Relationships are Sacred
In my first article about love, I discussed the importance of attachment and how nurturing the connection between you and your children is essential to teaching. For some of us, nurturing comes naturally. For others (like me) it is not innate and requires more intentional work. As parents and teachers, we can borrow a lesson from medical doctors by taking the Hippocratic oath: “Primum non nocere,” or “First, do no harm.” In other words, when we discipline children our priority should be to do no harm to the relationship.
As I have studied the Savior’s methods of teaching, I have noticed that he does not chastise or revile; he prioritizes the person and the relationship first and foremost. As an example, let’s look at how the Savior reacts when the Pharisees brought him a woman caught in adultery (John 8). Jesus did not say to her “Well, you really screwed up” or “You knew what the consequences were when you made the choice.” He simply said, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?” She said, “No man, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” He did not condemn her. He did not give her a long sermon about the law of chastity.
When our children make the wrong choice we should not be the first person waiting to cast stones and condemn. We should be down at their level, looking them in the eyes and showing them our unconditional love, followed quickly by encouraging them to go and be a better person than they were before. There are laws and commandments that must be obeyed, but when those laws are broken we can come alongside our child in their guilt, shame, and sorrow and show that they are loved. They need to know that their worth is not tied to their choices, and that we have faith in their ability to be better.
Another relationship lesson we can learn from Christ is not to revile against our children. To revile is to criticize in an abusive or angrily insulting manner. This is the biggest challenge for me as a parent; For a long time, I had a child that would explode over what I felt were insignificant things. He would say that he hates me and that I’m “the stupidest mommy ever.” Even though I taught him correct behavior and showed an increase of love afterwards, he still continued to verbally abuse me. When all the behavioral techniques failed me, I became frustrated, gave up, and started to punish and revile against him. Not surprisingly, it did not solve the problem, it only made things worse than before. Only when I ignored the behavior and focused on him as a person did things start to improve. I put forth an even greater effort to strengthen our relationship and allowed him some grace as his immature brain is developing. I believe there is a misconception among parents that if our children, in their frustration and anger, say disrespectful things, it is our duty to fight back and punish them for it immediately. However, the Savior has given us an example to ignore the reviling, and Peter clearly states that we are to follow it:
“For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example,that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:”
1 Peter 2:21-23
Connection Before Correction
When someone is angry and frustrated, they are not teachable. Likewise, it is pointless to argue, force apologies, or teach a moral when a child is emotionally upset. When we revile against our children we are actually robbing them of an opportunity to comprehend their mistake, feel remorse, and a desire to make amends. Many times they actually know what they are doing is wrong, but lack the reasoning capabilities to act on what they know to be right; the prefrontal cortex doesn’t start developing until around age eight.
Therefore, when we start to lecture and attempt to teach right at that moment, they will most likely justify their behavior, blame others, and make it less likely to feel remorse. If we want to be more Christ-like parents, we need to maintain a calm, loving countenance, even when our children are falling apart around us. I’ve found that in these moments, I just can’t say anything, otherwise I start rising to their emotions and everything falls into chaos. I simply get down at their level and try to think loving thoughts, and if they let me, I embrace them. At this point they usually break down and start crying.
Later, when a child has calmed down and feels connected, I say something like, “You were really upset with me earlier when you couldn’t have another cookie, and you said words that were not kind.” Sometimes they apologize on their own, and sometimes they just acknowledge that they were really upset. Either way, the relationship is intact and the child feels loved, despite making a mistake. I will usually take note of these incidences and center a family home evening lesson around it, like “speaking kind words” or “honoring parents.” In this way, I am ensuring that correct principles are taught, but at a time when the child is calm and ready to learn. I will discuss teaching and roleplay in a later article.
This kind of parenting is difficult. It goes against the natural man who wants to punish, seek revenge, and mend wounded pride. Some days I feel like I ran a marathon from all the energy I expend trying to maintain self-control. And although I still occasionally slip into previous bad habits, I have made great improvements by simply changing what I believe about what Christlike parenting looks like. I realized that a lot of my previous “parenting” was actually just me releasing steam. It wasn’t intentional, problem-solving, or loving. I parented based on what made me feel good after my feelings were hurt and my pride was wounded. We will all fall short of following Christ’s example perfectly, but I know from experience that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Each moment that you choose to follow Christ and love your children is a small victory that helps motivate you to do it again.
As parents we were first commanded to love our children, and then teach them. We were never commanded to judge our children’s actions and punish them accordingly. That responsibility is left to only one person: Jesus Christ.
