So, I'm sitting with a small group of mainstream Christian mothers, one with teens, two with young children, one a grandmother.
Much as I try to avoid it, I broach the subject of spanking because it is relevant to our book. Each woman admits to relying on physical punishment and finding it justified with certain children if not all. The grandmother found the threat of a wooden spoon in her purse necessary to maintain order in the grocery store when her five were young.
As usual, my thoughts remain in my head. I sit there, lips tight, feeling like I can't say anything without coming across as either judgmental or naive. Who am I to suggest that spanking isn't necessary to a mother with five mostly grown children, all of whom are good citizens and love their parents? I have only two, and they are still young.
The mothers admit to each other that discipline is complicated, that some children need stronger discipline than others. And time-outs don't always work. I insert that I don't believe in time-outs either, but I'm cut off before I can explain.
Everyone assumes my children are not "strong-willed." Oh, but they are. I am their mother, after all. And my own gentle mother broke so many spoons over my bottom as a two year old, she finally left the task of discipline to my father and his belt. I received my last "spanking" at age 12. (My mother regrets this, and my parents and I have made peace about the issue.)
The mother of teens laments what to do when your children are too old to spank. When they don't take responsibility for things you think they should, what do you do? Talk leads to withholding privileges. The grandmother suggests that at some point, you just have to call it a day and hope for the best.
On the way home, my eldest mentions his friend who gets a lot of time-outs. (Was he listening to the grown-up talk from down the hall?) Why don't I get time-outs, Mommy? he asks.
And I finally get to say what I wish I had said to the other moms.
Because I think you should do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, not because you're afraid of being punished.
What's "punished," Mommy? he asks.
Punishment is doing something bad to someone to make them want to be good, I say. It makes no sense. I want you to be kind and considerate and giving because you love people, and because you know you are loved.
But sometimes people aren't nice, he counters.
Yes, I respond. Sometimes people do things without thinking about how their actions affect other people. Your friend gets time-outs when she acts impulsively, like when she sprays her sister with the hose. But when people are punished for being impulsive, they start thinking about whether they want to risk punishment, instead of thinking of whom they're affecting. I try not to assume that she didn't want to upset her sister so much as she just wanted to spray the hose.
This is my theory... People are neither bad nor good. We were made in God's image, but we are vulnerable to all kinds influences, both positive and negative. We are capable of both great evil and great love, depending on our experiences and how we learn to respond to them. We were given free will to choose good or evil. But we are also offered the Grace necessary to overcome our negative experiences and choose good.
When children are treated with respect and trust, when they are expected to do good, not assumed to be Sinful, they want to do good, to trust, and to be respectful. When they are loved, they want to keep that love. Yes, some children are more impulsive than others, and have a harder time doing the right thing the first time. But when their motives are not assumed to be the worst, when they are given a second chance, they try that much more.
Christ took our punishment. Because of Him we no longer have to suffer needlessly for our mistakes. We can look to Him for never-ending love and mercy. I have never felt punished by God. I have punished myself by running from Him when I needed Him most. I have punished others out of my own fear and shame. I have suffered because I did not trust Him fully. But He has not punished me in order to teach me. I have learned from my own failures, and I have learned to trust Him because He is always trustworthy. He has taught me to love by His example.
I am able to love my children because I have been so loved by my Heavenly Father and my Savior. I do not do it perfectly. But I am thankful that I am not dependent on punishment for influencing their behavior. Sometimes I wonder if my God is not the same Person as the God of other Christians I know.