinforcement. Discipline is not only about intervening bad behaviour, we should also notice and praise good behaviour to help our children develop good disciplines in later life. Even after we have disciplined for negative behaviours, we can praise them for how they normally are.
2. A warning (‘don’t do that again or you will not be allowed to …’)
3. Time out – time to pause and think of what they have done wrong. A good guide is to use this for as many minutes as they are years old and if they make noise or move from where they have been told to sit quietly the time starts again. After a week the children soon learn to sit and endure.
4. A sanction. Because of … you will be going to bed early/staying home/not allowed to use the computer for the next day/week. Sanctions should not be excessive and where possible linked with the poor behaviour.
5. Restitution. Our children have to do something to make up for what they have done. For example, pick up the cards they have thrown across the room. Take on extra chores around the house.
Let’s buck the trend and raise our children to be respectful, caring, well-mannered and self-disciplined. It will take both grace and effort to do it, but it is worth it. This will not only help them in later life, but will increase your witness as a family.