Friday, December 13, 2013
Balancing Discipline & Mercy in our Parenting
Yesterday I wrote on Facebook/Twitter: "Parents, if you allow unruliness to persist in your kids when they're young, don't be shocked when as an adolescent they're intolerable. To discipline is to love. To ignore is neglect." At last glance, the status had been shared sixteen times. This tells me it is a topic of interest for many folks.
If I'm being fully transparent, I do not think my generation does a very good job of parenting. I certainly do not think I have it all figured out, but when I look around, I see parents, of all ages, who let their kids talk back, hit, pitch hissy-fits when they don't get their way, and many of them, instead of disciplining, laugh. We may get a kick out of their rebellion now, but it will be no laughing matter within a few short years.
I believe parents, especially Christian parents, must learn to balance discipline and mercy. We must learn to discipline our children when they are being disobedient. We must also learn to give mercy, so our homes are not confused with Paris Island, and our family doesn't mirror a platoon in the Marines. Discipline and mercy. They sound like opposites, but they operate together in the task of parenting.
The Goal of Discipline
The object of this post is not to discuss whether spanking is a good thing or a bad thing. There are many who immediately turn a conversation about discipline into a debate over the merits or horrors of spanking. My family spanks. We don't beat our children, but when necessary, we spank them as a punishment for disobedience and willing rebellion. Whether you spank, ground, do timeout, or whatever else, the goal of any discipline is to teach the reality of consequences for decisions. This is fundamental to their being functional adults later in life.
The definition of wisdom is: the ability to connect cause and effect. Simply stated, a wise person is someone who can understand what will happen if I make this choice or that choice. A person of wisdom can see the consequence and fallout of a decision and can choose correctly. The problem with parents who fail to discipline their children, is they are not teaching them this valuable lesson and trait. They are not instilling the idea that when I make a decision I should not make, there are real consequences. This is why we are hearing horrific stories all around the country of children doing things in schools and on buses that we would have never dreamed of in years past. The reason these things are happening is because kids are no longer learning about the consequences of foolish decisions.
We demonstrate love to our children by disciplining them when our standards go unmet. The Bible tells us that God disciplines those whom he loves (Hebrews 12:6). Discipline is an act of love. Correction is a stern way by which God conforms our lives back to his standards. Discipline is loving, because it rescues from the potential deadly consequence of foolish choices. This is the goal of disciplining our children. It is an act of love that seeks to conform foolish behavior so that we might spare them short-term and long-term devastation from such choices.
The Goal of Mercy
Mercy must also be a part of our parenting. Mercy is defined as withholding what is deserved. We cannot be all discipline, all the time. This does not mean we act like pushovers when our children misbehave. Giving mercy actually gets to the heart of how we love our children as we discipline. Children need parents who hug them tightly. They need parents who express verbally and physically their love for them. Children need to know that they are accepted just as they are. Their uniqueness needs to be highlighted and celebrated. Their gifts and strengths need to be sharpened and encouraged. Parents play a vital role to their kids in this way.
However, being merciful as parent does not mean we let our kids run over us. Showing mercy does not mean we ignore rebellion or disobedience. Demonstrating mercy is not picking and choosing, at random, when we are going to discipline our children. Mercy is about how we interact with our children and how we show love to them, even as we give discipline.
So how does this play out? Let me give an example of what this may look like in practice. A few months ago, my son Kaleb was asked to go up to his room before bed and do a few chores. I waited about fifteen to twenty minutes before going upstairs to get him in the bed. When I got upstairs and went into his room, I discovered not only had he not done what I asked him to do, he had taken a short-cut and tried to make it look like he did what he was asked. In other words, he disobeyed by not doing what he was asked, and on top of it, he attempted to deceive me into thinking that he had.
So when I discovered this, I was upset. I began with giving an impassioned speech about my displeasure with his actions. I then proceeded to layout his punishment: no bedtime movie and no electronics the next day. This was the discipline portion. I did not spank him on this occasion, because I did not feel that this particular offense merited a spanking. However, I enforced a discipline that would still have the intended effect of making him feel the consequences of his choice. After my lecture, he was tucked into bed, and I started to walk out. But then he stopped me, and asked, "Dad, can you pray?" This is where the mercy side of things can be difficult. I did not want to pray. We usually pray every night, but I did not want to tonight. I was mad. He willfully lied and attempted to deceive. I wanted him to feel how mad I was. However, this is taking it beyond the goal of discipline. So I came back to his bed, sat down beside him, put my on him, and prayed. I gave him a kiss, told him I loved him, and left the room.
Parenting is a tough balance. Discipline was absolutely necessary in this situation. Can you imagine if I let his behavior and actions go unpunished? That is the recipe for a teenager who will be unbearable, and an adult with serious problems. Yet, giving mercy alongside of discipline is hard. I could have easily walked out, slammed the door, and refused to pray with him and tell him I love him. "That will teach him," I could have reasoned to myself. The goal is not to shame or shun my child. Discipline is about love. So giving mercy is necessary as we discipline. I prayed with him, told him I loved him, and gave him a hug and kiss. This is an example of how the two must operate together.
John Piper said in a sermon once that the goal of parenting is to be the role of God in the child's life until they are old enough to realize you are not God. This is a profound thought. He is not suggesting for us to really think of ourselves as God. Instead, he is showing the vital role parents play in shaping the thoughts and lives of their children. The parent is supposed to be a picture of God to their child. A disciplinarian who shows loving mercy; this is what every child deserves to have in their parents.
God perfectly displayed this reality of his nature and character at the cross of Jesus. There at the cross, the discipline of God poured forth on Jesus as he was punished in the place of sinners as a substitute. But at the cross, we also find mercy. There is mercy for all who place their faith in Jesus and God withholds from them what they deserve, judgment. We are to strike this balance with our parenting. There are times when we need to discipline our children, because we love them. But we also need to be givers of mercy, not winking at their sin, but showing them that their mistakes do not keep back our love or make them anything less than our beloved child.
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