If a child’s will was never contradicted from the day of his birth to, let’s say, age seven, he would not only be a brat but he would be positively evil. His presence would be an intolerable burden to others. Such is human nature when left to itself. At an infant’s baptism, the dark blemish of Original Sin is removed but the scar remains. And that scar is that the child suffers from the illusion that the world revolves him. Every child is born a brat! Soon enough the child will come to realize through his parents that some of his impulses and desires don’t always lead to good things. This is where the art of parental love and discipline comes in. This is where good kids are made and brats are unmade.
Some would say parental love and discipline is a lost art. As time passes, as our culture becomes more secular and with each younger generation, parents seem to struggle more with maintaining the right balance of love and discipline. For instance, I hear parents say, “I never used to talk to my parents the way my children talk to me.” And they scratch their heads and wonder what could be cause of the discrepancy. Curiously enough, the Oompa Loompa song in the movie, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, got it right:
“Who do you blame when your kid is a brat
Pampered and spoiled like a Siamese cat?
Blaming the kids is a lion of shame
You know exactly who's to blame:
The mother and the father!
If you're not spoiled then you will go far
You will live in happiness too
Oompa Loompa doompadee dah.”
The fact is, today’s parents are not doing what their parents and grandparents used to do; that is, taking the time and making the sacrifice to discipline their children. Instead, they spend their parenting years yelling at their kids out of frustration. If there is any area where a weak theological formation has the most impact, it is in the area of parenting. For instance, many Catholic institutions in recent decades have downplayed the doctrines of divine authority, sin, punishment and hell. Eventually, this translated into a weakening of parental authority, a failure to understand a child’s bad behavior (i.e. sin), a failure to stop that bad behavior (punishment) and a failure to foresee the long term consequences of bad behavior (hell). When Christ came to this earth, he not only saved the soul but he also saved parenting. To be sure, he inspired a kind of parenting not unlike his Father’s; one that is balanced with love and discipline.
I have heard some parents say, “I am not my kid’s friend but rather his parent.” And what is more common now days are parents trying to be a friend to their children while forgetting that they are parents. Indeed, they have been given an authority from God to use for disciplinary reasons. One reason, among many, is to instill virtue and build character in their children so that society doesn’t have to do it. But if we are to take God the Father has a model to imitate, we would do well to remember that parents ought to be both an authority figure to be obeyed and a friend to be confided in. If a parent’s authority is the only thing that children are exposed to, then you can hardly expect them to talk to you about their problems. And if you, as a parent, are just a friend to your kids, then you can hardly expect them to listen to you. Like God, you have to be a parent and a friend.
I found that a good balance is to be that source of authority for my children when discipline is warranted while, at the same time, showing them they have a friend in their dad. They should know at any given moment that you are willing to use your parental authority to correct an injustice or a wrong that was committed. They should also know that they are not just your subjects or subordinates but that they have been given a God-given dignity that is equal to yours. What is just as important, children need to know that they are God’s first and yours second; that they have been entrusted to you as gifts from the Lord. Hence, when they grow up and realize we, as their parents, have real limitations and flaws, they will understand that we are just an image of the Real Thing. Indeed, the real parent is God.
But all this is well and good in the abstract. What about some practical tips? How do the parents of today differ from those of yesterday? Where is that balance between being an authority figure and being a friend? Take it for what it is worth, but here are seven observations that might be helpful:
1. Make sure you communicate to your children on a daily basis that it is good that they exist; that they are special and that no one can replace them. When they wake up in the morning, show them that you’re happy that they woke up. Other hand, teach them that the world will go on without them. Yes, they are special, but they are not the center of the universe. Indeed, as our Lord said, he who is last will be first; that is, by being a servant to all and considerate of all we will be blessed by God.
2. Try not to discipline your children with anger. Parents too often do this. They inadvertently teach their kids not to do wrong- not because it is wrong –but because it makes mommy and daddy mad. But what will they do in the absence of your anger. We must teach them with a calm but resolute demeanor that they should do good and avoid evil for its own sake and for the sake of pleasing God. The effect will hopefully be that they will do the right thing when no one is looking. Your anger, therefore, shouldn’t be the reason why they avoid doing evil.
3. When you tell your kids to do something and they do not do it, you do your kids a disservice by letting it slide. How many parents give directives without any real expectation that their children will comply? Action ought to reinforce our words. Quite often, we are tired and don’t feel like getting up and ensuring that our children obey. When you issue a directive to a child, he or she should know you expect it to be complied with and that there will be consequences if they are not complied with.
4. Children ought to know that there are “effective” consequences for their actions. Parental discipline is the primary means through which children connect the dots between the two. When a child has done wrong make sure that the consequence will inconvenience them; they should feel the pinch. Yelling and complaining is not a form of discipline. Kids have a wonderful capacity to tune that out. Some children need just a little discipline while others need parents to administer a shock to their system. Whatever the consequence, it should be immediate, concrete and unpleasant. St. Padre Pio once ran a lady out of the confessional booth before she finished her confession. She came back the next day and asked the saintly priest why he treated her in such a rude and aggressive manner, he said while she was talking, he had a vision of her three sons in hell and that her relaxed parenting was a contributing factor.
5. Occasionally, explain why they should do chores, why they should follow directions and why they should be respectful to others. All of these things will not only foster virtue but they will prepare them for their careers. Give them the bigger picture as to why you say the things you say and do the things you do.
6. The mother and father should always be on the same page. When one is offended by the child, the other parent should show that he or she is offended too. This way a child will not pit one parent against another. Parents’ acting as one usually serves as a good incentive to behave. On the other hand, I have seen the sad results of parents who undermine each other in their discipline. It is never good.
7. Parenting is an imperfect science because parents themselves are imperfect. Sometimes we will come down too hard on them and other times we are just plain inconsistent. Let them know, especially when you’ve done wrong, that you are not perfect and that you need to be forgiven too. Humility not only goes a long way with God but it also goes a long way with your children. Yes, sometimes we should apologize even to our children.