It was three weeks after the birth of our third child and a week after a horribly timed house move when I found my two-year-old running down our new hallway laughing hysterically and simultaneously drawing on the walls with a texta. Hot in her pursuit was some disheveled crazy lady screaming incoherently.

That crazy lady… that was me. A whole new level of humiliation proudly presented by motherhood.

And that was the day I pulled out the old ‘how-to’ books on discipline. It was time to reign in the chaos. A few books in and a few conversations later, I fast remembered my dislike of the topic that just seems to make people defensive and of which the general consensus is irritatingly elusive.

Yet despite the differences, all the books begin in the same predictable way…

Discipline comes from the Latin for instruction.

It is not a synonym for punishment.

Discipline is more than if you choose to smack a child or not.

Etc. etc. etc.

Got it.

Discipline comes from the root ‘disciple’. Effectively it’s a form of teaching, instruction or discipleship.[1]Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, No Drama Discipline (Victoria: Scribe, 2014), xiv. But the question is… instruction or discipleship in what? There is no neutral instruction list that people follow. In any book on discipline the philosophy of the author always lies behind the rest of the book they have written and I am always trying to read in-between the lines to patch it together and discern what bits of it I like and what bits I’d rather leave.

For me, as a Christian, the instruction or discipleship needs to be distinctly Christian. So I pondered on what is a Christian disciple? I mean we always throw the word around, but how would I describe it?

A disciple is someone who follows Jesus. But more than this, someone who is being conformed into his image, after all, learners become like their teachers. Yet I don’t mean this in the sense that we just imitate him, I mean how the Bible talks about how those who are in Christ are so changed by his death and resurrection that they become like him (Rom 8:29, 1 Cor 15:49, 2 Cor 3:18). Becoming a Jesus shaped version of yourself is the heart of discipleship.

And those who are like Christ have the capacity to make godly decisions in any circumstance that life can throw at them.

Sometimes I think that we act like discipline is purely about minimizing certain behaviors, especially when we want to show how good our kids are in front of other people. But lets face it, anyone can scare a child into certain behaviors if the consequences are high enough. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have the capacity to make good decisions later in life. It’s like things become very two dimensional with just a few holes you should avoid at all costs. Maybe if our kids make it through high school without getting stoned or pregnant (or anything else too embarrassing) then we have succeeded as a Christian parent. But this isn’t thinking about equipping them to be Christ-like in all areas of their lives and worse, what happens if they do fall down one of these forbidden holes and they (and we) are totally unprepared to theologically deal with it.

What kids need is to have a vivid moral imagination (to use Andrew Cameron’s phrase[2]Andrew J.B. Cameron, Joined-up Life: A Christian Account of How Ethics Works (Nottingham, England Inter-Varsity Press 2011), 25. ) or inner compass. In addition to a sound foundational understanding of God’s word, I think this will include emotional intelligence, self-awareness, problem solving and creativity, empathy and other people centeredness that can deal with the messiness and complexity of life. We want them to be resilient little people equipped to live the gospel with beauty and grace.

So there it is – discipleship or instruction in a nutshell. Hardly sounds specific to kids. I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m trying to do with myself. So what’s different about discipling kids?

So I’m no expert in psychology, but according to people who are, we have an ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ in our brain. The upper level is a high functioning center where things such our ethical framework belong and down the stairs is where we find our more primitive impulses.[3]Siegel and Payne Bryson, No Drama Discipline, 80.

That problem is that upper room isn’t developed in children and won’t be until they reach their mid-twenties.[4]Siegel and Payne Bryson, No Drama Discipline, 36. This lack of internal regulation to enable them to make good choices means it needs to be provided externally.[5]Siegel and Payne Bryson, No Drama Discipline, 39.

Yes. That’s you. And other significant adults in that child’s life.

With all that in mind, this is what I am convinced are three tools for good discipline.

Learn Christian ethics

To instruct someone in ethics, you need to know about it. Kids are trusting and their ever-changing brains will absorb and be shaped by whatever you teach them. So teach them the right thing. And for that, besides knowing your Bible really well, you can’t go past Andrew Cameron’s Joined-Up Life.[6]Cameron, Joined up life.

Make it accessible

This is where I find the psychology and child development books help. Here I glean insights into child development and how those mysterious brains in their little heads make them do the mysterious things they do. For example, No Drama Discipline (see above). It’s not a Christian book, but if God has wired the world in an ordered way then we can learn from the way things, like our brains, work. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but picked up so many tools to connect with my kids in order to be able to instruct them. It pretty much saved my family after the crazy lady incident. This is where practicalities such as deciding on time-outs and what rules your family will enforce and how will come into play. We must always ask, how will these things facilitate their learning?

Use whatever life throws your way

You don’t need a syllabus. Everyday life will provide ample opportunity to talk to your kids and apply what you read with them in scripture. And as a bonus it will show them the truths in real life concrete contexts will shape their brains more effectively. Just think of the many lessons that my texta waving toddler gave me to opportunity to teach.

You may have noticed that my musings have hardly made my task of disciplining my children any easier. Part of me wishes it were as simple as mastering some wearisome debate about if you should smack a child or not. Instead it’s understanding the gospel, how to live it and then how to appropriate these truths meaningfully for people whose brains are limited in the higher functioning areas.

I reckon there is a secret to it all though. That is, that gospel people love grace. I’m sure my children (please believe me that I love them) will give me plenty of opportunities to fail at instructing them rightly. There will be craziness and words I wish I could take back. But I’m always happy to be quick to apologize and quick to move on. I hope that seeing this will wire my kids brains in such a way that they know when they fail in life that things don’t need to fall apart. They are still loved by both their heavenly father and earthy parents. And more than that, I hope that they will be resilient enough to offer the same sentiment to others. Those who are like Christ will live, breath and love grace. And that has to be the engine room of disciplining little disciples.

References:

Cameron, Andrew J.B. Joined-up Life: A Christian Account of How Ethics Works Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2011.

Siegel, Daniel J. and Payne Bryson, Tina No Drama Discipline Victoria: Scribe, 2014.

 

References   [ + ]

1.Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, No Drama Discipline (Victoria: Scribe, 2014), xiv.
2.Andrew J.B. Cameron, Joined-up Life: A Christian Account of How Ethics Works (Nottingham, England Inter-Varsity Press 2011), 25.
3.Siegel and Payne Bryson, No Drama Discipline, 80.
4.Siegel and Payne Bryson, No Drama Discipline, 36.
5.Siegel and Payne Bryson, No Drama Discipline, 39.
6.Cameron, Joined up life.