This past week, while many were following the whole gorilla incident, I was anxiously following another news story about a Japanese boy who went missing after his parents had left him behind in the woods for misbehaving. On the morning of the disappearance, 7-year-old Yamato Tanooka had been mischievously throwing rocks at people and cars while playing by the river with his family. Later that day, his parents decided to teach him a lesson by dropping him off by the side of a road, locking him out of the car, and driving away. When they returned a few minutes later…
He was gone.
Discipline that Brings Death
Reading about what happened to Yamato made me horrified and sickened as I imagined how he must have felt as his parents drove out of sight.
Yet despite my empathy for the young boy, I felt deep compassion for his parents as well.
Just a few years ago, I could easily have been them.
As a conscientious parent, I had vowed that I would never use the traumatizing disciplinary methods that I witnessed in the news or experienced personally. But as a Christian parent, I also felt that it was God’s mandate for me to train my child to be obedient and respectful.
The ironic thing was, my “Christian” parenting started to look a lot like the very thing I was trying to avoid.
I would withhold affection when the kids disobeyed.
I would spank them angrily to show them their sin.
I would wield “The Spatula” to keep them in line.
I would rage in righteous anger at their offenses.
Despite my denouncements of abuse, I found myself responding to my kids in ways that were destructive and disrespectful. My fixation on compliance, sense of religious duty, and perfectionistic tendencies combined into a toxic mix that made me constantly sin-conscious, offended, and angry. I was troubled by how this kind of “Biblical discipline” could even lead to devastating outcomes if left unchecked.
My parenting was turning my kids’ hearts away from me and from God.
In my efforts to raise kids “God’s way,” I was instead causing harm, strife, and isolation.
My discipline was bringing death.
Something needed to change.
Re-Parented by God
We become like the god we worship.
Unfortunately, my view of god was pretty warped.
I saw god as cold and distant when I sinned.
I believed god would punish me to teach me a lesson.
I would be intimidated into good behavior by my fear of him.
I felt he was constantly disappointed and angry with my every little infraction.
It wasn’t until my understanding of God began to change that my relationship with my kids changed too.
I started believing that God’s compassionate presence was eternally with me, even in my mess.
- Instead of sending my kids to their room in the middle of a tantrum, I began holding them and comforting them.
I began experiencing how God’s perfect love cast out fear by removing any fear of punishment.
- I stopped spanking and punishing my kids, but instead set up natural limits and consequences.
I was wooed by God’s offer of freedom and abundant living instead relying on external rules.
- I started giving my kids more choices and more freedom so they could learn to exercise their own power and listen to the Spirit inside them.
I saw that God had dealt with my sins once and for all in Christ, and he only looked at me with eyes of love and understanding.
- I stopped being so sin- and behavior-focused and concentrated more on relationship.
What God desired from me was connection, not perfection. Relationship, not rule-following.
As I allowed myself to be re-parented by God, I gradually let go of my demand for perfection and obedience in my own kids. My experience of greater love, freedom, and connection with God slowly produced the same fruit in my own parenting.
Discipline that Brings Life
If we want to avoid deadly discipline and practice parenting that is life-giving, going back to the Source of Life itself is a good place to start.
We can ask ourselves:
Who is this God that I worship? What is this God like?
Does our image of God look more like the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy, or does it look more like Jesus Christ, who came to give us abundant life?
Our core beliefs about God will either distort or clarify the Imago Dei in ourselves and in our children.
Secondly, we can examine our discipline methods so that they more accurately reflect how God parents us.
We can ask ourselves:
- Does this cause death or life?
- Does this instill fear or trust?
- Does this create alienation or connection?
- Does this use power and control or love and influence?
- Does this show dignity or does it belittle?
Mercifully, Yamato’s story did not end tragically. Five harrowing days after he disappeared, he was found. Physically, he was unharmed, but it’s unlikely that he walked away from this event emotionally, psychologically, and relationally unscathed. His parents, in doing what they thought was best for him, undoubtedly ended up inflicting untold damage.
Thankfully, Yamato’s parents have been given another chance.
And so have we.
No matter what our parenting has looked like in the past, we can always choose what it will look like for today.
Instead of parenting with wrath, antagonism, frustration, harshness, disrespect, unpredictability, and parental control…
We can choose to parent with
God himself has shown us how.