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3 Practical Principles for Disciplining With Grace

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Seeking to parent our children the way God parents us can dramatically change the atmosphere of our home.

Glitter. As far as I’m concerned, it ought to be called “Devil’s Dust.” But my kids love the stuff. One time my oldest daughter, who was 6, came home from school with a project she’d covered in pink glitter. Like a good mommy, I faked a smile and hung it on the fridge. “Wow,” I said, “what a beautiful and sparkly picture!”

Fast-forward five minutes. I’d left the kitchen for a few seconds, and returned to find that my daughter had removed the picture from the fridge. She was showing her little sister how, if she clapped the paper between her hands, she looked like Tinkerbell sprinkling pixie dust. After just a few claps, my kitchen was covered in a layer of pink sparkles.

I lost it. I yelled at her. I grabbed the picture out of her hands, chucked it in the trash and sent her to her room. Later, as I vacuumed up the glitter from between the planks of my hardwood floor, a wave of remorse hit. That day I’d sacrificed a little bit of my daughter’s innocent joy and childlike wonder on the altar of my unrealistic expectations. I had treated my daughter in a way that my heavenly Father had never treated me.

The message of God’s grace is one that we need to apply to parenting, especially when it comes to discipline. Parenting our kids with grace is parenting them the way God parents us — with grace. Through Jesus, God has made a way for us to become His beloved sons and daughters. He offers us His love and favor because of who He is and Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, not because of who we are or what we do.

Following the example of the Ultimate Parent is the best chance we have to raise children who understand God’s grace. It’s hard to do, though. Thankfully, God accepts us as we are, but He doesn’t leave us that way. The greatest challenge we face as parents is disciplining our kids the way God disciplines us — with overwhelming love that puts their needs ahead of our own.

Here are three principles that go a long way in helping parents discipline with grace:

Follow the 10-year rule

Our kids do plenty of things that get under our skin, and sometimes it feels like all we do is correct them. But when my husband and I really take a look at what’s frustrating us, we sometimes discover that certain behaviors aren’t worthy of our attention in the long run. Whereas subtler behaviors that seem harmless can end up becoming major character flaws we wish we’d addressed sooner. The “10-year rule” helps us tell the difference.

Here’s how it works: Imagine your child doing the same undesirable behavior 10 years from now. What does it look like then? What are the potential consequences if that behavior continues?

If your 2-year-old is crying and throwing a fit because he doesn’t want to be left with the baby sitter, the behavior is disruptive and unnerving. But try to imagine him doing the same thing at 12. It’s unlikely that a 12-year-old would have a tantrum over a parent leaving him with a baby sitter. In this scenario, the 10-year rule helps us see that a toddler’s tantrum over Mom and Dad leaving has more to do with his stage of development because he will grow out of it. No need to lose sleep over trying to change your child. Time is the only intervention he needs.

On the other hand, it might seem benign or even a bit funny when your 4-year-old is sitting next to a pile of candy wrappers with chocolate on her face, telling you that she didn’t eat the candy. It’s a “cute lie” right now, but add 10 years. Lying, deception and a lack of integrity come with a high relational price tag for your child. Dishonesty is a behavior that, no matter how small it seems, warrants attention. Regardless of your child’s age, dishonesty needs to be corrected and truth should be rewarded.

Proverbs 22:6 encourages, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” The 10-year rule helps us to identify and correct behaviors, which allow us to train our children in a path of integrity. If left unchecked, this same behavior may develop into poor character qualities as an adult.

Focus on character

Some behaviors, though they may bother us, aren’t wrong; they’re just different. That behavior gets under our skin because it goes against our personal preferences or it annoys us in some way. But just because our kids’ behavior annoys us doesn’t mean it requires discipline.

God made each one of us unique and allows individuals the freedom to be who they are. That should be one goal of a grace-based home. Rules are vital, but there should only be few. When we have too many rules and regulations in the family, we limit our kids’ freedom and set them up to fail. You might have some “house rules” or safety rules to help your home run more safely and smoothly, but these will be specific to your situation, and they should be flexible to accommodate changing circumstances.

Evidence of godly character in your kids is far more important than how clean they keep their rooms. Here’s an example: If messiness bothers you, set a rule that your child must clean his room once a week. Then keep the door closed for the rest of the week so you don’t have to see it. No one is going to die if you relax your standards on this a little bit. Instead, focus on setting rules and boundaries that steer your kids toward character traits such as faith, integrity, self-discipline, perseverance and courage.

Avoid shame

Discipline is very different from punishment, although we often use the two words interchangeably. Punishment is usually retaliatory and seeks to even the score against someone who has wronged us. This may be the way the world works, but it is not how God the Father deals with His children. When Jesus died on the Cross, He bore the punishment for our sin and His sacrifice was the last and final punishment that God would ever enact upon one of His children.

Yet, Hebrews 12:6 says, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” Discipline, unlike punishment, isn’t about getting even or settling the score; it’s about reformation and restoration. The purpose of discipline is to correct behavior that’s not in your child’s best interest in order to redirect her toward a path that leads to peace, joy and her eventual good.

As we strive to discipline our children like God disciplines us, shame should be a red flag. Shame is a product of punishment, not discipline. God doesn’t use shame to correct His children, and we need to be mindful of this with our kids. Enforce rules and deliver consequences for wrong behavior, but never use shame as a means to an end.

If your child says something that isn’t true, say, “That’s a lie.” Don’t say, “You’re a liar.” One statement correctly calls out what the child did, while the other launches an attack on who he is and shames him. In the same way, don’t berate your child in public. Instead, treat him with dignity and respect by privately correcting his behavior.

The path of grace

Unlike our heavenly Father, we’re imperfect. On the day of the Great Glitter Debacle, I messed up and handled the situation wrong. Yes, the glitter made a mess. I could have gently pointed out to my daughter that glitter was pretty on the page, but we shouldn’t clap it between our hands. I could have taken the picture from her, hung it higher up and out of reach and calmly handed her a broom and dustpan to clean it up. Instead, I punished my daughter for simply being a kid.

Later, I asked my child for forgiveness. Grace often does its best work retroactively. I can say with certainty that I’ve never had an apology backfire. Every time I’ve asked my children to forgive me, they’ve shown me grace. That forgiveness leads to healing and strengthens our relationship. It’s never too early to start disciplining with grace . . . and it’s never too late.

That same little girl who dusted my kitchen with glitter is a teenager now, and we’ve begun the launch sequence that will propel her out of our home and into the atmosphere of her adult life. Her little sister is right behind her. We pray that the way we’ve parented them has been a reflection of a gracious Father who loves them and desires their good.

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