As I approach the tender age of 50, the youngest of my seven children is 14 years old, the oldest is nearly 27 years old. A few friends have recently asked for suggestions in the parenting process, so I have attempted to offer something. This has all been based on Biblical principles, the advice of others who have gone before me, and “field” experience. It finally lead to a letter through which I tried to give some encouragement and ideas as one who has experienced the joys and struggles of being a parent. Maybe it can be of benefit to others. (I have used the gender-inclusive pronoun “he” throughout, instead of awkwardly saying he/she.)
First, let me say that parenting is hard work. It requires patience and fortitude. It is a project, of sorts, that demands nearly 24 hour a day supervision and only gives limited rewards for about the first 12 years of a child’s life.
Secondly, a parent can only lead and influence a child to make good choices, but ultimately the choices are the child’s. That does not mean a child should expect to understand everything before obeying. On the contrary, obedience should be the first goal. Imagine trying to explain to a two year old why he should not run out into the street; and if a child is old enough to choose to disobey, he is old enough to receive training and correction. However, a child will quickly get a sense of whether the parent guides in love, and can be trusted, or whether the correction is only a matter of convenience, based on irritation or anger. Trust leads to relationship; a parent’s selfishly motivated punishment leads to resentment.
No matter where a child’s so-called academic education takes place, there will be training issues to face at home. These can be thought of as falling into two categories: moral and managerial. Sometimes the application of training in each area will overlap, but awareness of the difference can help a parent with problem solving.
A child needs to learn what is morally right or wrong. For instance, he should speak respectfully to parents; he should obey cheerfully; he should be honest; and he should work diligently. The first step in teaching these things is modeling them. Parents should treat each other well. It should be common to see conflict resolved without hurtful words being exchanged. Also, even as each parent fulfills separate roles based on gender, personality, or opportunity, there should be teamwork demonstrated. Frustration or disappointment should not be used as excuses to complain or be demanding. Evaluation of people and events outside of the family should be seasoned with grace and humility, without sacrificing necessary commentary.
In the managerial category, things are more flexible, adapting to circumstances and priorities of the parents. We reorganize, change schedules, and try to learn how to make the household run most effectively. Children can sometimes offer creative alternatives or indicate preferences, but obedience to a parent’s decisions is still paramount. In the final analysis, the young child’s overriding lesson is to obey.
Trust has already been mentioned as foundational. This will be produced and strengthened as the child sees the parents doing several things. To begin with, it is crucial that the parents be in agreement. Any decision made by one parent should be backed up by the other. Disagreements, especially of large importance, should be discussed away from the children as much as possible. (As the children near adult maturity and show good character, obviously more can be discussed in front of them, showing how such discussions of differences should be handled in good relationships.)
Another important factor is that a parent must be disciplining and guiding predominantly with calmness (which does not preclude stern or emphatic). Through such treatment, a child understands that 1) the parent has the child’s best interests in mind, and 2) the parent is determined and under control. A parent exhibiting self-control has great effect on their children, stimulating the proper balance of love and respect.
Along the same lines, a parent aspiring to train a child well will be clear about expectations and subsequent consequences. This does not mean there is never any mercy. If a child is displaying a pattern of cooperation and respect, it might be good to give an extra chance now and then, allowing for the fact that no one is perfect and patience with others’ faults is kind. If the child takes advantage of this or has no appreciation of the mercy being shown, it’s probably not the right time for that tactic, though.
Obedience should be expected in a timely manner, without the parent counting, cajoling, or nagging. If the child is told or knows of something that should be done or not done, he is only allotted time for the realization to register, put down what he is doing, and proceed rightly. Most children are quite smart about this and know just how far to push the parent. Again, since I am not perfect, as a child gets old enough to communicate, and is showing the correct attitudes in general, I have given the option of reminding me of other possible conflicts to a directive. But this is always to be a humble suggestion on the part of the child, never an argument. Similarly, if a child has a concern about a sibling, he had better have the siblings best interest at heart or he will likely receive some of the same discipline.
