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Discipline Or Disciple?: A New Twist On An Old Word

There is a big misconception about discipline in our culture these days. It is founded, primarily, in a basic grammatical error. You see, we tend to use the word discipline as a verb. We discipline our children. As a lover of words, I die a little inside when I hear that phrase. Grammatically it is wrong. There are other things wrong with it as well. Take another look at this.

Let me be clear. The word discipline is a noun. It is sometimes used as a verb, but it is a noun. Discipline is a strong noun like peace, joy, or patience. Like these other power words, discipline is a quality that must be cultivated over time by each individual. It never comes from an outside force. Only through work done in our hearts can we achieve any of these. Creating discipline inside your soul is a DIY project that continues for a lifetime.

Discipline is listed as one of the qualities of the fruit of the Spirit. (5:22-23) It is, in fact, the very last one listed. It is also the one that we struggle with the most. It is the most difficult to attain and the easiest one to lose. Self control = discipline. Discipline, as I said, does not come from outside a person, but from inside. It is the product of patient consideration, repeated failures, and being discipled by wise mentors.

Disciple. This is another noun that can occasionally be used as a verb. Let's try the verb form in a sentence: "I disciple my children." Disciple used as a verb means to teach, guide, or lead. What if we started there? What if we decided to disciple our children before we decided to discipline them? All spiritual fruit is born of being a disciple. If you want your child to attain discipline, they must first be a disciple. If you are a child, you instinctively turn to your parents for this. All children are disciples of their parents. The only difference is the way in which parents lead their children. Toward discipline or away from it?

I wonder if we could change the way we think about discipline? What if, rather than focusing on disciplining our children, we embraced our children's ability to learn from us as we go about our lives? Our children would then be disciples and we would disciple them. In this way they would learn how to be disciplined, to be patient, to be kind, to be gentle, to be joyful, to create peace. This is the result of the verb disciple: when the parent is a disciple of Christ and is cultivating those things themselves, the child grows the fruit of the Spirit.

This sort of puts a new twist on the word discipline. When we use discipline as a verb in the following sentence, "I discipline my children." We really mean, "I punish my children." Sometimes that is necessary, but if we put our whole heart into discipling our children patiently and diligently, we would find that the need for punishment is less, and we could stop worrying about discipline. Under these circumstances, we understand that discipline is growing inside the child's heart as a result of being a disciple. We can watch them grow.

Our children gain discipline in same way we do. One step at a time. One mistake at a time. One act of grace at a time. One decision at a time. Children are loved, led, and discipled to a place of inner discipline. This is the way of Christ. When we become a disciple of Christ we become an agent of grace. We receive grace, we offer grace. Our children should receive our grace and should be confident that we will be gracious as we lead them. They are disciples.

The notion that we can punish our children into become disciplined is a rather skewed notion. I use the word skewed because I didn't want to say ridiculous, even though that's what I really think. It sounded a bit harsh. So I used the word skewed. But it is ridiculous.

Anyway, I know what the Bible says about sparing the rod, etc. but the scripture repeats consistently and clearly that we are to teach our children. The Word of God is all about teaching our children. This task is repeated over and over like a drum beat in the Scriptures. Teach first. Punish only if you absolutely must. Punishment is for open, premeditated defiance or deliberate lies for the sake of hiding wrong doing. Punishing children for poor grades, lack of focus in school, fighting with siblings, unfinished chores, or other childlike behavior is ineffective and teaches nothing positive. There is lots of evidence of this.

What can you do to turn you mind toward making your children disciples who then develop discipline? Here are some techniques to get you started.

  1. Embrace the process. Training and teaching children to have discipline and to be disciples is a long term project. You have many years to get them there. Teach your children the ways of God in the day to day experiences of living. Every moment is an opportunity to learn. Look at the school situation your child is in. If it is not teaching your child to be a disciple of what you believe, consider a change. Your child will lean in to the mentor that influences them the most. Make sure that is you.

  2. Choose a joyful spirit. Raising children who are developing discipline does not require a stern, grouchy, fault-finding, approach in which the parent is constantly watching to catch their children in a failure. Instead, demonstrate the joy that is found in looking for the best in people and circumstances. Look for people who are helping our culture be a better place rather than focusing on those that are perpetrating violence or rebellion. Catch your child being delightful, kind, thoughtful, creative, or helpful. Notice these positive things and comment on them.

  3. Be disciplined. How well do you regulate your emotions? Do you know how to deescalate the scene when your child is coming unglued or do you say and do things that throw fuel on the fire? Spend time reading and praying about helping your children become the very best versions of themselves that they can.

  4. Be a student of your child. Tune in to what your child needs help with. Are they easily frustrated? Help them to see the power of perseverance and to learn to try again. Do they require constant entertainment from a screened device? Help them to see the world that they are walking in. Show them the interesting things that are happening around them. Engage with them and show them how to entertain themselves. Are they easily distracted? Help them participate in a task that requires careful concentration such as mini golf or hammering nails into scraps of wood. Figure what your child needs and provide it. Encourage them to walk with you.

Raising children looks a lot less like a lion tamer cracking a whip while yelling orders and a lot more like a guide extending a hand and offering an invitation to walk together. The parent who focus on the word disciple over discipline is the parent who spends many years saying, "I know the way. Let's go together. It's a lovely walk."

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