Tightropes & safety nets
Parenting can feel like something of a high-wire act, especially when it comes to discipline. Rachel Turner explores the balance between punishment, teaching our children consequences and giving them room to make mistakes
It felt like it was happening in slow motion. I was sitting at the side of the room, watching my 4-year-old son in his gymnastics class. They were teaching them how to bounce on the trampoline, which is always great entertainment for a bunch of parents. We were giggling at each other’s children as they catapulted in different directions like popcorn, their legs flailing and bodies frantically trying to coordinate. It was hilarious.
And then I saw him. The coach asked my child to stop talking to the girl next to him and sit in a different location. My sweet little son looked the coach straight in the eye and said: “No thank you.” Then he went back to talking. She asked again, and he shook his head at her. I could feel the judgement of other parents in the room, looking at me with a mixture of sympathy and expectation of what I was about to do. My child was in full-blown rebellion. What was I going to do about it?
There is always a moment, a fraction of a second, when all of us parents are watching our children do something and we think: “Do I jump in here to stop this, or see what happens?” It might be the second before your toddler throws food on the floor, watching an escalating argument between siblings, seeing your oldest child procrastinating over their homework, or anticipating the fact that the party your teenager is attending will probably involve alcohol. Multiple times a day, we are faced with the question: “Should I intervene here?”
Every parent seems to have a different scale to define when they feel they need to intervene in a child’s decision-making process, and when they don’t. I have worked with parents who feel it is their job to introduce firm boundaries of expectations and behaviour, and are proactive in giving their children warnings and appropriate punishments to help them learn to stay within those boundaries. I have also worked with parents who are at the other end of the scale, who feel that life will teach their children many lessons, and that their job is to just keep their children safe from physical harm while they figure it out.
If we want our children to know and love God, and have their lives reflect his love, purpose and confidence, what does that look like for us as parents in the face of our children’s mistakes and bad decisions? Thankfully, we have some clues from the God who invented parenting. Unfortunately, God didn’t give us a ‘Top Ten Tips for Parenting Children’ pamphlet, which would have been really helpful, to be honest, but scripture is full of his heart for how we parent through our children’s mistakes.
“Children’s mistakes are to be expected. It is how we, as humans, learn”
When was the last time you learned how to do something you had never done before? A new computer programme, rock climbing, playing an instrument, or getting your baby to sleep, for example? It’s a process that takes a while. It takes constant adjustment and a lot of mistakes to learn something. Our children are on a journey of figuring out how to make decisions, and they won’t get it right the first time. Mistakes are to be expected. It is how we, as humans, learn.
So often our instinct is to intervene to prevent our children from making a bad decision, and sometimes that is entirely appropriate. It can stop our children from hurting others or themselves. Sometimes our children need us to be a seatbelt that keeps them from harm. But other times, the best thing we can do for our children is let them make their mistakes, because it’s in those mistakes and walking through the subsequent consequences that the learning comes. We don’t just want our children to be reliant on our control over their lives, because we won’t be there all the time. We want them to learn to control themselves; to become people who genuinely choose well.
When God gave his law to Moses and laid out how he wanted his people to live, he didn’t just say: “Here is the line, don’t cross it.” He said: “Here is the line and, if and when you cross it, here is what will happen next.” God knew humans couldn’t live perfectly, and he knew the consequences would be enormous. But his answer wasn’t to just leave us in our helpless mess. God gave us guidance in the law, and was clear about the consequences for breaking it. Sometimes it was financially devastating or socially impacting. And sometimes it resulted in losing one’s life. The consequences were costly. So, when God sent Jesus to give us grace when we inevitably failed, it was hugely good news! He saved us from the ultimate cost of our mistakes.
When our children fail, they quickly get used to dealing with the consequences of that choice. On a bike, choosing to go too slowly results in falling. Carrying a glass of milk in one hand results in spills. Being unwise with words results in stressful and broken friendships. The consequences of their mistakes and choices teach children how to adjust their behaviour for next time, and how to move forward. Therefore, helping children experience and cope with the natural consequences of their actions is a vital part of their spiritual and emotional growth.
