By Lee Stewart
Do you remember when you first felt like a parent? For me it was not on day one. On day one I was a mother—nurturer, provider, and comforter. There was something very straightforward about the whole thing and something very natural for me to do: LOVE THIS BABY.
As my baby became a toddler, people began to warn me about the terrible twos. But my little guy was so compliant, so I thought I outsmarted them! Then he turned three. There were tantrums, resistance, whining, and (gasp!) a sinful child in my midst! And I knew I was a full-blown parent. I began to learn the hard way and the long way—discipline needs the law of love.
The Bible says to discipline a child is to love them, and to refuse to discipline them is to hate them. So we know the truth about discipline, but we don’t always know how to apply it. It seems the first born child gets the brunt of our learning curve. When we err as parents, it isn’t just about practical missteps. There are flaws in our character that blur our vision. Often we will not just sense guilt over what we did wrong, but shame over who we were in the process.
This is painful, yet sanctifying. The Lord disciplines us in order to change our actions as well our character.
Through that process, I began to embrace a few principles that have helped me ever since.
- Discipline is not defined by emotion.
When I discipline my children it should not be an emotional power play, but an exercise of authority. This is still one of my toughest struggles. My pastor made a comment from the pulpit a few weeks ago about authority being a better thing than power. That stuck with me. The mere use of power (yelling, overreacting, or manipulating) will not teach a child about authority. I used to believe it was a good thing to speak sternly and react emotionally. I felt this asserted my authority when in fact it undermined it. You are your child’s authority because God gave this assignment to you. You should not be groping for it—it is already yours. Carry out discipline calmly and firmly, but not like a hot-head. If you are about to lose control, then take a moment to find it. Teaching a child self-control is critical in the little years, but we can’t teach what we will not practice. The wrath of moms will not bring about the righteousness of God.
- Discipline deals with our attitudes.
If I tell my child to put away his clothes and he stomps down the hall to do it, and then slams the drawer shut, then he isn’t obeying. His attitude stinks. Yes, he is putting the clothes away, but those are just the mechanics, and I’m interested in his attitude. This means we teach a child to practice a good attitude, regardless of whether his feelings agree. This might mean requiring a child to say “Good job!” to a sibling even when he would rather withhold affirmation. Or it might mean requiring the words, “Thank you.” Maybe it means helping two siblings get along rather than separating them.
The Bible calls us repeatedly to obedience, sometimes without addressing our feelings at all. Obedience often opens the door to meaningful heart change. So we require obedience, knowing only God can change the heart.
When I’m dealing with my child’s attitude, I must also deal with my own attitude. I can’t stomp down the hallway after the child and say, “QUIT STOMPING AND PUT THOSE CLOTHES AWAY HAPPILY!!” This is to set a special standard for myself, otherwise known as hypocrisy.
- Discipline is not about our personal preferences.
I cut through a lot of mental clutter in my head when I ask myself “Is this behavior just annoying to ME or is it a real violation?” There are times we should overlook things or laugh about them. But there are also times our preferences would lead us to ignore something when God’s word says pay attention. If you’re a very serious person, you should probably look for ways to lighten up. If you are naturally easy going, you should probably ask what needs to be taken more seriously in your home.
We don’t want our kids to be ultimately motivated by our preferences. We want kids who are motivated by God’s holiness and unconditional love. If kids learn to avoid bad behavior merely to keep from upsetting us, then the foundation for obedience will crack beneath them. Conversely, we don’t want kids to ignore certain sin simply because we ignore it, too. If we make discipline about us and our preferences, then we teach kids a lot about us and who we are. We want to teach them about God and who He is.
- Discipline includes mercy.
A small child is an unregenerate, immature human being. As you once were! We are on the same team as our children, and we can help them obey. We can have a longer fuse and recognize their humanity.
Mercy and discipline are two kinds of boundaries made of different material. In a single day of parenting, you will probably use both mercy and discipline as the Holy Spirit guides you. Mercy is forbearance, but your mission is always the same: haul the child out of sin and into obedience. This is like God’s own kindness which has a purpose: to lead us to repentance.
- Discipline is meant for good.
Discipline should lead a child to something good, rather than just make him sorry for something bad. Sin is like chains, but obedience is like wings. Think about a child who sulks or complains a lot and without any consequence. This child has no idea that thankfulness is actually more freeing than discontentment. Years later that same child may grow up to be a man or woman who complains a lot, never realizing all they are missing out on by being self-absorbed.
We are not depriving children of something good when we correct them. We are pulling them out of the grime and into the glory.
I have shared some principles here, but they are not pat answers. Some situations will look very similar but require different approaches. Older children are not like younger ones, and one child is not like the other. So run to the Word. Run to older women with children older than the ones you have. And bend your ear. Stay teachable.
The older my kids get, the more I realize how much wisdom I need. The smaller I feel, and the bigger God appears. After ten years of parenting, I am still fallible and learning as I go. I believe as Christian mothers, we have been given much and much is required. But praise God, He is faithful, even when we are faithless! Cling to that when you do well. Cling to it when you don’t.
Lee is the wife of Josh and the mother of three. She’s a pianist, a baker, a runner, and a recovering perfectionist. Motherhood, to her, often means finding beauty in the minutiae and grace in the big picture. Writing helps her find those things a little faster. Lee believes God’s truth seeps into everything from the duty of a simple laundry load to the making of little disciples. She loves being a mom because it takes her through deep waters and plenty of silliness, all in a day’s work.