As much as I enjoy reading about parenting and discipline ideas and theories, I am even more appreciative of real-life stories that show discipline in action-- aren't you? This is the story of something that happened at our house over the weekend with our 7 year old.
It began on Friday when we looked at Elijah's agenda from school. His teacher had written that he had to "pull a card" (their classroom discipline system) for not cleaning out his desk and not completing his work. We asked him what happened, and he told us he'd had a very messy desk with some unfinished work in it. We took this opportunity to talk to him about the importance of keeping his desk neat so he can keep up with things, and about staying on task and finishing his assignments. We talked together about why he's having trouble staying on task, and we discussed strategies he can use to help himself keep from getting distracted and to get back to work when he realizes he's become distracted.
Until Sunday afternoon, I thought the matter was settled. Actually, I hadn't thought about it anymore. Then when I was in the boys' room putting away a toy, I saw a plastic bag in the closet. The bag was stuffed full of papers and a note from Elijah's teacher was attached. As it turns out, the contents of the bag were all the papers that had been in his desk. A good portion of it was incomplete work. Elijah was in the room, and he saw me calmly remove the bag from the closet, take it to the kitchen, and go back to his room to supervise the room-cleaning.
He seemed nervous. I said nothing about it; I just continued with what we were doing for a few minutes while I thought about how to proceed. As I put away some of Isaac's clothes, I said, "So, tell me about the bag I found in your closet." He began to cry, and he came to me. I let him sit on my lap while he cried, and I asked him why he had put the bag in his closet instead of showing it to me and his dad. He tearfully explained that he had been afraid of getting in trouble.
I told him a story, one he had heard before but that probably would make a lot more sense to him now, about something similar that I had done when I was his age-- I had missed a lot of questions on a paper, my teacher wanted my mom to sign the paper, and I was scared that I would get in trouble so I tried to forge her signature. I told him I had been afraid of getting in trouble just like he had, but that what I had done was wrong. I asked him if he felt like what he did was wrong, and he said yes. So I explained that God gave us a conscience that tells us when we are doing something we shouldn't do, and I asked him if he'd noticed his conscience telling him he was wrong to not finish his work and to hide the papers from us. He said yes, he felt like it was the wrong thing to do.
I told him that I want him to know that he can come to me when he's messed up without being afraid. My job as a parent is not to punish him but to help him learn what to do when he makes mistakes and to help him solve problems when he has them.
Then I talked to him about God and grace. I told him that we all mess up and do things we shouldn't do sometimes, and that God has forgiven us and extends grace to us. I told him that because of that, we're supposed to forgive and give grace to each other. I told him that I forgave him.
Then we talked about what was going to happen from there, because there are consequences to this kind of thing. I told him that he needed to complete all the incomplete work and take it back to school, and that he needed to write a note to his teacher and apologize for not getting his work done. He also was not allowed to play any video games until the work was completed, because work comes before play. He understood, and he sat down and got to work. He completed all the written work and wrote a note to his teacher. I wrote a note to her as well. We also ended up being unable to take a walk on the Greenway that evening because of the time that was spent on the assignments.
Before bed, we talked again about strategies for staying on task and getting back on task, and hopefully he'll remember to use them. He also said he planned to keep his desk neat so he can find everything.
Now, I could have punished him. I could have yelled, shamed him, spanked him, grounded him... but what good would it have done? It would have made him feel bad-- but he already clearly felt the guilt of what he had done and was repentant. Why would I feel the need to pile more guilt and shame on him? Instead we talked about listening to your God-given conscience, admitting when you've messed up, forgiveness, grace, and making things right. Some would say that punishment may have been used to teach him that there are consequences, but he learned about the actual consequences by having to complete the work, write a note of apology, and miss out on things he enjoyed while the work was being completed. Those are real-life consequences! Punishment would not have taught him about strategies for staying on task in the future-- and it certainly would not have taught him that it's safe to come to his parents when he's messed up and to get their guidance in fixing the problem! If we had punished him, it only would have affirmed his worries that he would get in trouble, and he probably would be more likely to try to hide things in the future. I don't want him to be afraid to come to me when he makes mistakes; my job is to guide and teach him through things like this.
This is why I choose discipline over punishment. This is the active teaching that goes into parenting. And not only is Elijah learning important life lessons about staying focused and being honest, he's learning important lessons about God's love, grace, and forgiveness in the face of our human mistakes.