Godly Discipline & Christian Parenting
Now that I see God differently I approach parenting, discipline, and spanking much differently too.
Christian Parenting Discipline = Spanking
I assumed spanking was an essential part of Christian parenting. My process for letting go of this belief took lots of nuance and thought because so many assumptions were in play.
In my last post I described how one of my first shifts in faith led me to no longer assume capital punishment is a necessary form of retributive violence used by God to prevent and punish sinful behavior. https://www.elisabethbojang.com/2019/11/18/capital-punishment-christianity/
I used to think spanking was was a necessary form of “appropriate” retributive pain used by parents to prevent and punish sinful behavior.
ARE YOU ACTUALLY COMPARING SPANKING TO CAPITAL PUNISHMENT?!
NO! I do not claim spanking is as harmful as capital punishment. A spank is obviously not the same level of violence as calling for someone’s death.
What I am saying is this: the reasons used to defend capital punishment are the very same reasons to spank.
When I realized this it shook me and all my assumptions straight to the core. For me, this is a problem.
If I haven’t scared you off by now, here’s my story.
Spanking was a No-Brainer
Before I had kids, I was 100% ready to spank my (future) kids. Who wants disobedient spoiled children, right?
Spanking is common in many Christian circles.
It’s promoted by prominent pastors and teachers like Dr. James Dobson and John Piper. Most (if not all) of the parents in my very intentional Christian church community spanked us kids as a form of discipline. I remember conversations about the government not allowing foster parents to spank their foster kids and thinking it was a type of persecution; the state controlling the church. I believed God created a system requiring perfect behavior, threatening pain to produce perfect behavior, and also requiring painful punishment for any less-than perfect behavior.
Don’t Leave a Mark
The general rules to spanking seemed to be that you could use your hand or some form of spanking tool (paddle, stick, etc), but you couldn’t leave a mark or a bruise. If you did you went too far and that would be abusive. Even still, if a parent did leave a mark they would feel bad and make sure not to go so far the next time. I actually rarely got a spanking and never had a mark left, but sometimes friends at my Christian school would show me the bruises from their spankings. Physical marks weren’t the only marks that were left behind.
Spanking My Kids
I figured I would spank if I had to but it was much easier to hope my kids would be perfect so I could avoid it. After my daughter was born I wondered how this sweet baby could ever do anything to need a spanking?
This idealism flew out the door when my 4 months old bit me hard during breastfeeding. She chomped down with those bottom front (razor sharp) teeth and white hot pain seared through my body. My first instinct was to spank, so I did.
I screamed “NO BITING!” and popped her in the mouth. It wasn’t super hard, but still, right in the mouth.
A look of confusion and hurt flashed in her eyes and she began to cry. Claire’s perspective probably was something like this; she was already feeling discomfort from teething, was doing what she could to self sooth, and from out of the blue I hit her in her face.
Immediately after I felt conflicted and confused. I cried with her, apologizing, doing what I could to reconnect.
I quickly realized two things:
- Claire wasn’t aware she had hurt me.
- Spanking her didn’t help her become aware that she had hurt me. It only hurt her.
Looking back it is now crystal clear to me it’s never ok or helpful to spank a 4 month old. As a new parent completely unaware of all my assumptions it wasn’t so obvious. I reasoned there must be some external wisdom for appropriately using spanking as a disciplinary tool.
Hopefully I could find someone who could answer my questions: How would one decide when a child is old enough? Conversely, how does one decide when a child is too old to be spanked? Which behaviors are appropriate to spank?
When I asked a few of my Christian parent friends they recommend waiting to spank till they can understand more and you can talk them through the reasoning so they know why you are spanking them. This will help them know to avoid the bad behavior and try to be good. I definitely agreed older would be more appropriate but still felt in my gut I never wanted to spank again.
Does God Actually Ask Parents to Spank?
I couldn’t stop thinking about why I reacted like I did and how awful it felt. Why did I use this tool as my first go-to for discipline? Would it actually feel any less crappy if my kid was a little older (but not too old)? Does God really think I should spank my kids?
My parenting was influenced by literally one Bible verse combined with some deeply embedded assumptions from my childhood. I began to think critically about spanking and discipline for the first time. I began to sort through what I assumed to be true about God, parenting, discipline, and spanking.
The parent-child relationship is a powerful metaphor for the God-humanity relationship. As a parent I represent God to my children. It is my responsibility to do this intentionally in how I interact with them.
Good behavior is godly and bad behavior is evidence of sin. The goal of Christian parenting is to raise well behaved godly children who avoid sin (sinful behavior).
The God of the Bible disciplines His people (aka children) two ways: threat of punishment to prevent sinful behavior and actual punishment for sinful behavior.
Proverbs 13:24 says “He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.” “Sparing the rod” means not spanking. Therefore if I love my kids how God loves me I will be diligent in using spanking to discipline them.
Primary Assumption (based on the first 4)
Godly parenting should mimic how God loves and disciplines his children: threatening and enforcing punishment to ensure right (godly) living. If I love my kids I will spank them to help them avoid sin and to develop an aversion to sinful behavior. This will result in the end goal of well behaved godly children.
