Sunday Catechism: Discipling

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NOTE: I lead the Children’s Service at my church on Sundays. Every week I write a reflection on a question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Please note that these posts reflect a frank expression of my faith (Reformed Presbyterian) and are specifically aimed at the parents of children at my church.

Q: What does the fifth commandment forbid?

A: The fifth commandment forbids being disrespectful or not treating others as their position or relationship to us demands.

Let’s talk discipline.

One of the important things we’re learning about the commandments is that, despite initial appearances, they’re not about modifying behavior, not ultimately. Instead, they are standards for the heart, guidelines to shape the mind and forge the will.

We should, likewise, treat the discipline of those under our charge as akin to discipling. Our ultimate goal should not be cementing power, creating compliance, punishing wrongdoing, or even maintaining order. Our ultimate goal should be to teach wisdom and help form the habits to ingrain those truths into character.

Parenting is one way we fulfill the Great Commission.

It is often tempting, when we face chaos and rebellion, to focus on secondary and tertiary objectives of discipline: we want to fix problems and dole out punishments and get everything back on track. This mindset consistently applied, however, diminishes the agency of the child and/or communicates a works-centered mentality. If we’re fair, our children will learn that success is simply gained by following the rules. If we’re not–and none of us are–our children will learn to dance around our tyranny. Either way, we do not serve well as ambassadors of our Lord.

It’s also often tempting to let things slide–perhaps because it is in our temperament to do so, but just as likely because doing the former can be so exhausting. We may feel that it’s more humane to focus on praise and positive incentives than punitive measures. Ironically, the results are the same. Life becomes a game, and kids will have the entirety of their time to figure out how to game their parents, and we as parents will never win because we also have to worry about living life.

(I direct you to “Every conversation between a parent and child”)

Are we, then, never to give consequences or incentives? Are we to never focus on managing behavior? Of course not, but we should try not to make it the end in itself. It’s a good thing, not an ultimate thing, as we like to say in our church. We may achieve what looks like compliance or satisfaction with management techniques, but we will stop short of truth and love.

Let me leave you with some practical advice. I found helpful this podcast episode about classroom management: “Throwing students across the room doesn’t work”

It’s an interview with a school principal and its intended audience is teachers, but I think it’s worth reflecting on what he deems as the basic principles of classroom management: self-reflection by the teacher, establishing useful structures for students, building relationships, and de-escalation of conflicts.

Each of these principles is a way of honoring those below us. And together they’re designed to facilitate the real work of the classroom: learning.

Let me conclude by sharing a small personal parenting triumph, one that is notable because it comes all too infrequently. We had been invited to dinner, and we were all set to go when, at the last minute, Biggie refused to join us. He said he didn’t like the restaurant, he didn’t feel like eating out, and he simply didn’t want to go.

I had been napping, when my wife woke me up, at her wit’s end–perhaps a parenting fail, on my part. I could see I had a couple of options: I could punish him until he relented, I could leave him at home (my brother was staying with us so he could look after him), I could drag him to the car by force, I could let the rest of my family go to the dinner and deal with Biggie intensively. My brother was happy to spend the evening watching TV with Biggie; my wife was almost shaking with frustration; my daughter was dressed and ready to head out the door. My son was balled up, pressed into the folds of the couch, nearly crying. Here’s roughly the conversation that ensued:

“Son, let’s go to the restaurant.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to. I don’t like that food. I don’t like that restaurant.”

“Calm down…. The thing is, Biggie, you have to go. I can’t let you not go. If this was just about what you were going to eat tonight, I’d happily let you sit here with Uncle Tim, and give you a pass on the restaurant. You know that, right? But you rebelled against your mother, and I can’t let that pass.

Listen to me. Look at me. I know you’re frustrated. I can see that you’re angry. I know that, for whatever reason, going to this restaurant is causing you a lot of discomfort. I can see that.

But my job is to teach you, Biggie. God put me in charge over you so that I can raise you and protect you and teach you. And one of the most valuable things I can teach you is how to do something you don’t want to do. There are going to be lots of times when you know in your heart that you really should do something, because an authority told you to do it, because it’s good to do, because it’s the right thing to do, and you don’t want to do it. But you have to learn to get over that hump and do it anyways.

If I let you skip the restaurant tonight, I’m afraid that you will think that if you give enough resistance, eventually the other side will always give in, and that you will always get your way. There are times when we can negotiate and come to a compromise, if you’re reasonable. But you weren’t being reasonable with Mom, and now not going to the restaurant is not an option. Come to the restaurant with us.”

“No.”

“Listen. You don’t have to order anything. You don’t have to eat anything. You can just sit at the table and sulk, and that will be okay. But you do have to come to the restaurant.”

“No.”

“Biggie, I really don’t want to punish you. I don’t want to drag you kicking and screaming to the car. Please be a good boy and go the restaurant with us. Please.”

“No.”

“All right. Go downstairs now so that I can give you a spanking.”

“…”

“Go. I’m serious.”

“I won’t eat anything.”

“You won’t have to! You don’t have to eat anything you don’t want to.”

“Okay, I’ll go to the restaurant.”

Let me be clear: I really rarely ever lay a hand on my kids, but Biggie knows that getting a spanking is not an empty threat, and not a place I go to lightly. It doesn’t really hurt him physically, but it is a shock and humiliation to him. I also think that it is absolutely possible, maybe even preferable, to successfully enforce discipline without corporal punishment.

This is not the only way to have handled the situation, and others could certainly have done a better job. This is the way it ended up going down, though, and I proffer it as an example because I managed to keep my focus and intentions on improving Biggie’s character. I had empathy and love for him, and I wanted him to face up to his demons and idols so that he would have the tools and experience to fight them again and again.

If I had intervened earlier, I might have focused on helping him not react so vociferously and, instead, air his concerns more calmly and dispassionately, to get him himself to de-escalate the discourse. As it is, when I was called in, I could see he was struggling with the anxiety of being stuck facing a new or difficult circumstances — something he’s consistently having a lot of problems with. I know he will only gain confidence in overcoming these situations and managing his discomfort if he had practice facing them down.

He, in fact, did go to the restaurant and ended up eating quite a lot of food and enjoying the experience.

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We have a sacred duty, and it’s a tough one. Discipline is often the least pleasant part of our jobs, but it’s sometimes the most important. My prayers go to you all.

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