Golden Rule Parenting
This post is written for inclusion in the Carnival of Gentle Discipline hosted by Paige @ Baby Dust Diaries. All week, April 26-30, we will be featuring essays about non-punitive discipline. See the bottom of this post for more information.
Regardless of their religious views, there are few who would disagree with Jesus’ words recorded in the Bible in Matthew 7:12–”So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (New International Version)–a.k.a. the Golden Rule. And yet it is astounding to me how many people–and, ironically, especially Christians–do not think this wisdom should not be applied to children. Consider the following scenarios:
– You are hungry. You’ve been going, going, going all day and haven’t had a chance to sit down and eat. You’re thinking about a dozen things at once and you don’t even realize you’re hungry, but you’re starting to snap at people, including your husband. How would you prefer for him to approach you? “Honey, you seem really off. I haven’t seen you sit for more than 5 minutes today. What’s bothering you–are you tired? When was the last time you ate? Gosh, no wonder you’re in a bad mood, sit down and let me get you a snack. I know you get preoccupied, but you really should make sure you’re eating every few hours.” or “This behavior is unacceptable. You need to go sit in that chair in the corner and think about how you’ve been acting. I’ll tell you when you can get up.”
– You got distracted with a fun new project. You glanced at the clock a little while ago and knew you should really start dinner, but decided to work “just five more minutes.” Suddenly your husband walks in the door and you realize it’s dinner time, but you haven’t started a thing. He’s obviously angry, but he leaves the room for a few minutes and returns composed. How would you want him to react? “We have an agreement: when I get home, dinner is supposed to be ready. You need to learn to get your priorities straight.” And then he slaps you and says, “Now let’s pray that God will help you to remember this lesson and forgive you for your mistake.” Or, “I understand you’re really into that project, but when I get home I’m really tired and hungry. Next time could you maybe start something in the crock pot before you start working? That way you don’t have to stop working on your project once you’ve started, and we can eat on time.”
These scenarios sound ridiculous with adults, don’t they? And yet replace “husband” with “mother” or “father” and imagine yourself as a five-year-old who has been too busy in her imaginary world to eat her afternoon snack or to fold the washcloths you were asked to fold two hours ago and you’ve got scenarios children and parents are in every day. We would never dream of telling an adult to go sit in time-out and think about what they’ve done, nor would we consider one adult slapping the other as an acceptable way of teaching anything. (And implying that God condoned that slap would be considered by most to be spiritual abuse.) Yet we have no problem banishing children to a corner or a room to sit, alone, rather than getting to the root of their behavior, and many people see no problem with deliberately causing a child physical pain to “get a point across.”
When we consider the Golden Rule in our parenting, we’re not only considering how we’d want to be treated, we’re considering the factors we’d want others to consider when dealing with us. Would you want your new boss to recognize there’s a learning curve to your job, or would you be okay with him assuming you should know how to do your job perfectly after being told only once? How do you act when you’re scared, or hungry, or tired, or lonely, or sad, or embarrassed–are you always on your best behavior when one of those factors is in play? Are you even capable of acting appropriately in those situations? And yet so often people give no thought to what might be causing a child’s poor choices, to what they’re cognitively capable of at a particular age, or to what kind of behavior is not only age-expected but is actually developmentally necessary in order for that child to eventually mature into a healthy adult.
The bottom line is that behavior is a learned skill, no different from learning how to add or tie shoes or read. And we as adults are to be teachers who guide children as they learn those behavioral skills. And just as we recognize how illogical it would be to spank a child in order to teach them how to recite their ABC’s or to send them to time out for not remembering how to “carry” when adding double digits, it should be equally astounding to us to do those things when a child doesn’t immediately hop-to when asked to disengage from a favorite activity or when they push a boundary in a developmentally-healthy way. We need to remember what it is we want children to learn when disciplining them, and make sure the consequence drives them towards that understanding. If a child’s toy breaks because he was jumping on it, then they learn jumping on toys = they break = I can’t play with it anymore. A spanking for jumping on a toy just tells them “I get spanked when I jump on this toy.” What happens when they no longer care about spanking, or when the threat of spanking isn’t there because you can’t see them? They’ll jump on the toy! They haven’t learned to treat their toys appropriately, they haven’t learned that jumping on things mean they’ll break. Will they eventually come to that understanding as they mature, even if they were spanked? Of course–a thirty-year-old isn’t going to jump on his belongings and not understand the outcome. But then why spank? Why not let the natural and logical consequence be learned, rather than administering a developmentally pointless spanking?
