Obedience is important, but what we really want from our kids is authentic growth – a genuine change of heart, right?
Of course we want them to submit to authority and make right choices, but ultimately, we want them to do it because they want to – not just to avoid discipline.
Don’t get me wrong, the fear of consequences is important – it’s part of our reverent fear of God, right? We know He is a God of justice, and if we disobey His commands, we’ll face consequences. And anyone who has ever endured a Holy Spirit spanking doesn’t want it to happen again. This is the fear of God, and Proverbs says it’s the beginning of wisdom.
Our kids learn to reverently fear the authority of God by first reverently fearing the authority of us, their parents. So clearly it’s important that our kids understand that if they disobey or misbehave, consequences are coming.
However, just as God doesn’t want us to follow His commands simply out of fear of correction, we don’t want our kids to obey just to avoid punishment. God wants us to want to obey Him. In fact, Jesus even said that when we’re motivated by our own desire to obey God (and not just out of fear) it’s a sign of our love for Him (John14:15).
In the same way, we want our kids to want to make right choices. That’s character development, and it’s at the top of every parent’s list of priorities for their kids (next to salvation, that is).
Jody and I have eight kids between us, ranging in age from 23 to 4, including one child on the autism spectrum. We’ve had lots of practice with a wide range of discipline tools and character-developing systems. Most of the things we’ve tried have some merit, but the one tool that has had the most significant impact on the hearts of our kids is the Three Question Correction and follow up process.
When a child disobeys or misbehaves (for more about defining each of these, read Part I of this series: The Power of Definitions), we will move directly into a discipline routine. Disobedience and misbehavior have to be dealt with firmly and consistently. Our kids need to be able to predict exactly what will happen if they make either of these poor choices.
In Friday’s post, we’ll go into more detail about designing effective discipline routines (check back for Part III of this series — The Power of Routines). For now, we’ll just say that once a child has either disobeyed or misbehaved, step one is the discipline routine (this could be a time out, a spanking, or something similar), and the point of it is get their attention and send an instant message that disobedience and misbehavior are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
Once the discipline routine is complete, it’s time for the Three Question Correction. You can start off with hugs and kisses and a reminder that you disciplined her because you love her, and you want her to grow into the amazing people God created her to be.
When you’re asking the three questions, be sure you are at the child’s eye level. For little ones, you can either squat down or sit them on your lap.
“What did you do that was wrong?” Let’s say little Eden snatched something from her brother’s hand (snatching is a big no-no in our house because it feels so violating to have something ripped out of your hand). After being disciplined,Eden might sit on my lap, and I’d ask her what she did that was wrong.
Important note – Don’t ever ask, “Why did you do that?” It doesn’t matter why. There is no excuse for misbehavior (in this case, snatching). And when we ask “why,” we give our kids a platform to defend a wrong choice. You’re likely to hear something like, “BECAUSE…HE wouldn’t share! AND I asked him nicely! AND I let him play with my toys!” Now the child feels totally validated in her bad behavior.
But asking her to articulate what she did that was wrong directs an entirely different thought process. Instead of asking her to justify the behavior, we’re asking for a confession.
You could run into a couple of different problems in this step. With kids who are new to this process, you might hear, “I don’t know.” That’s also a common response when you’re dealing with pride – the kid doesn’t want to admit any wrongdoing. In either case, just give her the answer. In the most matter of fact voice, simply say, “You snatched the toy from your brother’s hand.” Over time, she’ll stop saying, “I don’t know.” With repeated and consistent use, pride has no audience, and it ultimately retreats.
If your child starts to defend her actions, cut her off mid-sentence, and say, “I didn’t ask why you did it, I asked what you did that was wrong.” If she starts finger-pointing, say, “I’m not asking what Sam did; I’m asking what YOU did that was wrong.”
Once you and your child have agreed on what she did that was wrong, it’s time to agree on why it was wrong. And that’s the next question: “Why was that wrong?”
This is the hardest for most kids to answer, but by far the most powerful in creating a change of heart. You might hear, “I don’t know,” or you might get a stock response: “because it was wrong.”
