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More Thoughts on Discipline

Norah just turned 19 months old. You know what that means. Yup, the pre-two Terrible Twos. Oh, we’ve had fits before. She’s familiar with the word No, our hot words “Uh-oh” and “Trouble,” and the phrase “Don’t be ugly to Mommy.” She has developed a decent relationship with the time out stool – more than acquaintances, but not on secret-sharing level yet. We’ve already started the discipline thing.

But then the beast emerged.

In her own words, Oh Wowee. That girl has some lungs! She’s inherited the Death Stare from me, and being Davy’s child, she has added the Vulture Eyes to it. It can give you a heart attack and turn you to jelly AND stone in the same moment. She does this throw-herself-on-her-face-and-cover-her-head-with-her-arms dramatic thing too. I often find her that way in the middle of the floor after Micah says something horribly unkind to her, like “Please don’t draw on my picture.”

Needless to say, my world has slowed to a consistent stream of “Norah, that is not ok.” It isn’t really a surprise, but some of my tactics with Micah aren’t working with Norah. She refuses to look me in the eyes when I discipline her. Well, unless she’s doing the Vulture Death Stare. So, through this last week, I’ve realized some more things about discipline. I don’t doubt whatsoever that God gave me two kids to teach me different things.

1. Not all acting out needs to be disciplined. I hesitate writing this. Consistency is my mantra, and I cling to it. But, Norah is showing me that some acting out actually points to a heart issue that needs to be dealt with. The more I disciplined, the more she resisted me. Nothing was working to stop her from repeating the same disobedience. But now I actually thank God for her disobedience. Her seeming resistance helped me do some digging, which revealed that she needed more closeness and more investment of my time than she was getting. Because she doesn’t know how to deal with her feelings, she was pushing me away, when what she needed was to be closer. Sometimes kids just have a bad day and don’t know how to deal with it. Sometimes they feel sick and don’t know how to express it. Sometimes they’re experiencing a strong emotion and can’t hone in on it in a way that is appropriate. Some unwanted behaviors don’t call for discipline. They call for investment.

2. There is a dark season, but it’s just a season. Norah decided she wanted to potty train. Yay, honey! Great, hooray! A couple of nights ago at 3:30am she cried out because of an accident. When I went in there, she was laying down, eyes wide open and bright.
“What happened, Norah?”
“Ooooh. Undies.” She said it in a very foreboding voice, but her eyes were so bright, and she was trying to hide a smile.
We picked out a new pair of undies and went to get cleaned up. I don’t know if she was happy because she’d slept well or if she was just so excited about her purple undies, but she hugged them as tight as she could and smiled and smiled at me. She even bent over and kissed me while I helped her into clean pjs. Even though it was 3:30am and I was cleaning up a potty accident, I couldn’t have been happier. That was the first time she’d willingly kissed me in a week.
Our “dark season” happens during the day, but our little middle of the night episode helped me remember that my child’s misbehavior doesn’t mean that’s who my child is. It simply means we are in a season of growth. I get the opportunity to teach her about life. Boundaries, love, kindness, respect, right and wrong, and communication. I get to show her over and over and over just how to do it the right way. And that’s where growth comes in for me. This just might be a night season for me too, if I find myself feeling extremely frustrated every time I find her laying on the floor, or if she gets out of bed again, or when I hear her screaming “No!!!”. I don’t throw fits anymore, but if my response to Norah isn’t as the Lord responds to me, then that means I have more opportunity to grow too. If I’m called to be Christlike, then anything less means I have a chance to become more like Him. When we face a dark season and we don’t know how to get through it, it’s important to remember that it won’t last forever. What your child is doing doesn’t mean that’s who they are. It just means you have the chance to prune and be pruned. Morning is coming.

3. The quality of my discipline doesn’t mean my kids will cry loudly or change immediately. Micah was a loud crier. If I sent him to a timeout, his tears were known by the whole neighborhood. Norah cries for about 3 seconds, and sometimes not at all. It can feel like she isn’t responding, or that she’s being defiant. But (not to sound contradicting to #1), the strength and quality of discipline is in consistency. Let’s take the heart issue example from my first point. I discover Norah’s heart issue of needing more closeness, so we begin to work on that. After some serious praying and digging, I discover the behaviors stemming from that heart issue, so we address those with relationship. I make sure I look in her eyes when I tell her I love her. I make sure to use physical affection during our play, meals, and routines. But there are still other areas needing discipline. We still can’t let her get away with treating others badly, with being defiant, or with the choice to disregard the rules. So how to we balance? In this post (though I really am very sorry for it’s length), I talk about our method for deciding which actions warrant which consequences. With any of those behaviors, we already have a system for consistency. Norah knows that being willfully unkind to someone will get her a timeout. Part of this is her personality, but we’ve been consistent enough that I can tell her “Go sit in a timeout,” and she’ll put herself there. Or sometimes she’ll go without me asking. With this setup, I don’t have to get to the angry level. I can calmly go by our hierarchy of consequences.
Even still, Norah doesn’t always react the way I would expect when one is being disciplined. And just because she’s disciplined doesn’t mean she will change the next time. She might have to have a time out six times in a row before she chooses to be kind. But that’s the thing. We’re gently showing her that certain behaviors get certain consequences. Last time she refused to be kind to my mom, I told her to have a time out. When I went to talk to her about it, I asked her if she was ready to be kind. “No,” she said. “Sit. stool.” She chose to stay in her time out until she was ready to be kind. I kept returning to ask her if she was ready, and it took about four times before she decided she was. The consistency of the consequences has taught her that if she can’t be kind to people, she needs to work on her attitude away from them until she’s ready.

