From a talk given for a Family Day of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, 2.16.12 at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church. On re-imagining discipline as teaching.
We’re going to talk for a few minutes about how we think about and go about the disciplining of our children. As a way of beginning, I want to first share two images from Scripture that speak to my experience of discipline with my own children, Jude and Annie, who are 1 and 3, respectively.
The first image comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans: Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” I’m not sure how much new information you’ll hear today – though I hope you hear some. But you and I know that effective discipline is only half (or less) about the information in your head, right? It’s about being the person I long to be for my child in a given moment after 3 hours’ sleep, eighteen diapers, eighty-five interrupted sentences, thirty-two repetitions of Goodbye Moon, two snacks, three meals, and a difficult day at work. And some of you, like my wife, do all this without the benefit of an office job to provide a periodic diversion or change of scenery.
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” This verse reminds me that I have lots of room to grow, I will inevitably find myself asking forgiveness of those I love, and also that I must be gracious with myself. As we’ll talk about later, being a parent means believing God’s grace for you always. (You can’t be counting the therapy hours you’re adding to your kids’ adulthood.) Believe God’s grace for you always.
The second image comes from an older friend who reminded me that families are boot camps for holiness. I asked my friend to explain. “Well, Jonathan,” he said, “Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Marriage is practice in loving one’s enemy.” And if marriage is practice in loving your enemy, how much more is parenthood.
Now, I love my family with all that I am. My happiest moments each day come first thing in the morning when they come down the stairs and then, at the end, when I come home from work… So I don’t want to sound cynical. But, as a parent, if you’re not preparing to love your enemies…you’re gonna lose. And more than that, you will miss the difficult, gritty, hard as hell holiness God would teach you through these moments as you seek and serve Christ in all persons. And don’t tell me it’s bad to think of my kid as an enemy. Isn’t it as an enemy that God first loved us? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Parenting is the privilege of learning, with God’s help, to love like that. Anyone can love their children while they’re sleeping; it’s okay to have enemies, but love them.
For what it’s worth…
So. Discipline. The Living Compass curriculum highlights the connection between the words discipline and disciple. A disciple is a student; someone who is taught by another. To discipline means to teach a student. So Living Compass is suggesting teaching as the normative verb for our understanding as parents of what it is to discipline. And I bet you can think of some of the verbs that “teaching” is meant to replace – other verbs by which parents in other times and places have understood the task of disciplining. Go for it…
Some that I thought of: correcting, punishing, beating (in the guise of teaching natural consequences for one’s actions), shaming, neglecting, giving up on, and, finally, my personal temptation, selling to the monkey farm.
So we’re talking about discipline as teaching. This is huge. If the question of disciplining is one of teaching, the question for us parents is, “How do children learn?” You know this, too. How do children learn? By watching you. Through imitation. By your example.
This is why you teach as much when you ask your daughter’s forgiveness for the way you acted earlier as you do when you tell your daughter to apologize for the way she acted earlier. This is obvious, probably review, but it was a revelation when I heard it for the first time after becoming a parent because I realized that the best way to shape my children in the life of faith was by continuing to live out my own.
As a parent, I have sometimes been tempted to think of my life as the thing that gets put on pause, goes to the backburner, in order to make room for my children’s development. As parents, we are used to accommodating and sacrificing. But in baptism, God makes claims on every part of my life and so even my disciplining - or teaching my children - is of one piece with my being disciplined, discipled – my learning as a child of God. We are learning as we teach. My development is essential to the development of my children. Equally, my self-care is essential to the care of my children.
A commitment to learning and self-care requires time, conversation, and the determination to get away from time to time – to gain perspective – to refuel and come back with energy. For many of us this time away feels like a luxury, but most of us are not so busy that a few minutes siphoned off of facebook or pinterest would not reward us with added clarity and a sharpened sense of purpose in our lives as parents and disciples of Jesus.
So if you have children and these children, by their nature, imitate you, what do you want your life to teach? What is life ultimately about? Teaching begins with a clear understanding of your teaching points and how you want to convey them. The more in touch you are with these points in your own life, the more wisdom and vulnerability you have with which to teach these points to your children. So, for example, when my kids are distraught, I sing hymns, even though other songs could be just as soothing, because I want to embody my conviction that you and I are made to sing the praises of God. By my understanding, praise is what life is about.