A parent should avoid attempting to train a child in too many areas at once. Choose to concentrate on the most important things and then build on that. Choices about this should be directed by the child’s age and previous training. Defiance in the child should be distinguished from childishness, although a child who stubbornly persists in childish behavior could be demonstrating defiance. For example, most young boys need to be very active, but this activity should not be allowed to destroy some other person’s project or harass for the sake of entertainment. If the boy has been taught or warned about such behavior, then anything from taking away privileges to spanking may be necessary. Calm spanking. Remember, it is all to help the child learn self-control. The consequences make it worth his while to try to control himself, he learns that he can, and he begins to see the benefits in many ways.
Such a scenario might also end up being a training opportunity for the other child involved. This child should not be allowed to whine or retaliate. The second child is expected to acknowledge that he is not perfect either. All of them need to be patient and forgiving with each other. Even if one child seems to outwardly follow the rules more than another, inner pride is quite possibly a worse fault and children should not be rewarded or encouraged for arrogance.
Deciding what consequence to apply for which transgression can seem daunting. It is important to be fairly consistent with this, but each child tends to respond differently to various forms of “consequence.” Greg and I have always tended to apply spanking for obvious defiance or blatant disobedience, especially when the children are less than 10 years old. One of our children has hardly ever needed a spanking, most of the others needed them regularly, some past the age of 12. The goal of spanking is to cause significant discomfort, but not injury. Different parents have different methods for obtaining this goal. Our tool of choice is a wooden spoon with sufficiently rounded edges. Striking the butt or upper leg with stinging sometimes leaves redness and a raised area, but does not do any damage. This also means that our hands are never associated with spanking. The children were not confused about what our hands might be doing next. We also established a certain location, our room, for the procedure. This also makes it clear to the child that it is a considered decision, lending a sense of formality.
Our children were asked to keep their feet on the floor, bend at the waist across the bed, and stretch their arms out past their heads. Some had difficulty making themselves do this when they were younger, so we learned to, while sitting on a chair or the floor, place them over one knee, put our other leg over their legs to hold them down. (Another reason it is definitely easier to train a child when he is younger.) They were warned that if they struggled, screamed, or put their hands back, they would receive more swats than otherwise. We would occasionally need to let a hand be lightly stung with the spoon to get them to move the hand. They would learn quickly that that hurt worse than their hind quarters.
Other types of consequences can include taking privileges away, early bedtimes, extra work (particularly if it is related to the offense). We usually also had a chart for them to earn marks for especially good behavior. Points could be earned and then used toward rewards like a special activity with Dad. On the negative side, they may have had to stay extra close to a parent for a time. We never punished by isolation or rewarded with things like candy. Isolation tends to stimulate brooding and feeling sorry for oneself. Meaningless prizes would teach them to value the wrong things. There is room for and need for creativity.
Once consistent discipline is established, order becomes more normal. Truly, some children test the limits more than others, but it is worth the work. Other children want to please, but have to be cautioned about their attitudes. Still other children are sneaky, trying to leave a parent thinking they have obeyed. Sometimes a parent is faced with a decision about whether or not a child is lying. There are options for this. First of all, if a child has a pattern of lying, he can be told outright that he has lost your trust and until you have good reason to believe his word again, you will simply make your best decision. If he suffers “unjustly,” he can be reminded that he probably got away with something “once or twice” so he can just account this punishment for that. I’ve had kids smile nervously at me when I say things like that. When they were older they admitted that they were stunned at my insight at knowing they had been sneaky other times.
Even though I have emphasized being calm when engaging in disciplinary measures, that does not mean that if a parent gets angry they are necessarily wrong or shouldn’t take action. Sometimes the child has done something that simply is terrible. If they say hateful things or hit someone, it is normal to feel anger at this. But the Biblical injunction to “be angry and sin not” comes in handy in parenting, too. A person can have felt anger and still take calm action. Sometimes the anger is a reminder that the parent has been letting the child get away with things, but discipline needs to be tightened up. As long as the anger is not just a selfish rage on the part of the parent, there is no need to feel guilty about it. Just remember to show acceptance of the child regardless of their choices. Children need to know that they are loved no matter what they do AND they need to know they are loved well enough that a parent will dedicate the needed time and energy to teach them how to mature.
As with all areas of life, there is no substitute for pouring out one’s heart to God in prayer, either in thankfulness or concern. Doing so reminds parents that God has purposefully blessed them with their children because of His great love for them all. He is faithful to give creative insight into problem solving, too. As parents humbly guide their children, they gain depth of understanding into God’s love for us all, and how patient He is with all of us while inviting us to know Him as Father.