Another downside to punitive discipline is how it can destroy the relationship between parent and child. Do you trust people who deliberately hurt or belittle you? If your husband or wife slapped you or shamed you or sent you off alone every time you exhibited poor behavior, what would your relationship look like? Obedience comes from the heart, and if the heart is bitter or walled-up with resentment from being deliberately hurt by a person who is supposed to care for and protect them, then obedience is never going to come. If we want our children to trust us to have their best interest in mind, then we need to make sure we protect and nurture our relationship with them. If we want them to listen to us in their teens, then we need to make sure we’re building their trust in us in their early years. Building that relationship doesn’t mean giving into their every whim and tiptoeing around their misbehavior. It doesn’t mean they will never be angry at us. It means the consequences we mete out “fit the crime,” that we don’t belittle them or shame them or mock them, and that we handle their anger appropriately by reflecting their emotions to show we understand and giving them the space to be angry while showing them that their anger doesn’t make us love them any less.
At the heart of the Golden Rule is the concept of grace. We want it extended to us–why should it not be extended to children as well? This doesn’t mean withholding every consequence of their actions from them. It means tempering the consequence to fit their developmental level and understanding, and sometimes, yes, withholding the consequence. If a child was reaching for the handle of a pot of boiling water, would you ‘withhold the consequence’ of spilling it on themselves by removing the child from the kitchen, or would stand back and watch and think, “Well, they’ll learn that lesson!”? For an older child, what is going to deepen their relationship with you and make it more likely that they’ll come to you with their problems–grounding them for a month when they mess up, or discussing their transgression (and discussing means actually letting them talk, too, not just talking at them) and allowing them a hand in determining the consequence, and possibly even saying, “I can see how troubled you are by your own behavior. I think you’ve learned the lesson for now,” and absolving them of any further ‘penance’?
Grace-based, gentle, “golden rule” discipline is far from easy. It requires constant balancing of consequences, expectations, and, as its name implies, grace. It can devolve into permissiveness if the parent is not vigilant, and the tools of the method can be punitively applied if the parent is not careful. But the payoff–a child who does not fear you, but trusts you, and who appropriately understands the concept of cause-and-effect and why certain behaviors are inappropriate–is worth every ounce of patience and effort that it requires. And for my fellow followers of Jesus, applying his words to our parenting helps our children to form a view of God that is reflective of His true character–loving, grace-filled, and forever guiding us with our best interests in mind. That outcome seems to me to be absolutely worth the work.
Welcome to the Carnival of Gentle Discipline
Please join us all week, April 26-30, as we explore alternatives to punitive discipline. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month in the USA and April 30th is Spank Out Day USA. In honor of this we have collected a wonderful array of articles and essays about the negative effects of punitive discipline methods, like spanking, and a myriad of effective alternatives.
Are you a Gentle Parent? Put the Badge on your blog or website to spread the word that gentle love works!
Links will become available on the specified day of the Carnival.
Day 1 – What Is Gentle Discipline
Day 2 – False Expectations, Positive Intentions, and Choosing Joy (coming Tuesday, April 27)
Day 3 – Choosing Not To Spank (coming Wednesday, April 28)
Day 4 – Creating a “Yes” Environment (coming Thursday, April 29)
Day 5 – Terrific Toddlers; Tantrums and All (coming Friday, April 30)