Chances are, if you’re a parent, you will discipline your children in some way today. That’s the nature of the beast – it’s simply what we do as moms and dads who love our children and are seeking to raise them in an environment where they grow to love and follow Jesus.
But just because discipline is the field we play on, it doesn’t mean we’re great at it. That’s because discipline is the hard work of parenting. Much harder than punishing, in fact. Discipline takes longer, it requires teaching along with consequences, and in the end is about not just shaping behavior but shaping the heart. For that reason, and because of what’s at stake, exercising discipline ought to be a skill in which we are growing as parents. To that end, I’ve found it helpful when it comes time to administer some kind of discipline to step back for a moment and think. Consider. Pray. In that process, I’ve begun asking myself very quickly three questions just to check my own heart:
1. What’s really upsetting me in this instance?
I’ve been surprised to see when I ask myself this question how many times my anger at my children is really selfish in nature. Sure, they might have broken a lamp or something like that. But my anger isn’t about the lamp; it’s about the financial cost that we will have to replace the lamp. Or sure, they might be loud upstairs instead of getting into bed, but I’m really upset because I’m tired and have to infringe on my own time to go upstairs and make sure they are actually brushing their teeth. In both cases, I’m really upset because of some cost to me. Ironically, I am putting myself at the center. And if I’m at the center, then chances are I’m not going to discipline my children in such a way that shapes their hearts. I’m only really teaching them not to make dad angry.
2. Is my response proportionate to the circumstance?
I have the tendency to overreact. Perhaps you do, too. And when I overreact with my kids, things tend to get worse in a hurry. As a result, the discipline often does not fit the crime. I hand down some elaborate form of retribution, framed as discipline, and keep talking so long that neither the child or I can remember exactly what happened to start this to begin with. It’s helpful before we hand down that discipline to take a breath, and just consider whether or not this “thing” really is a big of a deal as we are making it, or whether our anger had clouded our judgment.
3. How am I pointing my kids to the gospel through discipline?
This is the hardest one. It’s hard to see the heart-transforming power of the gospel through the veil of anger. But we must do this as parents, or else we will constantly be talking about behavior and never talking about sin, grace, and forgiveness. It’s important, I think, to note that you don’t point your kids to the gospel by telling them there are no consequences for their actions. There are, and there should be. And yet as we communicate those consequences we can’t either implicitly or explicitly indicate that the child had to earn their way back into our good graces and love. Whatever discipline we exercise, we must do so from a posture of fathers and mothers who are intent, above anything else, in mirroring the gospel-laiden truth of the situation.
The best way to learn this, of course, is to look to the Lord as our Heavenly Father. Indeed, if we spend so much of our time as parents disciplining our kids, then we can’t really talk about God as Father without realizing that He’s engaged in that work of discipline, too. God is committed not to our behavior but our hearts; not just in what we do but to what we are becoming. That’s why He disciplines rather than punishes His kids. God help us to do the same:
Do not despise the Lord’s instruction, my son,
and do not loathe his discipline;
for the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
just as a father disciplines the son in whom he delights (Proverbs 3:10-11).