As I sat down to write this article (last September!) I heard a crash. Not a loud crash…but a recognizable one. I knew what it was—my two year old son Jason had gotten my nearly 6 year old Jessica’s tape dispenser—a handy little contraption that opens up to reveal small storage compartments that hold paper clips, counting chips for math, and a pink eraser. He’s fascinated by it—as any normal two year old would be.
But I did not relish picking up all those small items! Flying up from my chair, I descended the stairs rapidly. “Jason, what are you doing?” I yelled. Seeing him scampering across the living room in a frightened manner, I caught myself. I was being my step-mother. Taking a deep breath, I put a smile across my face and changing my tone I said “well you’ve made a mess here, haven’t you? I guess we need to clean up!” Jason turned around and started coming back to the mess as we both sang together
Clean up, clean up, everybody clean up!
Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere!
Clean up, clean up, everybody do their share!
I showed him how to sort the counting chips from the paper clips, and soon we had the mess cleaned up, and everyone was happy. Jason had learned one more small lesson in responsibility, while also learning that his mommy is kind, loving, and a fun person to be with. I picked up the tape dispenser and carried it back to the top shelf on Jessica’s bookcase where it belongs—not that this location is out of Jason’s reach seeing as he has figured out that he can climb on Jessica’s desk to reach it. But it is a bit less tempting than it was sitting on the piano where sheet music should be!
Now for what I really intended to write in this article…how do we teach our children to have responsible behavior? For the Christian, how do we teach our children to look to the Bible as a guide for their behavior? An abundance of books are available to tell us how! One thing that impresses me is that often books about parenting are written by men.
Now as a woman who has worked days while her husband stayed home parenting the children, I do not want to downplay the role of fathers. But let’s face it, moms are the ones who do most of the parenting! We are in the trenches. Even with my husband home in the daytime, he looks to me to advise him on what is age appropriate behavior, and to provide ideas on how to mold behavior.
There is a fundamental difference between men and women that men tend to move in and attempt to affect change by use of brute force (which is sometimes necessary!), while women are generally more nurturing. In the workplace more and more large companies are moving to management style that could be considered more feminine if only it were politically correct to identify it as such. Why are they doing this? Because the research consistently shows that it yields a more productive workplace. Titus 2 tells the Christian that women should be looking to older women for advice. So why do we cling so tightly to what is written by men? Why, as workplaces move in a more feminine direction, is the home moving in a more masculine direction?
Some of the more masculine parenting advice I have read involves a very methodical approach for dealing with children’s misbehavior. The parent is instructed to ask the child what the child did wrong. The child is then expected to confess. The parent then calmly explains that he is required to give a spanking for disobedience—it’s a requirement on the parent from God, so the child is supposed to be sympathetic to the parent’s being under an authority just as the child is under the parent’s authority. The spanking is given, then the parent hugs the child and the child is supposed to display a submissive spirit. It is all very dispassionate, almost emotionless.
But we are not emotionless, and to attempt to be so I believe is to deny a very important part of ourselves as mothers, and a very important part of our children. Further, I feel that this model really falls apart when you apply it in the real world. The holes abound. Let me lay out a very real scenario of how this played out one time in my home.
My family was having some visitors. The children were upstairs playing in our daughters’ bedroom. After a time “Briana Smith” (all names of children other than mine have been changed) came downstairs with 5 year old Jessica. Jessica was crying hard. Briana explained to me that “Joey Jones” had shoved Jessica. I’ve seen Jessica in action before—the slightest perceived injustice can cause tears to well up like a geyser. I did not consider this to be a big issue since I did not see any blood or marred skin, nor had I heard any tell tale “thuds” that might indicate that this had been a rough shove. I worked to calm her down for the comfort of our guests.
Briana then proceeded over to Joey’s father, and repeated her tale to him. He immediately got up and went upstairs. He questioned his son about what happened. Apparently 4 times he asked the question and Joey said “I don’t know.” He finally said something like “look Joey, you were up here, I know that you know something about what happened, so what happened?” At that point Joey confessed to pushing Jessica.
The father came down stairs and asked me for a wooden spoon to spank his son with. Having read the same book that this father has read (or at least I know his wife has read it, I assume he has too), I expect the spoon would have been used on bare skin. I’ve been spanked like that before. It HURTS. One recent study found that when parents spank with a bare hand the child feels 40% more force than the parent feels, simply because of the different levels of nerves and the physics involved. I challenge you to try it—“spank” yourself on the same part of your body as you spank your child, and feel the different sensations between what you feel on the palm of your hand and on the area you spank. I can only imagine that when a parent uses a so called “neutral object” to spank with it is much easier to apply more force than is intended.
