Parenting proactively: the way we treat our children

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMercy and judgment must be a part of parenting… justice cannot be served without mercy. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)

Parenting is a mix of the greatest blessings and the greatest challenges. Most of my readers who are parents love their children and want to see their children love God. They also make different choices about a plethora of things, and yet they have a similar vision for families. It is always interesting to me how different people can use different methods and have similar successes. Sadly, it is also often true that different people use similar methods and experience failure.  The bottom line is often a failure in application. What works for one may not work for another because it is a faulty method. It also may not work for another because it is not applied correctly. Once I tried to implement something that I knew worked for others, but I, unknowingly, left out a critical ingredient. It didn’t work for me! Any time we try to emulate good examples, we have to be careful that we fully understand what it is we are emulating!

Too often, parents are encouraged to spank more with little other instruction. We’ve all heard or read a diatribe about some poor child at the local discount store that ‘obviously’ needed a ‘whippin.’ There is often the assumption that spanking is a cure all for the ill-behaved children of the world. There is a misguided belief that spanking is somehow the answer to all poor behavior. Might I suggest that another answer is TRAINING? When small children transgress the laws of their parents it is often because they have not been trained well. We live amidst an epidemic of parenting failures. It is unjust to fail to train a child and then to punish the child for your own failure. However, that very thing happens all of the time. Parents become furious when children disobey or don’t follow instructions carefully BEFORE they have even trained their children. This is yet another parenting fail=out of control anger disguised as righteous indignation.

Though we are still in the trenches raising our six ‘children’ (three of them are adults) there is something I am absolutely convinced of – parents need to train more and punish less. Parents need to train well and punish when needed, but never reactively in response to anger or irritation. Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

I’ve seen lots of examples (good and bad), lots of different friends with different parenting methods, lots of books, lots of personal failures and lots of personal successes. My final conclusion is this: the best answers for any parenting questions have been found after lots of time in God’s word. God is the perfect parent. First, He equips us with what we need to obey! Then He is merciful and compassionate when we stumble. He often teaches us with natural consequences that He has already set in order. He is not spiteful or petty. He loves us unconditionally.  Best of all, God has a relationship with each of His children individually. He understands our needs, provides for us, and even gives us the desires of our hearts. God is not detached from His children. He is involved in their lives, He is aware of their struggles and He is always there for them.

Don’t misunderstand me here. There is no doubt in my mind that ‘the rod’ (the term used for corporal punishment in the Bible) is scripturally sound. I do not believe that the rod is figurative always. Neither do I believe that spanking is the only path to correction. What I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that parenting isn’t all about punishment and more punishment doesn’t equal better parenting. Actually, I have personally found that the more effectively we trained our children, the less we needed to punish them. There are so many ways to proactively train little ones! Obedience training, even games and other fun activities can be played at home to encourage and model good behavior. Train your children and make it easy for them to obey by showing them what you expect and helping them to follow through! All of this is necessary before you even think about punishing your children. You ought to be busy doing your part first!

Having a vision for our children is critical! Seeing the big picture is the best way to keep the little things in perspective. We love our children and we want our children to love God! That is THE most important thing to remember. Do our actions help move us toward that goal or do they throw stumbling blocks in the path? Are we able to train our children joyfully and lovingly without spite, pettiness, favoritism and conditional love? Yes! We must parent with God as our primary example!

There is a need to train children to go places and do things that will challenge them. If we were somewhere that required sitting still behavior, we had no trouble with our children. We took them to the movies from infanthood (nursing infants either slept or nursed) to adulthood. Our toddlers sat on our laps at movies and ate popcorn. When parents take their children out with them to worship services and entertainment venues, they will need to sit and wait (sometimes quietly!). Training children to appropriate behavior has become quite the controversial topic these days. There really isn’t a one size fits all approach, but there certainly are some sizes that fit none! We know families with godly kids who did this training in various ways – from the ‘nothing’ approach (sit still with nothing or you will be corrected and/or punished) to the ‘giant bag of tricks’ approach (ranging, of course, from tiny aids to stacks of books and toys and snacks and everything in between).  With all of the families with godly children we’ve known I can say with certainty that the use of quiet toys, notebooks, goldfish crackers, sippy cups, and other childish aids in assemblies has not impacted children negatively as they grew to adulthood and were converted to Christ! There is no formula for that besides what we find in God’s word!!!

