How to UnDiscipline your Kids
Five years ago my wife and I stopped spanking our kids. Shortly after that we stopped doing time-outs or reducing their privileges, along with just about every common post-bad-behaviour correctional technique we were familiar with. And as for our kids? Once they figured out that there was little headed their way for bad behaviour... they’ve never behaved better!
Sound too good to be true? It’s not! But it is too good to be quick, easy or simple. It’s not at all equitable or reasonable really, and it will require you to bear a great deal of sacrifice.
As far as I’m concerned, there is no higher model of parenting than that offered by our Heavenly Father. Consider that God paid every price in and of himself, for us to be reconciled to Him. God had every right to burden us rebellious, wayward children with rules and strictures to govern our behaviour, and He has every right to punish us when we misbehave. And yet...there is no law put before you that He has not fully resolved at 100% cost to himself. There is no punishment that has been meted out upon us. Though we deserved it, He took 100% punishment upon Himself, in the body of Jesus Christ His son. For too long we have looked at God’s punishment of Christ and then modelled a Father punishing his Son; it’s time to see a loving God paying the ultimate price in and of his unified self to reconcile his children back to Him. Christ didn’t die to convince his Father of anything about his, Christ died to convince us of everything about Him. Why would he do this? Because we were created in the first place, to be loved, to be the object of Christ’s affection. We’re not put on this earth to love God, rather to be loved by God’s son.
The grace of God is fundamentally unfair. Fair is an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Mike Bickle calls this grace scandalous. And thankfully, the church has been steadily rediscovering this beautiful scandal for the last 1700 years or so, but much is yet to be discovered within our parenting. It’s worth pointing out, and I mean no disrespect, but if you have not received a revelation of this grace from your Heavenly Father, it will be impossible for you to live as a true son or daughter of the Most High, making it impossible to choose life as a servant of Christ, and thus impossible to lay down the issues of punishment and external discipline with your own children. But there is hope, we have a good good Father. And just as us and our children are all sinners, so are we and our children co-heirs with Christ! We are both equal partners in the Bride and the Body of Christ. While we are parents with the Biblical right to discipline our children, we are also ministers of reconciliation, and we have the greater right to begin the reconciliation of our children back to their Father. Our eternal purpose is to be loved by God. Since God has loved us, we can now reflect that to our children, in the same manner that He loved us. And that is going to require a change from the status quo of much Christian parenting.
What does this look like practically? My wife and I struggle with implementing this ideal, there are times when we fail (a righteous man falls) but at the core, we have found that fully engaged intimacy, “time in” if you will, with our unruly kids is as life changing for them as it is for us. When I sit my child down, I look them in the eyes, and minister truth right into their soul… both of our souls are impacted, and the Kingdom of God comes. The first thing out of my mouth every time one of my kids starts getting crazy, is “I love you.” That is the foundation, and we build from there.
In order to build & maintain safety and trust, and to honour our children, we must let them reciprocate however they want to. My kids are used to this routine, and I usually hear something like “Me no love Daddy! Me mad!” or sometimes “Yes Jonathan I know JUST LEAVE ME ALONE”. Getting this far is huge, because your child has just confided in you that they are upset, and that they don’t like you right now. That is communication, and it will diffuse the situation faster than anything else. Even if they call you by your first name.
How the conversation proceeds will be a little different in each circumstance, but your job in this intimate moment is two-fold:
Speak the truth of who they are. Your children are good. Never, ever call your child a bad boy/girl. The accuser of our souls will do that immediately; please don’t agree with the lies Satan whispers in your kids’ ear. Look your child in the eye, and Crush. Those. Lies.
Using all grace and gentleness, make clear to them the standard of behaviour that is expected. My kids can put the dots together on the behaviour that I expect with less instruction from me than I would give them credit for. If they’re older than two years, then like the adulterous woman in John 8, they know what they’ve done. While they might seek to justify their behaviour in the short term, the last person they’ll truly fool is themselves, and in time, step 1 will break through this.
When we first started spending intentional time-in with our rascally kids, it felt like we were validating bad behaviour with the gift of our time and presence. I’ve even heard people say that to me. But doesn’t that reasoning strike any of you as somewhat perverse? It should! We quickly realised that the one thing our children need in times of crazy behaviour is love, affirmation and affection. They don’t need punishment, they need affirmation, they need empowerment not belittlement.
Now, I’ve spoken to many people who were brought up knowing that their parents loved them, but who still disciplined them (corporally or otherwise), and this “wasn’t a problem”. For my own part, my brothers and I were raised in a spanking household, and we also “turned out just fine”. But do you know why that is? It’s not because we were spanked. It’s because our parents loved us intentionally. And while I think they only had a limited understanding of the grace and honour that we’re all coming to know today, they knew much of it at a heart level and our upbringing was almost entirely devoid of shame. If my parents had loved us just the same, and spanked us not at all, I firmly believe that my brothers and I would be no less the men that we are today. I’ll say that again: Telling your children you love them (and truly loving them of course), and then spanking them “because you love them” is at best, simply redundant, and at worst, preparation for relationship with a “God of loving punishment”.
And while we’re at it… I challenge that the assertion that we all turned out just fine. If we were all just fine, then all of my inner healing counsellor friends would be out of work. We need a higher standard than just fine!
I believe the same concept is true for non-corporal discipline. While I don’t have research to prove this, I think corporal punishment is in many ways a natural humanistic response, and so anyone who can be intentional enough to not use this method is already along the path to shameless love-based child-rearing. I suggest that many of the gains seen in families that use non-corporal discipline is not because of the method so much as because of the parental attitude. I’ve given an example of communicational time-in… I recognize that not all children are great emotive communicators (not all of mine are either), but the concept is the same with all three of my children. I sacrifice my own agenda, my own plan for my evening, my own right for a peaceful grocery shop, for the sake of their reconciliation. When reconciliation is achieved, we move on. It’s not actually about discipline… it’s about engaged, relational, life-laid-down parenting.
And that’s the whole point! The attitude that you hold toward your children will establish the baseline pattern for the relationship you have with them lifelong. Not only that, but it will also establish the baseline pattern for how your children relate to their Heavenly Father. I have not defined the word discipline because I believe discipline is not the point. What your children need is to be honoured by you, to be served by you, to be 100% engaged by you. They need to see a life laid down, first for Christ, second for your spouse, and third for them. What is appropriate or not within your relationship with your child must flow from that place of intimacy, not from any book or guide or definition. When you boil it all down, there are few callings higher than parenthood, and your primary role in this calling is to shepherd your kids through the journey from slaves to sons, and to show them the beauty of servanthood. You can provide no better preparation for life than by setting this stage of intentional, loving, un-discipline. If that is your child’s reality, then you will develop a relationship of mutual servanthood and honour that will wipe bad behaviour off the table.
Five years (and counting) of living this with our children bears witness to this. I implore you to put before yourself the dream of the day when your older kids come to you and say “No one I know loves their children the way you have loved me, except God. He loves that way. You have loved me the way God loves me.” Scandalizing your right to discipline might be the hardest thing you ever do. But it might also be the most important.