If we really believe that the message of Jesus Christ has the power to transform our lives and the world, then it makes perfect sense to me to apply these teachings to how we parent and discipline. I’m no theologian, but my understanding of Jesus’ core message is that of radical love and mercy and compassion and freedom, a message that has subversively transformative powers. The kingdom of God turns our world upside down, and it should turn our parenting world upside down as well, if it hasn’t already.
The Jews in Jesus’ day had all these laws and regulations that they had to follow to maintain their membership in the Righteous Club. The Pharisees were among the few who followed the letter of the law to the last detail, but Jesus called them white-washed tombs because their hearts did not match their outward deeds. Do we want to raise our kids to be Pharisees? Always in line and following all the rules (as long as someone’s watching) to avoid punishment and to be praised for their good behavior, but inwardly devoid of love and justice and goodness and mercy and compassion? Just as Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law but to call us to a deeper and higher standard*—having inward righteousness as well as outward—why should our standards for our kids be different? Why feel smug if our kids grow up to be well-behaved and well-mannered, who say “thank you” and “please” and “excuse me,” who don’t interrupt when a grown-up is speaking, who follow all the rules at school and home and church, never rock the boat. Will such kids be willing to befriend and stick up for the ones at school who are being bullied or ostracized for being a different color, for being gay, for being poor, for being disabled, for being clumsy, for being different in any way from the mainstream? Will such kids pass a homeless person on the street and be filled with compassion or will they not even notice or just be embarrassed?
If we apply the message of the kingdom to the way we discipline our children so that they will be molded from the inside and for the long-term, what would that look like? This is something I hope we can discuss, and I offer here a few of my own thoughts. [Some of these paragraphs seem kind of jumbled, which is why I'm putting them in bullet form, so I apologize in advance.]
- I think we first have to reexamine our attitude towards/assumptions about children. Do we see children as people worthy of respect and dignity? Do we think that children have a natural tendency to misbehave unless they are kept in line with an iron hand? Do we view children as lesser citizens in God’s kingdom? I think Jesus was pretty clear about how he felt about children. He welcomed them with open arms and declared that the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. If we keep that in mind, we’ll probably think twice before we belittle or disrespect a child.
- It also would be helpful to keep in mind that we are also children of God and to think of how God disciplines us. I don’t know about you all, but God didn’t win my heart with time-outs or spankings. It was his gentleness and mercy during those times I deserved most to be punished that really melted my heart. Alfie Kohn writes in his book Unconditional Parenting that it is when kids are behaving at their worst that they need most to be loved. I’ve witnessed the truth of this in my own life with my 3 year old daughter.
- I believe in gentle, compassionate discipline that is respectful and mindful of the child’s body, mind, spirit, personality and developmental readiness. I believe that the goal of discipline is to teach, not to modify or control undesirable behavior. I also believe that the best medium for effective discipline is a loving relationship with our child that is based on trust, unconditional love and acceptance, compassion and respect.
- I don’t believe that gentle discipline means weak discipline. In fact, based on Jesus’ teachings, I believe the opposite to be true. I believe that you CAN be firm and provide guidance, but that doing so gently and lovingly and humbly has more power to teach a life lesson than using harsh punishment or one’s greater size/strength to enforce compliance. I don’t believe that gentle discipline equates to sparing the rod, but to me that rod signifies the guidance of a shepherd’s staff, not an instrument of physical punishment.
- Many parents may use discipline as a way to make children do as they are told, to “behave,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if those children grow up to have a warped view of God. I think Jesus calls his followers to a higher and deeper practice of discipline, one that is based on gentleness and humility–not power; mercy and compassion–not severity; trust–not control; respect–not shame; freedom–not coercion; unconditional love–not conditional rejection.
*My thoughts on Jesus’ calling us to a higher and deeper standard come from The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren.