Lately, I have been struggling with my son, Aiden. He is defiant, disobedient, rude, and argumentative. The tantrums we had outgrown years before have returned and each day, I find myself locked in a perpetual battle of the wills. I have taken to scouring every parenting book I own (and even digging into the libraries of my friends and neighbors), trying to find something, anything to get us through this phase.
I recently borrowed a collection of Christian parenting books from a neighbor and fellow mom that all spoke to one common truth: that it isn't enough to use discipline to enforce the rules with our kids. That we must go beyond addressing the behavior and delve into shaping the hearts of our kids, their motivations, and inspire in them an obedience not only to the letter of the law, but the spirit of it, as well. That we must shepherd the hearts and minds of our children and not just seek to change their outward behavior.
I've been reading these books, filing away this knowledge, praying and trying to understand just how I could implement it in my day-to-day parenting. Because let's face it: when your child has just flat disobeyed you, you're standing in the checkout lane with all of God's creation staring down at you and your naughty, sassy-mouthed child, you are sleep-deprived, have needed to pee for 30 minutes and are running behind in your day, the last thing you are thinking is, Hmmm, how can we address the heart issues behind this behavior? What you are thinking is, I want to put a stop to this RIGHT NOW! So, if you are like me, you spout off with a "STOP THAT NOW!" through gritted teeth, accompanied by a look you hope will scare him straight. You repeat yourself, adding a bit more tension and seriousness to your voice. You might even lean over and whisper into his ear what his punishment will be when you get home or to the car. Eventually, when my eyes are bulging and every muscle in my face and neck is tensed from the effort of NOT strangling him right there in the grocery store, he obeys my request. And although his behavior may change for the moment, the same infraction always seems to be repeated a few hours later.
So, I decided to really put this idea of both behavioral AND heart correction into practice a few days ago. I made the painful decision to stop repeating myself and retrain Aiden to obey me after one request--which has meant a lot of discipline and punishments these past few days, with the hope that once he learns to obey the first time, there will be fewer battles in the long run. And I've stopped barking orders at him and started working on his heart, trying to teach him why it is important to honor me, to learn obedience to me, and ultimately, to God.
Honestly, things have been slow-going and frustrating these past few days. I haven't seen progress and if anything, Aiden seems more resistant than ever. Today, when I asked him to complete a simple chore (using the pooper-scooper to clean up after the family pet), things quickly dissolved into all out war. I asked him to do the chore. He ran out in the backyard. I go out 30 minutes later, and he's barely started, choosing to goof off instead. I remind him that he's not doing anything else until the chore is complete. He continues to goof off. Two and a half hours later...the scoop is still mostly empty. At this point, I am out of time to wait on him, so I set a timer for 15 minutes, a reasonable time to complete the job, and tell him that if he doesn't complete the task in time, he will receive one swat for being disobedient. He wastes his 15 minutes. He gets a swat. I reset the timer and send him back out, telling him the next time will be two swats. He still goofs off. I deliver the punishment and he leaves the house wailing at how unfair I am, how stupid chores are, how horrible his life is. I reset the timer...and then start praying.
I knew that what I was doing wasn't working. I'd even tried talking with him after his spanking, tried to calm him and encourage him to get the work done. I wasn't about to let him off the hook, but what could I do? I couldn't just keep setting the timer and spanking the kid all night! So I prayed: for patience, for wisdom. I cried out to the Lord how ill-equipped I was to deal with this stubborn, willful child and asked for help. And then the timer went off. But miraculously, as I walked outside, I knew what the Lord wanted me to do.
Time to put down the rod...and pick up the staff.
I went outside and I could just see Aiden tense up, waiting for his punishment. But I just walked up behind him and placed one hand on the rake and one hand on the handle to the scoop, my grown-up hands over his, and began to help him with his chore. We worked like that for a couple of minutes, me helping Aiden, saying very little. And then I asked him, "Aiden, do you know what grace means?" I explained to him how grace was a reprieve--it meant being treated far better than you deserved. I explained that I was offering him grace, a reprieve from punishment. And there in my back yard, picking up dog poop after an exhausting afternoon of fighting, I was a shepherd to my son, leading him through the gospel. I explained about sin, about the holiness of God, about how we could never be good enough to earn God's forgiveness--but that He gave it anyway, for any who would accept it. We talked about the incredible gift of Jesus. And he responded, asking questions, surprising me with his insight, though clothed in childish terms and analogies. We worked like that for about 30 minutes, our steps clumsy and our movements awkward with my hands over his. But as we completed that disgusting chore, God was using our struggle to do something truly beautiful.
I am not so naive as to believe that this one afternoon has erased all of Aiden's disobedience, and I can guarantee you that every infraction won't be met with such grace in our home--there will still be many times when the rod rules the moment and I discipline Aiden as God has charged me to do. But today, I picked up the staff of the shepherd, and by offering him grace and leading my son through the gospel, I have planted seeds that in the coming years, I hope to see take root in the heart of my son, transforming him into a true believer and follower of Christ.
PS--Curious about the books I've been reading? Check out Tedd Tripp's Shepherding a Child's Heart and it's companion book, Instructing a Child's Heart. (Click the image to be taken to Amazon).