Some people are convinced that a child with a sippy cup, popping goldfish and looking (gasp!) backwards is spawn of Satan. Seriously, I believe facing forward is a good thing and I encourage it. But worshipping God isn’t about how well your back meets with the back of the pew. There are other things at play besides eyes facing forward. With my babies, there were times that I sat them on my lap facing ME so I could smile at them while we sang, snuggle them on my shoulder, or let them play with my jewelry. I do avoid distracting others, and I am not suggesting being flippant or allowing children to be unruly. I’m simply no longer an advocate of the pinching, swatting, slamming baby-backs to the pew to demand sitting still and silence (breathing only noises please). I am not a fan of punishing babies for cooing … but I certainly did train our babies to whisper and teach them to sit still! There is balance here that, for some of us, is harder to achieve than others.

In our early parenting years, I was a pew Nazi and I failed to focus on hearts as much as outward obedience. While I’m thankful that I worked on training them, I also don’t think that the end justified the means. I wasn’t always loving and joyful and I wish I could have a do-over! I had several children close together and I wasn’t really looking at individual needs, training each child, nurturing individual hearts. I was rather harsh and a bit over the edge about pew perfection and I regretted my own methods. When I realized that I was not showing godly love toward our children by my efforts to train them, I refocused my zeal! I had always wanted them to obey and to behave appropriately, but I was really not interested in THEM so much as I was their perfect silence at the times I deemed it necessary.

I have found that holding a child on my lap while I point at pictures in books is an effective way to train young children to keep still (yes, we brought books … usually with real pictures of animals and children … those DK type books). We also had some felt storybooks and some other quiet toys that we brought in backpacks. First, I taught the children what I expected. Babies and toddlers were on my lap either: 1.) looking at books; 2.) snuggling; 3) playing quietly with a toy; 4) drawing. Older toddlers sat on my lap or next to me and did the same things. If they spoke out loud (from baby noises and up), I simply put my finger on their mouth with a gentle head shake and a “shh” noise in their ear. I tried to engage them at whatever level they needed so that they could sit still. I did take older children out if they misbehaved, but I found that when I trained them effectively and tried to help them engage in looking at books or drawing that they were busy and content. For some of them who needed it, I fed them goldfish or cheerios one at a time to avoid spilling, crushing, shaking messes. I allowed them to sip their water. They did this while sitting still and facing forward to avoid messes. When older toddlers and small children were not behaving well in the pew, I had them stay in the pew after services for a bit. This was very effective.

When my approach was instruction and training I found that I was not nervous and irritated by every little peep. I found that a whispered admonishment did the trick a lot of the time. As for the times that happen when a child refuses to be corrected in the pew and behave appropriately, I could effectively step out of the service for a minute or two and speak to the disobedient child, explaining their transgression and encouraging them to get it together quickly and return to our seat. This may involve punishment if change of attitude isn’t immediately made. This is all much easier when you aren’t hot and bothered worrying what others think. The days of getting up and down and taking out are few compared to the days of older children sitting in the pew following along and worshipping their Creator. That happens one step at a time as we seek to turn their little hearts toward God!