One of the best ways to get a kid to understand why it was wrong (especially for misbehavior, as opposed to disobedience) is to ask her how she would feel if it had happened to her.
If she can’t articulate why it was wrong, simply tell her.
“What could you have done differently?” Now, the important thing to stress in this situation is that if all things had happened in the exact same way, what other choice could she have made? It’s important for our kids to understand that things are sometimes unfair. Disappointment and frustration and anger and hurt feelings will come, and people will sin against us, but we still need to make good choices.
This is the time to give our kids tools, and even role play if necessary to have them practice the tools.
If one of my kids has a struggle with another, I ask them to first tell their sibling what’s wrong: “You’re not sharing, and that’s not right. Please share your toy with me.” If the other person still won’t cooperate, then they need to get help.
The difference between tattling and getting help is in the motive and the tone. If my child comes to me and wails, “Moooooooommm! He won’t share with me!” it’s tattling. If they work something out amongst themselves but still feel the need to tell me to get their sibling in trouble, it’s tattling.
But if they have gone to their sibling, in the Matthew 18 way, and there is still a problem, they need intervention. In that case, they can come to me calmly and say, “Mom, I asked Sam to share his toy, and he won’t. I need your help.” In our example, what Eden could have done differently was ask Sam to share, and if he wouldn’t, then come to mom for help.
Follow Up – Consequences
After the three questions, I usually tell my child that I know she’ll make a good choice next time, and that I love her. If it was a particularly difficult situation, I might pray with the child.
Then comes the follow-up, and this is where it gets tricky. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of apologizing to the other person. By the way, let’s teach our kids to respond well to an apology. I often hear kids say, “It’s okay.” But it’s not okay. It’s not okay if someone sins against you. Even if it was an accident, you’re still hurt, and that’s not okay. The best response is, “I forgive you.” (Next week, we’ll post on teaching our kids the meaning of forgiveness.)
But if it’s misbehavior, there often needs to be a consequence, and this is where we need to seek wisdom (sometimes even counsel) and get creative. First, let’s be clear about the motive to a consequence — it is always to edify and not to punish or exact revenge. I know that sounds crazy, but the truth is we can get angry when our kids misbehave, and in our flesh, we can feel like the child should experience some kind of pain to pay for their crime. (If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve all felt that at least once — for some of us, many times.)
The goal is to teach and disciple our kids. Sometimes, I don’t have a consequence when the three questions are over, and I’ll say, “I’m going to have to pray about this and talk to dad.”
As you’re choosing a consequence, ask yourself these questions: “What is the root of this behavior? What do I want my child to learn? What is my biggest concern or fear about this misbehavior?” Often an idea for a suitable consequence will come to mind.
If the root of misbehavior is selfishness, for example, you might want to say that she will have to serve her siblings for a period of time, maybe doing their chores, or you might have her serve in a soup kitchen to catch a different perspective on life.
If the root is laziness, you might give her some extra chores – hard ones!
If your teen keeps misplacing her phone, you could take it away for a few weeks so she can see what it’s like to not have it, or have her pay you a portion of her babysitting money until she’s given you enough to pay for a new phone (you might want to put it in savings for her in case she does lose it). It will make her more aware of how long it would take to buy a new one.
Recently our girls (Skyler and Sydney – BFFs) did something that was upsetting to Jody and I. At the root of our concern was that the girls weren’t being completely open about choice they made (a form of deception by omission). It wasn’t anything major, but we were concerned about the heart of the matter.
As a consequence, we had the girls find as many Bible verses as they could about lying and deception, and then had them write an essay about how their behavior was a form of that and why they think we were concerned about it and how they think God feels about it. Skyler cautiously admitted that she enjoyed the consequence, and I said I was glad. The point of a consequence isn’t necessarily discomfort (although they are often uncomfortable); the point is that a genuine lesson is learned, and over time, their heart is changed.
Thanks for striving with me through this extra long post, and please share your thoughts with us. Oh, and check back Friday for the final part of this series: The Power of Routines.