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Child running toward her mother

Discipline

Johann Christoph Arnold

Available languages: Deutsch, Español, 한국어, العربية

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Listen to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching. They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck. – Proverbs 1:8-9

In an age when discipline of any kind is regarded as abuse, it is tempting to dismiss the Old Testament proverbs about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. All the same, we can find wisdom in the ones that speak about discipline in a general sense, even if we reject physical punishment, as I do.

When children are conscious of having done something wrong without a consequence, they learn a bad lesson. Especially when they are young the misdeed itself may be quite small, but if not confronted, it will lead to far worse behavior in the future. The six-year-old who is not disciplined for taking a handful of coins from his parents' dresser may well be shoplifting at sixteen.

But discipline means more than just catching children in the act, nor does it mean suppressing their will in favor of our own. It means guiding them to choose right over wrong. It means teaching self-denial as a valuable character trait, and not an old-fashioned deprivation.

Effective discipline starts at a very early age. Already in the first few months, babies find out that their crying summons attention and concern. But a mother who responds to every whimper has already lost the battle. All babies need to be soothed, but they need not be picked up every time they cry. If they do not learn to deny themselves in the very first years, when will they?

To hold out firmly and consistently against a child's will is often irksome. Yet parents who prize comfort above the effort of discipline will find that in the long run, their children will only become more and more troublesome. All children resist at the beginning, but they will eventually thrive on routine.

How should a child be disciplined? Scolding and nagging frequently, especially for minor indiscretions, often escalates to impatience and anger, and then both parent and child will end up in a shouting match. In the same way, parents who explain and defend every action they take will end up exhausted and unsure of themselves.
Rather, parents should choose actions over words. One of the simplest forms of discipline is "time out" – putting a child who has misbehaved in another room for a few minutes. A child punished in this way will soon feel bored or lonely and want to return to play; when he or she is quiet, the episode should be forgiven and the child allowed to move on.

Corporal punishment, however, has no place. My grandfather, an educator, called it a "declaration of moral bankruptcy" and felt that it was not only harmful but futile. This is because even the strongest discipline will be ineffective unless accompanied by love. Without warmth and kindness, and without respect, any form of discipline will sooner or later lead to rebellion.

Thus good discipline depends on trust between parent and child. Thankfully my siblings and I had such a relationship with our parents. When I was eight years old, I upset my father so much that he felt he needed to punish me severely. As he was about to spank me, I looked up at him and said, "Papa, I'm sorry. Do what you need to do. I know you still love me." To my astonishment, he leaned down and hugged me and said, "Son, I forgive you." My words had completely disarmed him. The incident taught me a lesson I have never forgotten: Don't be afraid to discipline your children, but the moment you feel remorse on their part, be sure there is forgiveness on yours.

Consistency is also key. If you disagree with your spouse over how to handle an incident, don't discuss it in front of your children – or they will soon be playing you off against each other. And don't change your approach just because the living room is full of guests. Bite your lip and do what you need to do; either way, you will have to deal with your child after the guests have gone, and your long-term relationship to him is far more important than the impression you make on others.

Children cannot be expected to obey every command unquestioningly, and it may be necessary to explain some things to them. A child should usually have no choice but to obey. However, if direct conflict arises, it is imperative that you win. The main thing is that you set the limits and don't let your children set them for you. If you are able to enforce limits consistently and with love, they will sooner or later be able to set limits for themselves.

No matter how often you need to discipline your children, never humiliate them. Don't talk about their weaknesses or mistakes in front of other adults, and never compare them to other children. It is easy to label a child as "difficult," but it is never right or just. Like children, we must not only forgive the wrongs of the previous hour and day, but also forget them, and start every day anew. And we must believe in the positive goal of discipline, as Proverbs 19:18 so eloquently says: "Reprove your child, for in this there is hope."

From Why Children Matter by Johann Christoph Arnold.

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Contributed By Johann Christoph Arnold Johann Christoph Arnold

A noted speaker and writer on marriage, parenting, education, and end-of-life issues, Arnold is a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, a movement of Christian communities.

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