If you are having trouble training them by sitting quietly with them on your lap, practicing at home can be helpful. I did this in our early parenting years, but didn’t really have to do it much when we improved our training techniques and stopped making everything a battleground. Our little ones always loved to read and we held them on our laps to read from infancy on! That was not negotiable! It is the ‘sit still and don’t interact’, which comes with worship services, clearly a challenge. This is why I found that helping them engage in a quiet activity helped them in the pew for a lengthy period. While I believe some children are capable of sitting still with absolutely nothing to do and can certainly be trained to that end, I don’t personally believe that just because we can make them always means that we should make them. I simply cannot see anything wrong with babies, toddlers and small children flipping through books and playing with quiet toys.

In our latter years of parenting, I have realized that we aren’t raising automatons. We are raising human beings. We want them to love God, to sing praises, and to listen to His word (and even with action figures on his lap you can be sure your child will hear when Proverbs 7 is read or want to know exactly what happened to Tamar). They are listening! The best way to teach your child to love God is to love God yourself and to show your child the same kind of unconditional love that God offers you. Let them know you enjoy going to assemble with the saints and make sure that you don’t make training them feel like a burden!

When children act out for attention, find out the source and remedy it. Acting out usually means that they need help with appropriate behavior. This might mean a lot of extra time and attention. Keeping little ones who are struggling close to you is the very best thing for this. Help them step by step, moment by moment. This will help you to see their struggles and help them through. Distraction is your biggest enemy in child training. Watching them interact is the only way to see where the challenges are for each child. Once you know what sets them off, help them work through it. I found that being 100% engaged with little children is the best way to 1.)Model good behavior; 2.) Find problem areas; 3.) Narrate and instruct them through issues; 4) Proactively train them out of negative behaviors 5.) Proactively guide them into good behavior. Always remember that what one person considers roughhousing and boy behavior might be shocking to another. You have to determine what you will allow in your home and give standards and instruction. I know a lot of moms of boys and they all have different ideas about what is acceptable and what isn’t: different inside behavior standards, different caution levels, different levels of moderating… find your family standards and reinforce them with your children.

When a child defies or disobeys an understood rule and refuses correction, physical punishment is appropriate. However, when a child will be admonished, rebuked or corrected and make a change there is no reason to add an additional punishment. In all families there is a time that children aren’t physically punished any longer. You must have your child’s heart before it is beyond the time to spank. We wouldn’t dream of trying to spank our oldest (he’s 22). He outweighs me by 100 pounds at least and he is a foot taller than me. That’s not why I won’t spank him now, though. It just isn’t appropriate anymore. He is an adult. It is time to speak to him, to reason with him, to rely on what he has been taught and to appeal to his heart. We need to be able to do all of those things before the time of spanking ends. We only have one child left in our home who is ‘of age’ so to speak — our three younger children received so much more training and so much less punishment (not because they were ‘better’ children, but because we had learned from our mistakes). That time of physical punishment is rather short in comparison to the time that part of parenting is replaced with other chastening.

We need to speak to our children and instruct them. We need to ask them if they understand us. We need to welcome feedback. We need to train them and instruct them at their level and be certain that they know how to follow through. Then, when they transgress, we ought to be able to admonish them and have them correct their behavior. Admonishing is often enough. However, there are also effective natural consequences with disobedience. Firm rebuke will prick many hearts. There are also second chances (a do-over to get it right) and there is mercy and compassion for struggles. Our goal is to reach hearts, to love like God loves. If you worry about being more merciful than God, reread the Old Testament. God showed the most amazing amount of mercy on His people. He gave them laws and expected them to follow them. Yet, when they didn’t He sent the prophets to turn their hearts back to him. He showed them love and hope repeatedly. When they showed that they had turned their hearts from Him, to wood and stone and gold instead – then He delivered them into the hands of an ungodly nation! There was a lot of admonishing and rebuking before the punishment. Think about Ninevah. God sent Jonah. They repented. God didn’t punish them. Fast-forward 100 years. God sent Nahum. Ninevah didn’t repent. God punished them! In our parenting, we often punish too quickly and pass by the admonishing and rebuking. Thank God He doesn’t treat His children that way!



Category: Musings
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