Now I did not give the father a wooden spoon, and he later told me that he felt a “check in his spirit” and did not spank the child. But he told me that he was not intending to spank the child for pushing my daughter, but rather for lying to him. Which I feel is the first place the “discipline scenario” falls apart. I feel that asking the child what they did wrong sets them up to lie. The child suspects that if he admits to the wrong doing he will be spanked. Even if the parent has witnessed the misdeed, many children will lie in hopes that their parent did not quite see everything, and perhaps they will be able to avert the spanking.
But even beyond that is the false confession. Who hasn’t heard of the controversy at times over police eliciting confessions from suspects? A parent may think they are not intimidating in their questioning…but let’s put this in perspective. The child is about 40 inches tall and weighs 40 lbs. The parent is close to 70 inches tall and weighs 160 lbs…don’t you think you’d feel intimidated if someone that much bigger than you who had spanked you in the past started asking questions? My grandmother tells me that she regularly confessed to doing things that her sister had done simply because she could not stand the pressure of being asked even once. The phenomenon is so well known that even a Winnie the Pooh video that my children enjoy has Piglet quickly confessing to Rabbit that he had sent a banned Valentine’s card, but then when asked why he sent it he admits that he didn’t send it, he just doesn’t do well under pressure (later you learn that Eyeore had sent the card—not knowing about the ban).
So what is a parent to do in a scenario like what happened in my house, particularly if they have an ongoing struggle with their child being physically aggressive? Here is a very effective model that I use and what I try to do if roles were reversed and Joey were the one that was alledgedly hurt by Jessica (after I’d run up the stairs yelling “Jessica, what did you do to Joey?!?” then catch my breath and thought about it!). This model involves the emotions as well as the “teaching” aspect of discipline that I find is very often left out in discipline models that rely strongly on spanking.
Parent: Jessica, I heard that you pushed Joey. I don't really know if that is what happened because I didn't see the situation. But remember how we have talked about treating others kindly? Is pushing Joey kind?Now at this point Jessica may or may not go apologize to Joey for pushing him. She may say "Mommy, I didn't push Joey, but I am sad that he is hurt." I should then encourage Jessica to express that sympathy to Joey with a hug and even explain that Jessica can say “I’m sorry that you got hurt” to Joey even if she doesn’t feel she caused the hurt. I think it is important for the parent to TRUST the child at this point despite the report from the other child. Maybe Jessica *didn't* push Joey, but accidentally bumped into him and Briana interpretted that incorrectly. Or the "bumping" may have even not been all that "accidental," but the child is going on the technicality that she "bumped" rather than "pushed."
Jessica: no... (looking at ground)
Parent: Okay. So you understand that. If you do hurt someone, what does the Bible say that you should do to make the situation right?
Jessica: I don't know...
Parent: Well let's look together, perhaps Matthew 5:23-24 could help us. What does that passage say?
Jessica: That if someone realizes someone else is upset with them they should go to that person and apologize.
Parent: Do you think Joey is upset with you right now?
Parent: Then what should you do?
Jessica: But it was an accident!
Parent: The Bible says here simply that if your brother--Joey--has something against you you should go to him and be reconciled. You should tell Joey that you are sorry that he is hurt even if you didn't mean to hurt him. Let's pray together. "Dear Lord, we are praying now for Joey because he is hurt. Please help his mommy soothe his owie. Please help Jessica to play nicely with her friends. If Jessica did push Joey,
please convict her heart of her need to apologize to him. In Jesus name, amen."
Regardless of what the child does, the parent needs to trust the power of the scripture and prayer to work in reaching the child's heart. I know of children who were never spoken to about a wrong doing because their parents didn't know about it, or perhaps even another sibling got blamed for it while the guilty sibling looked on silently. Yet they confess months later after a family devotional touches their heart. I know myself that even in the face of a severe beating I often still continued to deny doing something I knew very well I had done. I really do not see how spanking reaches the child's heart or teaches the child not to hurt other children. My own experience from childhood would tell me that Joey probably believed that Jessica told on him (she didn't!), and thus would hold her responsible for his spanking if he had gotten one--DESPITE his father clearly telling him the spanking was for lying, and Joey even repeating back to his father that he knew the spanking was for lying--children learn how to parrot back what they know their parents expect them to say--even if they don't believe it.
Now please keep in mind that this situation—where the parent did not witness the aggression—is very different from when the parent does witness the aggression. If the parent does witness it and thus knows beyond any doubt that it did occur, it is definitely time for some consequences. The parent might have a very similar discussion with the child about having sympathy for others, but then follow it up with “I can see that you are having difficulty with playing nicely right now. I can’t allow you to hurt other children so you are going to have to sit here next to me and read a book rather than playing with the other children.”
 The “neutral object” theory holds that a parent should not spank with their hand because the hand is for loving. On one side, I can see the logic in this—I know several people who even as adult flinch when their parents reach out to hug them because of having been spanked by hand. However, “neutral objects” don’t eliminate that response—they just transfer it to something else. I flinch when seeing one of my husband’s belts casually laying around because my father’s belt was the “neutral object” of choice for many years in my family.