There is nothing easy about parenting, and nothing easy about the responsibility of training our children in obedience through discipline. Because discipline is unpopular and unpleasant, parents often find themselves looking for substitutes. In her book Parenting Against the Tide, Ann Benton lists five poor substitutes for disciplining our children—five poor substitutes that fail to address the heart.
This is the voice of therapy culture. Sometimes we make excuses for our child’s misbehavior. We say, “he’s tired, she’s had a hard day, he’s disappointed, she’s traumatised, he’s got low self-esteem …” Now all of these things may be true. But that is not the point. The point is this: are we going to allow our children to take responsibility for their own behavior/misbehavior or not? Or is it always going to be the fault of someone else or of the circumstances? I am not saying we cannot be understanding or sympathetic. But if we are going to praise our children when they do well, surely it is logical to chastise them when they do badly. They make choices, which are moral choices, all day long. If we commend them for the good we cannot merely excuse them for the bad. That is very poor training because it teaches them to blame-shift.
This is the voice of liberalism, which would be inclined to allow the children as far as possible to do as they like. When called upon to intervene, liberalism refuses to recognise an absolute moral worldview, whereby some things are definitely wrong and some things are definitely right. This is a failure in discipline because we need to instruct our children’s sense of right and wrong and that this is quite outside of how they fell about it. It might feel great to pull someone’s hair but it is wrong. Children have a moral sense, they have a conscience and this conscience is your friend when you discipline. Bring in right and wrong as absolutes. And be clear that the fundamental right course of action for a child is obedience to you.
[This is] the voice of strategic management. Some parents work really hard to avoid the occasion for misbehavior by organizing their children’s life and surroundings. You tie up the cupboards; you take the plug off the computer; you run a tight schedule. You make prevention of confrontation your responsibility. If your child misbehaves it is your fault for not organizing the circumstances so that it was impossible for them to misbehave. By taking this approach you are denying your child the freedom to fail. But you are forgetting that in general in this life we learn more by getting things wrong than by getting things right. It is one of the great routes to wisdom: learn by your mistakes. A child has to have some independence in order to learn to take responsibility. They need to be let off the leash so that they will understand the need for self-discipline. Otherwise you are deceiving yourself. So back off occasionally and see what he/she does.
This is where you always ask the child what he or she would like. There is a place for that of course, say, in a restaurant. But in many parents’ vocabularies, the language of choice has replaced the language of command. They say, “Would you like to wash your hands and come to the table?” Do they really mean that doing those things is optional and that the child can legitimately say “no?” It is an habitual turn of phrase but it also carries a message. And it can turn into parental wheedling and coaxing a child when in fact perhaps she could have just kindly but firmly instructed. It sometimes seems that parents are afraid to tell their children what to do. I want to suggest that it is fine to just say what you want to happen and insist that it does. Parenting is not a consultation exercise. You are the adult and you are there to take the long view and decide what is best. You don’t have to shout and rant, you can just say, “This is what is happening now.” Be in charge.
It seems such a great idea and in the short-term can be extremely effective. And I am well aware that it is highly recommended in some circles. But it is a poor choice. Firstly because it does not change anything inside — being extrinsic, it only changes outward behavior and that only just enough to hit off the reward. After that, normal misbehavior can be and often is resumed. But worse than that, bribery takes behavior out of the moral framework and makes obedience to you optional. Can that be right? What if the child turns down your proffered sweets or sticker and decides being disobedient is more fun? Do you enter into negotiations and up the ante? You are teaching the children that the only reason to comply is if there is something (material) in it for him. But remember what the Bible says, “Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Certainly the next verse talks about the promise attached to a long life in the land. But that is only saying what I often told my children: “Good boys are happy boys; good girls are happy girls.” As a Christian parent you will want your children ultimately to choose good behavior for its own sake. If you habitually bribe them you are effectively denying the child the opportunity for finding out that good behavior is its own reward.