4. Get on the same page with your spouse. I cannot emphasize this one enough. There’s an incredible peace that comes when Davy and I are united in discipline. First of all, we can trust each other to do the right thing. I know that when Davy is with the kids, he will address every situation with the same key words and consequences that I do, and vice versa. Yes, we are different people and may have different ways of interacting with the kids. We give each other the freedom to do that, but we are also on the same page about which actions require consequences, and what those consequences are. Second, we provide the kids with a united front. Believe it or not, this doesn’t feel like we’re ganging up on them. It actually gives them a sense of security. They know that mommy and daddy will give them the same answer, and that their actions will be treated the same way with whoever is watching them. Third, we reinforce each other. Norah wasn’t responding to me very well these last couple of weeks, but then Davy started having little talks with her. He would say things like, “Your mommy loves you. You need to be kind to her.” or “It’s not ok for you to scream at mommy. When she asks you to do something, you need to say ‘ok, Mommy.'” or “That was ugly to mommy. Go tell her you’re sorry.” After they started having these talks, Norah began to change her attitude toward me. She stopped responding like I was just being mean to her, and she actually started saying “ok, Mommy” and obeying, even if she was crying because she didn’t want to.
When we come to a new stage in discipline with either of our kids, Davy and I have frequent “discipline meetings.” Usually after the kids go to bed, we recap our day and talk about what worked and didn’t work, what strategies we have for tomorrow, and what could be going on emotionally with our babies. These aren’t long, usually just 15 minutes or so, but it’s an easy way to get back on the same page. It helps us to remember to keep sowing into our kids and not to let the difficulty in the day wear on us.
If you’re a single parent, I realize this may not apply. You have my respect for shouldering this job on your own, and I know that God gives you a special grace and wisdom to deal with these difficult things. Getting on the same page with grandparents, day care workers, or the other people who have a large role in your child’s life will definitely be helpful. Even just asking them to reinforce your authority will give your child an extra sense of respect for you.

5. Tell your child what is right and wrong. This isn’t popular, I know. But I’ve found huge success with it. Amazingly, my kids already have a sense of what is right and wrong. For example, the first time Norah ever hit me, she did it and then immediately reacted to it as though she did something wrong. Telling your child that one of their behaviors is wrong is not going to hurt their “self-esteem.” Rather, it is going to refine their character, so that they don’t grow up thinking any and all of their attitudes and actions are ok, whenever they want, however they like it. We never use guilt as a means of discipline, so we don’t say things like, “Norah! You are being very bad right now! I can’t believe you would do something like that!” Instead, we say things like, “Norah, that attitude is ugly to me. You need to speak kindly to me. Please say sorry and change your attitude.” By making the distinction between what is right and wrong, we help our kids develop a sense of it for themselves. Like I said, I know this isn’t popular, but it is good for them. It helps them understand how to develop self control, as they begin to recognize behaviors that are wrong and make the conscious effort to change them. It puts them back in control because they learn that they don’t have to give in to whatever they feel like. They can choose to not get in trouble because they can choose to do what is right.

6. The Bible really does have everything we need to know. It’s true that there aren’t specific guidelines in the Bible about how to get your child to sleep, when you should start solids, or if they should go to public school. But I’m learning that when it comes to my kids, building relationship with them is more important than those kinds of decisions. I believe it’s the way God is with us. He cares more about a personal relationship with us, molding our character to be more like His and drawing us ever deeper into an understanding of who He is, than He cares about what kind of diet we have. The Bible may not tell me how to deal with Norah getting out of her bed specifically, but it does tell me how to treat other people. And my kids are people too. It does say to be kind, to love, and to speak truth in love. It does say to discipline, not to just let her do whatever she wants. And there’s even the place in there that says I can be angry, but I cannot sin. It’s ok to feel angry and frustrated, but it’s not ok to act in sin. It’s a sin to be mean to her. To yell or act on my angry feelings. It’s a sin to withhold my love just because she’s disobeying. It’s a sin to treat her in a way that I wouldn’t dare treat someone else. So often I come to a point in discipline where I’m at a loss. What on earth do I do with this child? This is where having God’s Word accessible in my heart (something I desperately need to do more of!) is vital. He can bring to our memory the right action at the right moment. A soft answer turns away wrath. Be angry, but do not sin. Love one another. Pray continually.
Yes, but what do I do with this child? Treat her rightly. Do everything with the character of Christ. Turn to Christ in that very moment (because He is standing right there with you) for wisdom. Remember how the Lord treats me when I sin and act the same way. And then be consistent. Really really consistent. Whatever the consequence is that you choose, before The Lord and in agreement with your spouse, carry it out in an attitude and disposition that pleases God. Recite Scripture over and over and over to yourself if you have to. Humble yourself to Him over and over and over if you have to. Ask for wisdom over and over and over if you have to. But do it. I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned, I can’t do it on my own. Without the continual submission to The Lord, there is no way I can do this discipline thing. I’m too human. I have too much junk. I carry too many past experiences that I call up to influence my reactions. But with Jesus Christ and the washing of the Bible over my heart and mind, I can do it. And I can do it in a way that will actually work.

Ok, now I have to apologize for another marathon post. I just want to finish by saying that discipline is a process. There is no guaranteed formula that will eradicate unwanted behavior from your kids. Instead, it’s an act of daily sowing into your kids, being consistent with love, patience, grace, and firmness. They cannot get away with whatever they like, but we will plod along next to them, firmly teaching in the moment and loving unconditionally.

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