Disciplining misbehaving kids is often a difficult and emotion-laden task. Our oldest son Daniel, sometimes said to Lynne, “Mom, you just bursted all over us!” And he was painfully right. Jim had his share of quick, harsh reactions as well. Those were discouraging times for all of us, and we wished we knew how to get unstuck from that negative pattern.
There’s a parenting pitfall that nearly all parents get stuck in at some point: “If my child behaves well, I am a good parent. If my child misbehaves, I am a bad parent.” Stated so bluntly, it’s obviously not true, but it is still a powerful and subtle belief for nearly all parents.
This belief can cause parents to change their perspective (and therefore their mood) quickly based on their children’s behavior. That inevitable wild outburst in a store becomes a great embarrassment because it’s about the parent’s failure. This drives the parent to overreact in order to get the child under control. The overreaction then leads the parent to make further conclusions about being a bad parent. Defining parenting by a child’s behavior puts tremendous pressure on the child to “get it right.” This usually has very negative results for the child and for the parent as they both ride an emotional roller coaster together, overreacting to the normal ups and downs of children’s behavior.
I had a good opportunity to test this in myself the day our youngest son Noah got caught lighting matches in the church.
Learning to receive God’s grace for ourselves, and then dispensing that grace to our kids, is the essence of becoming a safe parent. When we do this, we can focus more on caring for our children’s souls than on managing their misbehavior.
It starts with me. Kids provoke us. And when we’re provoked, we tend to reveal what’s really inside us – especially when the provocateurs are our very own little children. What’s revealed is often not a very pretty picture. Virtually every parent we’ve talked to in any depth admits, “I don’t like the me that comes out when I discipline my kids.” One said, “I am so competent at work and with friends. I’m on my game almost all the time. But when my kids act up it’s like I lose the ‘real me!’ I become someone I don’t know or like.”
The tough truth to swallow is that whatever comes out of us IS the “real me.” The goofy thing is, that as much as we tend to despise the “me” that emerges, by the beauty of God’s grace, we are accepted just as we are (but God doesn’t want to leave us unchanged!).
“Are you going to help me or not?” I snapped at Daniel, our fifteen year-old-son. He’d been asking for the past hour to go to a friend’s house. I kept dodging his request while also badgering him to enlist his help in a backyard project I had planned.
“Dad, you’re annoying!” he snapped back. “You keep ignoring me. Get off my back!” I was a bit stunned by his sharp tone. He waited briefly for a response. When none came he folded his arms and announced, “I’m leaving.”
Recently, on a weekend when all our kids were home, we dug out the family videos for a trip down memory lane (or, in the case of our daughter-in-law, a crash-course in Jackson family history).
Our kids’ childhood antics were rather hilarious – particularly their clumsy attempts to steal the spotlight when a younger sibling was in the picture. In one scene, little Noah is being coaxed to try his first steps across the living room floor. When he hesitates, Daniel and Bethany literally plow him over in their attempts to prove to both parents and camera that “I can walk too!”
In hindsight, attention-grabbing toddlers can be amusing. But in the moment, it can be frustrating for parents to deal with the annoyance of a child who demands constant attention.
So how can parents respond lovingly to their attention-guzzling children without “giving in” or creating spoiled children?
We have raised our own three kids (now in their twenties) and through personal experience as well as working with countless families; we have learned that not every child responds well to spanking. When we spanked our intense son Daniel he would glare daggers at us defiantly as if to say, “What good does hitting me do?” His spirit wasn’t “breaking” the way the books we were reading said it should. We began to question the effectiveness of harsh discipline and decided to look more deeply at what the Bible says about spanking. (Read L.R. Knost’s commentary here.)
So we put away the books, and with the scriptures as our guide we wondered, “How would Jesus discipline?” Obviously he never spanked anyone, but a thorough look reveals that Jesus responded in a variety of ways to “misbehaviors” he encountered.
When your kids act up, Stop and Breathe. Breathing clears your mind and calms you down. When you don’t breathe, your brain stays in fight or flight mode and you can’t think clearly. You usually charge in and start a battle. When you breathe you calm down. When you’re calm you can think clearly and remember your long term priorities. You can be constructive without being combative. Your kids will notice effort to stop and breathe, and the results that follow. This helps them feel honored instead of bullied. Kids who feel honored tend to make more honoring choices, too.
Terri is a typical parent. When her six-year-old daughter acted up, Terri yelled to get her daughter under control. The daughter’s misbehavior usually went away for awhile. Terri concluded, “Whatever it takes to let my child knows she’s out of line and get her to behave is how I can win this battle of our wills.”
Terri attended one of our parenting workshops, and received encouragement and teaching about a more thoughtful way of dealing with misbehavior. A key component of this teaching was to “Stop, breathe (as many times as needed to calm down), and get perspective” by thinking constructively about how to help her daughter learn.
Nothing changed much for a while… until a major incident of disobedience. As she prepared to confront her daughter, Terri felt that familiar flushing of the ears and face. Ready to launch into her the usual angry tirade, she remembered to “Stop, Breathe, and Think.” An amazing thing happened as Terri stopped, and took some deep breaths to get settled.
“It was as if I was breathing in God’s presence. I immediately grew calm, and instead of seeing the situation with anger, I saw it with compassion. I got down on my knees and looked my daughter in the eyes. A whole new way of thinking and talking flowed. I offered a hug and said ‘I love you!’ My child softened and was
immediately repentant. We talked about her disobedience and agreed on a meaningful consequence, which she willingly endured.”
Terri had “won” the battle to shape her child’s will in a whole new way. In doing so, she also won her daughter’s heart! This is the ultimate goal of parenting.
- When Kids’ Disrespect Gets You Fuming!!!
- Regroup and Resolve: How Humble Pie Can Help Your Family
- It Works Every Time
When Your Child Misbehaves – Four Strategies for Lasting Change
Frustrated by constant discipline challenges? Take 15 minutes to read our free ebook 4 Messages All Children Long to Hear: A Discipline That Connects Overview.