I want to invite you to take a moment and at your table think of – share if you want – a daily practice you model for and teach your children and the life value to which you connect it.
Recognizing teachable moments – moments in which we can help our children learn from their experiences – is huge as well. Letting your children do the learning, but having ready questions to open up the experience for learning, locate you as a friendly observer to your children’s growth as they build self-confidence and locate a sense of responsibility within themselves. “I wonder” questions are great for this. “I wonder how you will respond to…” “I wonder how that made you feel…” “I wonder what you think of when…”
Of course, most of my “I wonder” moments would sound something like, “I wonder why you bit your sister for the forty-third time today?” “ I wonder why you flop on the floor like a fish or roll your eyes out of your head and why you’re not listening now?” It’s easy to get angry. Frustrated. What the book calls emotionally flooded. I think of the people swarming Jesus, ready to throw him off the cliff. I sometimes feel like those people.
I’m assuming that my naming concepts like frustration and anger in relation to parenting is not surprising anyone. So I want to open up the floor for you to share practices you’ve found helpful in moments of anger.
Reacting in anger is dangerous to you and your children, affects your clarity, and often times works against the behavior you desire in your children. At our worst, we take out our anger at our parenting failures on our children. You know that already. As my granny would say, “Be sweet to yourself.” Understand that breakdowns happen; it’s not the end of the world. Model asking forgiveness. Model receiving forgiveness with grace. Move on.
Come back when everybody’s calm; reclaim the teachable moment. Rename the expectation clearly. Keep learning as you teach.
Being intentional about providing your children with consistent boundaries, structure, and expectations can give your children a sense of belonging, safety, and peace. Similarly, the more uncertain a child is about her environment and its stability, the more prone she will be to agitation and acting out. What are some boundaries and daily structures you have found helpful? AND what are your biggest obstacles to providing these structures and boundaries as a parent?
What boundaries, structures, and expectations do you need as a parent? I’m a fan of spontaneity. My wife, if she had to pick, prefers structure. We have found structures that provide spontaneity. Like Friday Daddy/Daughter dates. We know when they’ll happen, but the particulars are up to me. Annie knows that she and Dad will hang out on Friday, taking some of the expectation off Mom, but our creative possibilities are not diminished. I would only emphasize that talking about your own structure needs – and those of your partner – will go a long way to your family’s finding a balance that is life-giving and supportive.
The curriculum suggests a three-line mantra as a summary for effective discipline: Say what you mean; mean what you say; don’t say it mean. Clarity; follow through; and what we’ll call grace. Not to beat a dead horse, but if my development is essential to the development of my children, I must be clear, consistent, and graceful with myself in order to maximize the benefit of these relationship qualities with my children.
The materials suggest a model for growth with three concentric circles: the comfort zone, growth zone, and panic zone. The comfort zone is essentially nonresponsive – reluctant to talk about sex or drugs, for example – the panic zone is overreaction, and the growth zone is seeking out resources like this and books, seeking conversation partners so that we as parents are in a position to be clear, consistent, and graceful when we do talk to our children.
Finally, Miranda talked about voice, and voice of course connects to effective discipline. Using a confident/consistent voice – remembering what you need in order to be confident and consistent – allows you to maintain expectations and boundaries while also continuing to build a strong emotional bond with your children. It feels unhelpful to review the voices that make for ineffective discipline, but I wonder if it might be useful to name them for the purpose of reflecting on the default voices of our upbringings and our experiences of them as they relate to discipline around our tables. The three other voices presented are controlling/autocratic – behavior driven by fear or punishment – passive/permissive – communication, boundaries, expectations are unclear and intentional growth is not directly encouraged – and detached/disengaged, wherein the child’s motivation suffers for lack of any real connection with the parent and expectations that would keep the child feeling safe, secure, and prepared.
Discipline is about teaching and learning. I am a disciple of Jesus whose rearing of children is a part of the life I am learning to live. This gives me patience because I realize that the time required to teach my children does not steal time from the life of faith; it is the life of faith. The life of holiness, even. Difficult, gritty, hard as hell holiness. Thanks be to God.