Family life pastor at Bethel, Danny Silk, often talks about the idea of holding children to account for “cleaning up their messes” as a consequence of their actions. The big lessons I remember from childhood weren’t when I received a big punishment. To be fair, I remember experiencing the punishments, but I have no idea what they were for now. The lessons I do remember learning were those when the consequences of my actions came crashing down on me.
I vividly remember the day I learned that trying to hide things and lie wasn’t worth the potential mess. I was 6 years old and my mum told me to eat my broccoli. I didn’t want to. I figured I could hide it and she would never know. So, I hid it in my cup of milk and told her I ate it. Somehow, she was smarter than me and noticed. I braced myself for a punishment. Being sent to my room, being grounded, or even spanked for lying.
“It was worth a try,” I remember thinking, confident that I could handle whatever punishment was coming. Instead, she just shrugged her shoulders and said she didn’t mind how I finished my food and drink. It just needed to be finished before I left the table. I was horrified. By hiding and lying, I had made my situation a hundred times worse. I was now faced with eating soggy broccoli and drinking milk that tasted like broccoli and had floaty bits in it. A few hours later, I woke up, groggy, to the sound of the television in the other room. I had fallen asleep at the table, still refusing to finish my meal. I knew then that if I had just eaten my darn broccoli three hours earlier, I would have had a totally happy evening.
I felt like Jonah in the belly of the whale, suddenly regretting my rebellion. I dug out my cold, mushy broccoli from the cup and ate it, gagging all the way. Then I drank the green milk with floating chunks, and promised myself that I would never make that mistake again. I locked it in my head that I should get unpleasant things over with, because if I didn’t they would fester. Even now, when I think about hiding a failure from my boss, the taste of that chunky broccoli milk pops up and I decide to just apologise with the truth rather than hiding and lying. It’s not worth dealing with the potential consequences.
Stepping away from the spotter
What are the natural consequences of our children’s choices that we tend to cut off in our efforts to punish bad behaviour? What would it look like to have our children fix their own messes with their teachers, friends and schools? What if, instead of simply being the one-stop shop for punishment, we became coaches in holding our children accountable for fixing their relationships and making up for their mistakes, not just with us, but with others when a mistake happens?
As I watched my 4-year-old rebel against his gymnastics coach, my instinct was to march over with a punishment that would help him know that being rude to his coach was unacceptable. My brain was spinning through how many days of electronics I was about to snatch away from him to make him feel my displeasure. But then the broccoli milk memory resurfaced. I began to ponder how his actions impacted others and made a plan. Instead of intervening, I decided to let the consequences roll and help facilitate him walking through that.
“We don’t just want our children to be reliant on our control over their lives. We want them to become people who genuinely choose well”
When the end of the session came, I had a chat with my son about how his decision to be rude to his coach created a big mess that I expected him to clean up before the next session. We talked through how his words had made his coach feel, and I asked him to make a plan to fix his relationship with her. He decided that he would call her on the phone to ask her what she had felt when he was rude, and apologise by telling her what he was sorry for and how he would change his behaviour in the future.
We talked about how, when he doesn’t listen, he isn’t learning, so I would need the money back that I paid for the gymnastics lesson. I was happy to accept money or chores. I also told him it was important to me that he could be trusted to be a supportive and encouraging member of any group he was in, so I would wait to say yes to a recent birthday party invite until after the next gymnastics session, at which he could build my trust that he was able to be a positive and helpful member of a group. I can tell you, years later that one experience has shaped how he thinks about behaviour in a group more than any punishment I could have come up with.
I don’t think there is one right way to coach a child through those consequences. Our children are all so different. The consequences that are natural for my child may be different for yours. But that is the beauty of being a parent. We don’t have to know what works for all children, but we know our own children better than anybody else in the world. We are perfectly positioned to help our children learn the life lessons that will grow them into the people of God they are made to be, now and in the future.
When we help our children deal with the natural consequences of their actions, it gives us a powerful tool in the shaping of their hearts. They begin to see the impact of their behaviour on themselves and others. They learn life lessons in terms of what their choices may mean. That way, they can begin to understand the grace of God through Jesus, who saved us from our mess and restores all.