When I was a young man I knew everything there is to know about how to discipline children. I watched others and noted what they did that was wrong. I resolved what I would do if and when I had children of my own. Then God decided to show me how much I knew about disciplining children. He gave me a dozen of them, and with each additional child I learned how little I knew.
If we look at discipline as a “how to” manual of a system of rules, we may end up getting mugged by reality and finding ourselves frustrated and at a loss on how to manage. What “works” with one child will not “work” with another. Lists of rules are appropriate for bureaucratic institutions in which there exists no personal bond that naturally binds the people to each other. Everyone follows the same rules. There are consequences for breaking the rules and those consequences are spelled out. Clear regulations clearly set forth and strictly enforced. Discipline!
That may be good for something, but it’s not for the Christian family. Here’s a radical suggestion for you: You don’t need rules. What you need instead is an attitude.
In the historic Epistle Lesson for Palm Sunday St. Paul urges the Christians in Philippi to “have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” Think like Jesus thought. Adopt his attitude. That’s what discipline is all about. It’s about attitude. Jesus was God in the flesh and as such he deserved to bask in his glory. But he chose to embrace humility. He, who was Lord, served. He humbled himself all the way to the death on the cross.
This is how he took our sins away. He took them off of us by bearing them himself. This is also him showing us how to live. The pattern for living that Jesus followed is given to us Christian fathers to follow and to teach to our children.
The so called “experts” tell us that we must teach our children self-esteem. So the educationists imagine and so children are raised as insufferable, self-centered, ill mannered brats. What we must teach our children is humility. This is not demeaning to them. It is exalting. To submit to authority is not merely to obey rules. Children know all about rules. They are supremely legalistic. This is a feature of their innate pride. They use the rules to elevate themselves above their peers, and even above their parents. To submit, to be humble, is more than following rules. It is to embrace a subordinate relationship.
Consider what Jesus did and how he thought. He was in the form of God. Not only was he God of God, light of light, very God of very God, he also enjoyed the form of God in his humanity. But he chose to humble himself in obedience to his Father. He did so as the representative of all humanity in order to redeem us by his blood. It was the supreme act of subordination. And that is what our heavenly Father would have us teach our children! To humble themselves in obedience – not to a list of rules! – but to God himself and to us, God’s representatives.
Put simply, teach your children respect. This is your duty under the Fourth Commandment. You do not have the right to permit your children to backtalk you or sass you. You may not permit them to speak disrespectful words, display disrespectful gestures, or express a disrespectful attitude. Your child does not need a list of rules to follow. He needs a father who demands respect. In the Large Catechism Martin Luther speaks of a “majesty” that is “hidden within” parents. It is the divine majesty! God made you a father and it is God who governs his children through you. Don’t forget it!
To get respect from your children requires you to give respect to your children. There is no sin in getting angry at sin, but just as our heavenly Father does not curse us but deals with us kindly even when he corrects us, so there is no place for insults, taunts, and other degrading methods of humiliation. The father teaches his children to humble themselves before God by behaving in a humble fashion himself.
Finally, in teaching our children to be humble and respectful we teach them the context in which we receive the gospel by which God exalts us. Our true dignity is from Christ. His humiliation led to his exaltation and to ours as well. You teach your children both law and gospel. Do as you teach. Admitting your sin to your children is no sin. Forgiving them freely and without strings is so sin, either. For this is true discipline.