How do you discipline without God? A reader had mentioned that this would be a good topic of discussion. (Sorry it took me so long, Charity!)
No doubt it is easier to discipline if God’s got your back. You can tell your kids that, even when you leave the room, even when they are off with their friends, God is always watching and judging, ready to damn them to hell forever and ever. It sounds silly to you and me, but if you think of the behavior modifications made through the threat of “Santa’s watching you!” then you know that God can be used as a weapon, too. For a while, that is.
This is a weak morality structure, which exists externally rather than internally. It needs constant reinforcement and threats from parents, who have to mete out judgment and punishment on behalf of The Invisible Boss. It becomes even less effective when kids realize that they always have been and always will be dirty sinful things who will ask for forgiveness over and over and over again. And, of course, they’ll always be forgiven and saved because Jesus loves them.
With a little more effort, we can teach our kids to regulate their own behavior without using heaven as a carrot or hell as a threat. We ask them lots of questions like this, “Is that the way you should behave? Are you being fair? Does fighting with your brother make you feel good or bad? Can you resolve this? When is being kind better than being right?”
We don’t try to shame them or judge how they feel—only guide their actions towards more appropriate behaviors. Unlike religion, our message is not: you need me because of your flawed nature. Our message is that growing up is about learning, and I will help you the best I can. As parents, we’ll make lots of mistakes, but what redeems us is that we love our kids and are trying our best to grow good kids.
Here are just a few suggestions—and if you have anything to add, please do. If you don’t have kids, or if your kids are grown, please feel free to jump in with your observations/feedback.
- Before we discipline ask, “Would I want to be disciplined for that?” If we accidentally broke something, we wouldn’t want our boss or spouse yelling at us. If we broke something because we were kicking a soccer ball in the house—and Mom told us to stop—then of course, reparations must be made through chores or through cash.
- Point out consequences of actions. “When you broke the rules, you broke one of my favorite things.” “When you fought with your sister, you hurt her feelings and made her cry.” Some of the worst offenses cause harm that cannot be seen.
- Let them help you decide on a punishment. “How do you think you should be punished for taking your brother’s toys without his permission?” “Do you think you should write a letter of apology for talking disrespectfully to me?”
- Remind them that responsible behavior warrants more privileges. And less responsible behavior warrants fewer.
- Parents have a hard enough time being honest, and it’s natural that, at some point, every kid will lie. You can explain how this affects you. For example, “I will have trouble believing you the next time.” You can tell them how it affects society, “You weaken the value of language.” They also undermine their own self-image when they are not their words. One of my favorite tools to use was asking my kids to write a letter of apology or asking them to write a one-page essay on why one should not lie.
- For kids who seem to get into trouble a lot because they have so much energy, rather than send them to their rooms, send them around the block for a run. I learned this from another mom who has five boys. She’d stand outside like a drill sergeant, watching them run round and round the block until they were worn out. We’re animals. We were born to walk, to run, to move. It makes sense that, if we are bound all day long, we’re going to get rambunctious, even grumpy. I found that my kids ended up in a better mood when they exercised.
- Help teenagers set their own boundaries. What bedtime is a reasonable on a school night? How much sleep do you think you need? If they wake up tired, rather than say, “I told you that you needed more sleep than that, ask them what they can do so they are not so tired the next day.”
- Offer a lot of positive reinforcement by recognizing good behaviors. Thank them for doing the right thing, for helping their siblings, for being responsible in school, for helping someone who needed a hand.
These are just some suggestions we can do to put the responsibility of doing the right thing and of making good choices on our kids. No, God won’t love them and give them the fast pass to that place called heaven. Instead, they’ll love themselves because they are good people, and you’ll be proud of them for making good choices.