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Discipleship, Consequences, and Toothbrushing

Discipleship Consequences and Toothbrushing

We recently got the following email from a loving, caring parent. We believe others among you might have similar questions, so we thought we’d share! Hope this conversation answers questions you might have and sparks a few new ones:

Dear Jim and Lynne,

Thank you so much for your recent article on discipline. I hear advice like, “You should disciple your children, not discipline.” or “Don’t get angry with your children.” But I am always asking myself, “Well, what does that sound like? What do I say in certain situations? When I say this am I disciplining or discipling?”

I love your real life situation example. One that could take place in my home. Now, what about when I tell my daughter to go brush her teeth to get ready for bed and 15 minutes later she still has not brushed her teeth. I’m just not one to say, “Now honey, I know you don’t want to brush your teeth, but we really need to. Can you please go brush your teeth?” My goal is obedience the first time, right away. Delayed obedience equals disobedience. So there should be consequences, right? What should those consequences be?

Thank you for the help you give to us parents trying our best to raise godly children.


Our Response:

Dear L.C.,

Glad you asked! The basic question I hear you asking is, “What kind of consequences most effectively ‘disciple’ our children?”

Let’s start by talking generally about consequences. Parents tend to think of consequences as something they put in place for kids. But there is a kind of consequence that simply happens. For every action there is an equal reaction. Or as the Bible says, “God cannot be mocked, a man reaps what he sows.”  These are called “natural consequences” or natural impacts.

Natural impacts are the best teacher of all.  For example, we can tell our kids until we’re blue in the face not to play with the stove. I’ve seen kids get spanked for this and return within minutes to touch the stove. But I’ve never once seen a child who was burned by the stove go back and keep playing with it. So in a child’s mind, “If you play with the stove you’ll get spanked” is not nearly as powerful a teacher as “If you play with the stove you’ll get burned.” So early in their childhoods, when our kids started playing with the gas stove knobs, I held each of their hands near the flame — not close enough to burn, but close enough to feel the heat — until they realized how hot it was. They got it! They never played with the stove after that.

Brushing teeth was harder, because the natural impacts of not brushing teeth aren’t experienced in an instant. The effects are delayed but serious. So instead of letting the kids learn by trial-and-error, we were more proactive.

First, in a blend of teaching and group brainstorming, we helped the kids understand the effects of brushing and not brushing. We talked with them about why God gave them the gift of teeth — so they could eat healthy food without pain — and about how brushing our teeth is an important thing to help not damage that gift. Not brushing leads to cavities. Your teeth and gums rot and hurt really bad. It makes you not be able to chew your food.

So even the way we dealt with tooth brushing was done through the lens of discipleship. In other words, brushing your teeth is not about obeying mom or dad, it’s about caring for the gift of teeth God gave you.

Then we put logical consequences in place that supported the natural impacts we’d discussed. Kids who brushed teeth and were ready for bed on time got more time for bedtime stories. Not being ready on time led to a loss of the stories or of reading time for the older kids. A half hour before bedtime we’d say, “Kids, it’s bedtime in 30 minutes. If you get ready quickly, you’ll have time for some reading before the lights go out.” We did no nagging or demanding, we just asked to see their clean faces and teeth before they started reading. If they weren’t up to par, we’d send them back to the bathroom. If they fought us, they got an earlier bedtime the next night.As they got older, we also helped them feel the burden of the natural impacts of cavities by taking some of their allowance money to help pay dentist bills. This was a fairly matter-of-fact activity that had our kids motivated by 4th or 5th grade to brush their teeth without being asked.

The bottom line was that we worked to help them feel the weight of the responsibility rather than just depend on us for stern commands.

So, stay calm. Be proactive in helping your kids understand the disciplinary consequences that will happen if they don’t brush teeth and get ready on time. And then, if the kids decide in light of that understanding to experience those consequences, (e.g. return to the bathroom, no reading time, earlier bedtime tomorrow), be sure to calmly and gracefully follow through with them, remembering that the most powerful discipleship happens when you model God’s love and mercy – even while following through with consequences.

A note about the concept, “delayed obedience is disobedience”.

In basic terms, I think that yes, that’s a true statement. But in general, Lynne and I encourage parents to focus on the depth of obedience more so than on its immediacy. After all, very few of the Bible’s characters obeyed immediately every time. The most important first lessons they learned were about God’s grace and mercy in the face of human failure. Parents who focus on immediate obedience are in danger of forgetting that real obedience takes a long time to learn and is nurtured in environments of love and grace. Not much immediacy involved. So we encourage parents to focus less on that phrase about disobedience and more on a more long-term phrase of encouragement: “love is patient,” from 1 Corinthians 13.

Take 15 minutes to learn how to give consequences that teach, rather than simply punish, by downloading our free ebook Consequences That Actually Work.

Jim Jackson
Jim Jackson
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