Parenting is More Than Flow Charts and Discipline is More Than Punishment

Recently I saw a link to a blog post promising parents happier, healthier kids simply by disciplining them less. I was curious enough to take the bait, despite knowing that discipline is the full range of training and instruction, not just punishment, and integral to all parenting.

It featured a flow chart outlining the different needs of different kinds of children, the unfulfillment of which leads to behavior problems. In the event of children acting out, parents can address those underlying issues, skipping right over the "discipline" part. "Enjoy the joy," says the final stage of the flow chart, decorated with cartoons of well-adjusted children.

Putting aside the question of whether complex human beings can be summarized or controlled by flow charts, it wasn't without merit. It's true that each of our children is different. They have unique personalities, desires, strengths, weaknesses, needs. They respond to similar stimuli and situations in very different ways. They need their parents--us--to invest in knowing them, hearing them, and to an extent tailoring our parenting to fit them. Sometimes a temper tantrum really is about being exhausted or feeling unheard.

But while this sort of approach sounds very kid-friendly, very gentle-parenting, very understanding and kind, it does something dangerous. It places all responsibility for the child's behavior onto the shoulders of the parents.

I know this dilemma well. While trying to be a compassionate mother who disciplines appropriately and effectively, I sometimes find myself stymied as to why my good actions don't result in a good response from my kids. I was truly acting out of selfless love, giving my children what they need, but they still spent the morning whining or refused to eat a wonderful meal out of orneriness. I wrack my brain, over-analyze, talk it over with my husband, trying to figure it out. What went wrong? I did everything right! The input was good, so why wasn't the output?

And that's the problem with this flow-chart kind of approach. Even if you don't use a literal chart--because you have some instinct that flow-charts and children don't work together--there's still a serious flaw in the idea that a certain parenting style will certainly create your desired results. While sometimes it's true that my children act up because they need more physical exercise or more time cuddling with me, sometimes they act up just because they want to. Because it's fun and easier than obedience. As any parent can confirm, "folly is bound up in the heart of a child." And aren't we naturally the same way? We just don't throw our bowl of peas on the floor. Usually.

I've come to realize that any philosophy of parenting that disowns the Biblical story of humanity will fail. We are created in God's image, reflective of him and of great worth. And we are fallen, infected by sin and broken in the deep places of our soul. Both are true. Neither can be sacrificed when thinking about parenting.

So because every child that we parent is made in the image of God, it is indeed important to work to know them. We want to understand how they think, how they relate to others, how they approach problems, etc. This will help us train them up to become productive adults whose very uniqueness displays God's goodness and glory.

But they are also sinners, and far too often they love sin, just like we do. They rebel for the sake of rebellion, and no amount of conversation or meeting their needs will stop that. Our teaching and training--our discipline--are necessary means in their growth, and their hearts must be changed by the Holy Spirit.

Of course, we too are glorious ruins: image bearers and sinners. Because we know our own sin, we must be on strict guard against our tendency to act selfishly. Depending on our temperament, our discipline can easily amount either to giving in to what is easy and least confrontational, or else going in guns blazing with our anger. But we have not been given parental authority to please ourselves. We are charged with the weighty and sobering responsibility to die to ourselves daily as we love our children by leading them to know, fear, love, and follow the Lord. It's infinitely more challenging and thrilling than monitoring their behavior and being nice.

The book of Proverbs, forthright about the necessity of wisdom and good parental discipline, teaches us that, "the parents' chief resource is ... their 'law,' taught with loving persistence ... which includes commands but is not confined to them: basically it means direction, and its aim here is to foster wise habits of thought and action which, so far from enslaving a person, will equip him to find his way through life with sureness and honour" (Derek Kidner, Tyndale Commentary on Proverbs).

Wise, loving parental discipline is not to be shunned as mean or conflict-causing. It frees our children and charges them to live a life that honors God and pursues success and harmony. It is a gift to our children.

So, yes, by all means, discover ways to de-escalate tantrums. Seek to understand and provide for your kids' physical and emotional needs. Forestall behavioral issues by dealing with the things that agitate them. And most definitely enjoy your children as God created them, in all their complexity. But don't forget that Satan is waging a battle for their souls. Pray for them. Lead them toward the good and away from the evil. Teach them that the Holy Spirit is the one on whom we can rely to change us as we work hard to change ourselves. He is our ultimate ally in this journey of parenthood and childhood--far better than any chart.