My husband is preaching through the book of Ephesians for our Youth Group on Tuesday evenings. As he recently came to the rich passage in the fourth chapter, verses 17, 20-24 (click here to hear the sermon), I was reminded of the immense practicality of this passage, as it applies to parenting:
“17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds… 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
While there is so much contained in this passage, for the purpose of this blog post, I will restrict my application of the “put-off, put-on” principle to parenting young children, specifically, correcting behavior in children. Paul points out the fact that when seeking to pursue a righteous and holy life it is not enough just to stop doing corrupt actions. The cessation of the wrong action must be followed a change of thinking, and then it must be replaced by a right action.
Now, granted, this passage contains instructions given by an apostle to a church of redeemed believers in Ephesus during the first century, but it still applies today to modern-day believers today just as much as it did back then. Furthermore, even though our children may be little unregenerate, pagan sinners, they can still benefit from the biblical principles found here as well. See, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, knew that it was not enough just to tell people to stop sinning. A void remains. A sort of vacuum is created when the sinful action is no longer present in that person’s life. The behavior must be (and eventually will be, whether it is intended or not) replaced with another behavior. Not just any behavior, but a right one. But to stop at just the outward behavior is to rely purely on behaviorism. Instruction must also be given to change the person’s thinking about the action or behavior as well.
So, how does this transfer into parenting? Practically speaking, it could look something like this:
“Honey, you may not play with that item because it is too sharp. It might hurt you. You may play with your toy cars instead.”
“Do not walk across the street without an adult. A passing car might not see you and you could get hit. If you want to visit your friend across the street, then simply ask mommy or daddy to go with you.”
“Sweetie, you may not throw your ball inside the house. There are too many fragile objects that might break if your ball were to strike them. If you want to throw your ball, you may do so in the backyard.”
“Do not wipe your nose on your sleeve. It is considered impolite. We want to prefer others above ourselves so please use a tissue next time.”
When correcting behavior with young children, clearly state the action that should be “put off,” give a clear explanation for the reason, and follow that by offering a replacement action that may be “put on” in its place. Be age-appropriate. Be kind. Get down on the child’s level and establish eye-contact. Be consistent. Be patient. Be gentle in your tone. Be willing to enforce the rules with negative consequences or discipline when disobeyed. But, strive to help the child see the blessing in obedience and the reason behind the rule (i.e. rules are not arbitrary). There is no need to go into lengthy discourses or overly persuasive speeches in an effort to coarse a child into compliance. Likewise, there is no need to threaten, bribe, or manipulate a child to obey. It’s simply a matter of: (1) clearly stating the action that you expect the child to stop doing, (2) instructing/correcting the child’s thinking by stating your reason, and (3) providing a more positive and constructive alternate activity/action for the child to do instead. Then, when necessary, consistently following up with discipline if the child should choose to disobey.
Personally, I find that applying these principles takes a lot of the pressure (i.e. anger, frustration, disappointment, critical spirit, etc.) out of correction. It forces me to slow-down and evaluate my reasons for each rule and expectation, as I am explaining each to my child. It also provides a wonderful opportunity for me to check my own heart to be sure that my rules are not unreasonable or self-centered, but are really motivated by the best possible outcome for my child. While I am explaining these things to my child, it helps him to grow in his understanding of the world around him (i.e. the cause-and-effect relationship of his actions and behaviors), as well as his ability to choose wise actions and behaviors over those that might be foolish and/or harmful. As is always the case, it is an all-around benefit to apply biblical wisdom!