By Dick Innes
"Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it."1
I read recently about a man who said, "I failed my son when he needed me most. I was under a great strain from a workload I seemed unable to escape. A gulf came between me and my son, and when I recognized it, it was too late. I have never been able to regain communication. I failed God as well as my son."
The responsibility to provide for one's family goes far beyond merely meeting a child's need for food, clothes, shelter and education. It also includes meeting his emotional and spiritual needs and guiding him to total adult maturity.
This path to maturity has three stages: the dependent childhood stage; the independent teenage stage; and the interdependent adult life.
To mature through the first two stages to adulthood, a child needs lots of unconditional love, sufficient freedom for him to become a person in his own right, and loving but firm discipline.
Conditional love—that is, "I love you if you are nice, well-behaved, do well at school, etc."—isn't love at all. It is control. It smothers a child and damages his self-image. A child who is loved primarily for what he does or doesn't do rather than for who he is will not feel truly loved.
A child also needs sufficient freedom to develop his own unique personality. A part of this is to allow him to make more and more of his own decisions as he is able to, and to train him to accept the consequences of those decisions. He also needs to do for himself as much as he can because others doing what he could and should be doing for himself will keep him over-dependent and immature.
Without this freedom to develop his or her own person, a child feels over-controlled and over-protected. He is thus being programmed for later rebellion or other emotional and/or physical problems.
Does giving a child freedom mean that he is allowed to do as he pleases? Not at all. One cannot have love and freedom without discipline. Dr. Bruce Narramore, founding dean of the Rosemead Graduate School of Psychology, lists seven types of discipline in his excellent book, Help I'm a Parent.2 They are as follows:
Discipline by communication. Explanation is an essential part of all discipline. Children need to be told what the guidelines are so they can know what is expected of them. They also need to be told why some behavior isn't acceptable. If they aren't told, they will think their parents are unreasonable and they will naturally feel resentful.
Discipline through reinforcement and extinction. By rewarding any behavior, one reinforces that behavior and helps it to continue.
For example, Mother asked Suzy to straighten up her room. She did. When Mother looked in she said, "Suzy, I'm really pleased with the way you straightened up your room. You did such a good job."
This is rewarding positive behavior with a compliment. Rewards can also be special treats sometimes. Such rewards thus reinforce desirable behavior.
On the other hand, Freddie was pestering the daylights out of his mother. She was frazzled and began screaming at all the kids. This was just what Freddie wanted—it was his reward. Mother's overreaction reinforced Freddie's negative behavior.
Had Mother not overreacted, but sat down and asked Freddie why he was upset, he probably would have dropped this tactic. This is discipline through extinction.
Discipline by natural consequences. Nature has an effective way of disciplining everybody. If one doesn't get enough food or sleep, he will get hungry and tired, and so on.
Jane often refuses to eat her evening meal. At bedtime she cries with hunger pains. Feeling sorry for her, Dad slips Jane an apple. He ruins nature's own discipline.
He could have said kindly but firmly, "You know, sweetheart, when you don't eat your dinner, there's no eating between meals. I guess you'll have to wait ‘til breakfast."
Discipline by logical consequences. At meal time, if the children don't eat their main course, there doesn't need to be a big fuss, the logical consequence being, there isn't any dessert either.
If Junior constantly misses the bus for school and each time Dad drives him, Dad is training him to be over-dependent. But if Junior knows the consequence is to walk when he misses the bus, he will learn responsibility and self-discipline—the ultimate aim of all discipline.
Discipline by spanking. This is a touchy one! Many disagree whether a child should or should not be spanked. However, the Bible teaches, "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him."3 The important emphasis is on the discipline. If a very young child insists on touching dangerous or valuable, breakable objects, he or she may need to be lightly slapped on the hand with the appropriate "No! No!" The hit should always be in love—never in anger—and just enough so that the child learns there are certain "no-no's" in life.
I believe that spanking should only be used when the child cannot understand other forms of discipline. Remember, too, that the Bible also says, "Fathers, provoke not your children to anger."4
Lashing out in anger at a child makes him afraid and angry. This isn't discipline. It's revenge. And it is psychologically damaging. The only thing it does is to ventilate the parent's feelings. It also teaches the child to lash out at others when he is angry.
In all discipline it is important to "attack" the deed—never the person. "I love you, but what you did makes me angry," is much better than saying, "You are such a bad boy for doing that." Continual attacking of the child's person damages and/or destroys his or her self-concept.
Discipline by imitation. The example of the parent's life is the most effective form of discipline there is. Children copy what they see. If they live with fear and resentment, they will learn to be fearful and resentful; if they live with love and understanding, they will learn to be loving and understanding, and so on.
A child, too, learns about God, the heavenly Father, through the example of his earthly parents, especially his father. If a child has a loving, close relationship with his father, it is easy for him to see God as loving and close. But, if a child's father is emotionally cold and uninvolved with him, chances are the child will grow up to feel that God is also cold and distant. And if the child's father is very punitive, the child will project those feelings onto God and feel that God is the same and he will be afraid of him.
Because of this and the fact that children learn so much from their parents' example, the parents' own emotional and spiritual maturity is the greatest heritage they can give to their children.
1. Proverbs 22:6, (NIV).
2. Bruce Narramore, Help, I'm a Parent, (Zondervan, 1972).
3. Proverbs 13:24.
4. Ephesians 6:4.