Saturday, March 01, 2008

Discipline and Punishment

I was discussing parenting and our parenting methodology with someone from work, the other day, and an interesting issue arose. My co-worker was concerned that the kind of discipline I spoke of sounded good, but she would be concerned that it would turn things like running or physical exercise (used as a form of correction) into a negative things viewed as punishment. She wants to encourage physical exercise, not turn it into something bad or negative.

My response was two-fold. I first used the example given to me by someone else of a child whose parents made him run laps as a form of correction. When they began that form of discipline, he was basically lazy, whiny, and unwilling to do anything or help out. But the following year, the boy joined the track team at school. The discipline he received was actually good for him, and he enjoyed the fruit of it in more ways than one. First, he was learning to get his work done responsibly so that he could enjoy extra-curricular activities, and secondly, he was in great shape... so why not go out for the track team?

My second point, which relates to this, is that I think by and large kids understand the difference between punishment and discipline, even though sometimes we use those terms interchangeably. I have explained to my kids what discipline or correction is for, but I think even without the explanation they experientially know the difference between that and "punishment" (or at least that a difference exists).

In my mind, punishment is something I do for me. I feel that justice has been offended and that retribution is in order. I act as Lawgiver and Judge. They have transgressed me, and I must make them pay. They have pissed me off or not done what I asked, and I'm going to do something so that there is a sense of appeasement. That is punishment. Punishment operates in the realm of justice, and in this context it is a warped, personal, self-seeking form of justice. I know, because I have "punished" many times before, unfortunately.

Discipline or "correction" is different. It is done for them. When my son back-talks his mother, for example, I make him do pushups (he is 14). He must not dishonor and disrespect his mother. Why? Because God says it is sin, sin if offensive and dishonoring to God, and sin has consequences. Because I love my son, I will discipline him so that he will be reminded of God's authority over him and the fact that this is sin. If I were to allow him to continue in that, yes, it would be personally unpleasant for my wife and I in our home, but it would be horrible for him, and we would be unloving parents to allow him to continue to walk in rebellion against God without correction. How could allowing your kid stand against his Maker be good for them? You might as well let them jump off the roof.

The same goes for my daughter if she is grumbling, for example. If she is incessantly grumbling, that reveals a self-centered and pretty ungrateful attitude which believes that the world should bow to her wishes, give her these things and comforts which she believes will give her happiness, and she is grumbling because it isn't. Because I love her, I will discipline her for that. Discipline, though unpleasant, has something of a redemptive aim. And of course, each opportunity for discipline is also an opportunity to remind them of the most important truth: our sin is a neon sign pointing out our need for a Savior -which God has graciously given us. That is not oppressive. That is the best news in the world!

The Bible, as we would expect, is replete with passages about the goodness of discipline, especially in Proverbs. Here are just a few:

"For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life, " (Prov 6:23)

"Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him." (Prov 13:24)

"Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him." (Prov 22:15)

All of these, and more, depict discipline as something good -not just good in a general sense, but good and loving for the person (child) receiving it. Do you see that?

When I discipline, I am not judge. I am standing in a position of God-given authority, yes, but acting for the good of my children. I, myself a sinner, am acting as for the good of other sinners, my children, in obedience to and for the glory of God. This is a tremendously humbling thing to grasp. I am an imperfect agent of God, acting for the glory of God and the good of my kids.

And this is what love is -to act for the true good of another. It is not loving to allow our children to follow the foolishness in their hearts without reproof, as though they are their own gods, living at the center of the universe. It is wicked to sit and idly allow that. God says if we do that, we hate our children.

And as I mentioned before, I think kids understand the difference between discipline and punishment (and certainly if you explain it to them). A few months ago while we were driving home from somewhere, my son told me how glad he was that God gave him parents that cared enough about him to give him firm boundaries, protecting him from his tendency toward foolishness (my paraphrase of his words). That blew me away. But it isn't only in random moments like that where I see the difference consistent discipline makes, by God's grace. Although he doesn't like the act itself (running laps, pushups, etc.), I see that he is growing to appreciate it, and I thank God for every bit of it.

Recently, he returned to Tae Kwon Do lessons, and after his first lesson back (he took a "break" for about 6 months to get back on track with school and things), we talked a bit with his instructor as students emptied the building. While expressing his joy that my son is back, the instructor noted how he seemed in much better shape than before. In response, my son was open about the fact that he has been running laps as a form of discipline. He was mildly bashful, but he almost seemed proud that his dad (me) was making him do it.

Kids know the difference. They understand when their parents are for them and not against them. Actions speak so loudly on this point -much louder, as the adage goes, than what we say to them. And even though they might complain or put on a grumpy face when given discipline, they know it is better for them. They need their parents to be connected to them, and they need that discipline. Though temptation and foolishness tell them that doing things their own way promises happiness, they are overall happier when dad does his job and steps in to correct them.

My responsibility, my challenge, is to find that right amount for each child. I don't want to crush them, but it must be enough to actually serve as a corrective. I need to connect with them personally as their dad, but with that I also need to be consistent in loving them through discipline.