Nurture a Tender Heart
Why is reviling, condemnation, and punishment so damaging? The scriptures are full of examples of people with “hard hearts” that refuse to listen, and have lost empathy, compassion, and remorse. Although there are many variables that contribute to this attitude, I believe that the quality of close relationships play a large part in whether a person develops a hard heart.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld concludes from his many years of counseling children and parents that hardened hearts come from peer attachment. When a child becomes oriented to their peers, they must protect their vulnerable hearts from the conditional love (or lack of love at all) of their peers. Children shield or harden their hearts, making them resistant to adult guidance, vulnerability, and an interest in things around them. You can read more about peer orientation in his book, Hold on to Your Kids.
To maintain a tender heart, all people must encounter futility, which is acknowledging that we cannot change something. This means that parents need to have high expectations for our children; we need to set limits and maintain structure in our homes so children can encounter futility and develop self-regulation. However, this can backfire on us if we are not there to show an outpouring of love when our children realize their desires are futile. To feel deep disappointment is very vulnerable, even more so when they visibly show their feelings through tears. When we come alongside our child during their time of vulnerability and show them they are accepted and loved as they are, we are keeping their hearts soft. When children feel safe to show vulnerability they are more able to accept responsibility for their mistakes, ask questions, love deeply, and show an interest in learning.
In the scriptures, many words are used to describe people with hard hearts, such as:
The opposite of these words could be used to describe a soft, or tender, heart:
We want our children to maintain their tender hearts that are so characteristic of childhood, but how do we do it?
We need to maintain a delicate balance between expectations and love. In other words; imposing limits, setting high expectations, and letting our children shed tears and being there to comfort them when things don’t go their way. When we blame and resent our children we have a hard heart (read Leadership and Self-deception for a wonderful explanation of this). When we try to discipline with negative feelings we push our children into blaming and resenting us as well. Our feelings toward our children make all the difference when we talk to them.
As an example, when I’m feeling negative feelings toward my son I am actually excited when he asks for cookies after dinner because he has chosen not to eat dinner and I am justified when I get to tell him no. My tone is not kind and I see his tears as an annoyance and not as a person who is genuinely disappointed. Compare this to feeling charitable toward my son: I might say something like “I really want you to have a cookie, but you need to eat your dinner. Would you like me to help you finish? Or sit with you while you eat?” In both cases I am imposing a limit, but it’s how I’m imposing the limit that makes all the difference.
“Imposed sanctions, artificial consequences, and the withdrawal of privileges–are self-defeating. Punishment creates an adversarial relationship and incurs emotional hardening.”
Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Hold On to Your Kids
Crime and Punishment
Whenever a person loves someone or something, they open their hearts to become attached and love deeply, becoming vulnerable. Children are especially good at opening their hearts and loving completely. Popular discipline tactics recommended by professionals for many years involve taking advantage of this vulnerability; the most common are time-outs and grounding.
These may not seem like a terrible way to correct behavior, but the long-term result can actually be damaging. When a child is punished by being separated from a parent, despite the child seeking for connection, the child is hurt, feels rejected, and must find a way to cope with the pain. The result is indifference. If a child is grounded from riding his bike, playing soccer, etc. they learn to not feel so deeply for these things as a way to cope with the hurt and vulnerability, not to mention the resentment they feel for the parent that is choosing to take away these beloved items. The more a person is forced to feel indifference, the more hardened their heart and the less vulnerable they become.
A tender heart is needed for a person to be teachable. Christ admonished us to become like little children for many reasons, but one reason is that they have tender hearts. They are willing to make mistakes, take chances, and ask questions, even if the questions seem silly. Our job is to maintain their tender hearts by validating their emotions, making our love unconditional, relying on natural consequences, and holding back condemnation. Maintaining a tender heart does not mean giving in to demands, it does not mean we dissolving rules that might cause frustration, and it certainly does not mean letting our children grow up in ignorance. What it does mean is that we change the way we think about our role as parents,and trust the maturation process. Most importantly, we need to trust our children to make the right choice when they have been taught correct principles, and give them the space to make mistakes.
IN SUMMARY, if we want to effectively teach our children, we need to:
- Develop charity and see them as people.
- Nurture secure attachments in order to gain authority.
- Not use coercion, bribery, or punishment to force obedience.
So the question arises, how do we discipline our children? As usual, Charlotte Mason has the answer. She famously stated in her Twenty Principles of Education that: “We are limited to three educational instruments–
the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.”
In other words, we teach our children by our example and by them making mistakes through real-life experiences (atmosphere); by shaping the child’s behavior and habits (discipline); and by introducing “living ideas” by reading the scriptures and other high-quality books. These three principles will be discussed in-depth in the next few articles.
Photography and artwork by Randi Gardner. You can find her on Instagram, at @blooming.pen