I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we discipline our children. Nothing new, just working hard at practicing what we already think. We’ve been “in the trenches” with our three-year-old a bit, because, well… she’s three! Being three is hard! You have an absurd amount you’re learning, and sometimes it breaks your brain! And so being the parent of a three-year-old is also hard.
For the last several days, I’ve been working very hard to help Kate listen and obey. That way of putting it is intentional and important.
In my observation, the default tendency in conservative Christian circles is to respond to disobedience and willfulness with direct consequences, stat. There is usually a good motivation behind this, too. We recognize that learning to listen and obey is good and necessary! We don’t want to make the mistake of letting our kids go un-disciplined and so untrained in things they need to be trained in. That said, the extremely common notion that our kids should be immediately given a consequence of some sort if they don’t “obey the first time, right away, with a happy heart” seems to me profoundly misguided—more than that, profoundly out of step with the way God “parents” his people in Scripture.
I’ve often remarked to Jaimie as we’ve considered parenting that if we actually look closely at God’s treatment of his people as our model, it doesn’t look anything like the “obey immediately or receive a consequence” model. To the contrary.
Let’s review: God saves Israel from slavery and makes a covenant with them. The terms of that covenant are such that if they violate it, God is within his rights in the terms of the covenant to send them into exile—to remove them from the land he gave them. And in the first generation, they flagrantly disobey and violate the terms of the covenant. So, game over, right? Off to exile you go! Well… no. God warns, and then disciplines (in the context of national-level consequences!) mildly, and quickly restores when his people cry for help. Over and over again, for 500–700 years, or somewhere between 15 and 25 generations. And many parts of his law they seem never to have kept—the Jubilees, for example. God’s patience is astounding. He is, as Exodus 34 puts it, slow to anger and abounding in covenant love. This isn’t a lack of discipline. But it is extraordinary patience and grace, amazing time devoted to teaching the people how to walk with him even as they got it wrong again and again.
If I’m going to parent in a way that points my kids toward God, that helps them genuinely trust Christ, then my parenting ought to be shaped by all of that. I ought to be slow to anger and abounding in love. I ought to be patient and gracious. I ought to aim not merely to either get the desired behavior or immediately mete out a consequence, but to teach my kids how to do what they should.
So, for the past few days, I have been working (again! This is not new; we just forget) to help our three-year-old listen and obey. When she does not listen, I get her attention again and remind her that she needs to listen and obey—not least because it’s sometimes very important that she do so! (If we’re outside and near a street and she starts to wander into the road…) And if she still does not listen and obey, I will get down on my knees right in front of her, and look her right in the eyes on her own level, and make her repeat after me exactly what I’ve said. And if she still doesn’t listen, yes, I will give her a consequence for that, to help her learn: that sin has consequences, and so that listening and obeying feel important to her. But when she does listen—even if it takes all that repetition!—we celebrate with her and give her a high five or a hug or both. Again: so that she learns that doing well is good and that there is a reward for doing well.
That act of getting down on my knees and helping her obey is good for me, too. It’s a concrete action that reminds me: this is a little person, made in the image of God, who is struggling to keep his commands. She is just like me. More: I can be in that moment a little picture to her, to myself, and to my family of God the Son, who came down to our level in a way that far outstrips a father getting down on his knees. I cannot save my three-year-old from her sin and her death; I can only point her to the one who does. But that I can do. I can remind her, not only with my words (important though they are!) but also with what I do with my body, of the one who loved us enough to bear with us along the way and to bear in himself the cost of our failings.