Keep, Change, or Reject?
When I realized I had these assumptions I had to decide how I wanted to parent:
Assumption 1: Keep
I still agree with this assumption. Parents have the ability to represent God to their children in a unique and deeply impactful way. HOW I represent God to my children has changed dramatically but is no less intentional than before.
Assumption 2: Change
I no longer believe bad behavior is proof of sin. My goal as a parent isn’t to raise well-behaved children. My goal is to give and instruct my children the tools they need to function as healthy, mature adults.
- It is unrealistic and unfair to call developmental immaturity sin.
A child’s behavior is directly related to their brain’s stage of development. The frontal lobe, the part of their brain that controls emotional expression, judgement, and impulse control isn’t fully developed until 25 years old. A still-developing frontal lobe results in reflexive and impulsive behavior. Alongside many external factors that affect maturation rates (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621648/), these impulses must be practiced in real life situations to grow. That means parents should actually expect their children to express a lot of what people call “bad behavior” as a healthy part of maturation.
- Shame is not a good tool for parenting or discipline.
In her book “I thought it was just me (but it wasn’t)” researcher Brene Brown, describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” (You can check out her book here: https://amzn.to/2DgRkzq ). It is both unrealistic and unfair to expect mature behavioral responses from children who may not even have the physiological capability to do so. When children’s immature responses are used as proof of their inherent sinfulness it is shaming and even harmful to their development.
“Shame is a soul-eating emotion.” -Carl Jung.Carl Jung, developmental psychologist
When children “try to be good” what they are actually saying is they are bad. They communicate their soul is bad but they can be accepted if they create another “better” (but false) self, the ego, and thus be able to meet these unrealistic expectations but with an inauthentic version of themselves. When we enforce the narrative that children are primarily sinful we are promoting a self-destructive prophecy over their lives.
I have struggled with shame for a great deal of my life. I’ve written about it as an adult (https://www.elisabethbojang.com/2019/03/07/what-to-do-with-guilt-blame-and-shame/ ) but I want to talk about shame specifically as a child.
Growing up I believed my most true identity was that I am a sinner. Yes, I would say “saved by grace” but the identifying portion of that phrase is the label sinner.
I can even remember thinking,
“I am a child of God but if I ever forget I am a sinner first then I will be even more of a sinner because that would be prideful, like Eve in Eden thinking she could be like God.”
I believed God wanted me to deny that inner part of myself and so I tried to be that good “selfless” Christian girl. It was my way to combat the sin I identified with, but at the end of the day I always felt like a fraud. A really nice and helpful hypocrite. No matter who I became or how I behaved, deep down I was the sinner that didn’t really deserve acceptance.
I recently had an experience where I realized how much of my life I had lived from that place of “trying to be good.” I WAS living as a hypocrite, thinking that’s what God wanted. I had to acknowledge that I need to let this “false self” go and start being fully myself. I felt like I had wasted so much of my life living like this and wished I had understood this sooner. My body physically hurt from the strong emotions. In the middle of this painful experience a thought surprised me,
“Don’t be afraid to let that false self die. I’m the God who brings life from death, remember? Now who I created you to be can come alive again.”
As cheesy as this sounds, I feel like I’ve been born again. Anxiety is gone and I am starting to explore what it means to be me. I am still so new at paying attention to myself. It’s like I’m learning to live all over again.
It is really fun to learn this with my kids.
As recently born humans they are still in this miraculous stage of growing and developing and exploring who they are. They have very few assumptions and I don’t have to give them the assumptions I used to have. Thank God.
I don’t have to hope they are perfect so I don’t have to spank them. Perfect behavior and spanking both aren’t part of the equation anymore.
Behavior is Communication
Instead of moralizing behavior and demanding my children be someone they are not capable of being at the moment, I search for the message the behavior is communicating. For example, when one kid has had it and has a meltdown I no longer look at it as sin or bad behavior. I take it as their way of saying “Mom, I have been pushed to the limit of my growth and development for today. My brain can’t handle these complex emotions and so I need to process them like the child that I am.” This helps me connect with them and address their needs with love, not shame.
Behavior is Neutral
Instead of looking at my children’s behavior as proof of their sin nature (or evidence of my godly parenting) we talk about it as opportunity to mature, to be healthy, to grow. Instead of looking at their mistakes as evidence of their sin or inadequacy we talk about it being a natural part of finding their way. If something doesn’t work or doesn’t feel good to themselves or others then that lets us know this is not the way and we can look for a better way.
I’m learning how to facilitate an environment where my children don’t have to create a false self to be accepted and loved. I’m reminding them to believe God created them good, loved, and worthy of love. As they are growing up and learning I want to help them fully embrace who they are as part of worship to the God who made them who they are.
What do you think?
I know some of what I have said may challenge you. In the same way that I don’t want to shame my children I also don’t want to shame you either. I encourage you to take some time to listen to your inner self, that still small voice inside you. See if this resonates. If not, that’s ok.
If so, I hope you find some good news in a different way to discipline.
I’ll write more about the other assumptions I had next time. Until then,
May you be who you were created to be, good, loved and worthy of love.