In Popular Posts, Sons and Smacking, I told the story of how my young adult son Callum and I went to town to have some mother-son time. As we sipped coffee, we chatted.
"So what’s been going on in your life?” I asked. “But be careful about what you say. I’ll probably go home and write a blog post about our conversation.”
Callum grinned. “That’s OK. I’m used to that…” And so with his permission, I am about to share our conversation in which we discussed the whole issue of how parents can best influence a child’s behaviour so he does what is right and necessary. I talked as a parent. Callum spoke from a child’s point of view.
"I’ve been keeping up with an interesting discussion online about spanking and children. The big question is how do you make children do what you want them to do without smacking them? How do you teach them the right thing to do and remain a gentle parent? I'm not a smacking mother… except for that time when you were eight and I was really frustrated… smacking didn't help.”
I thought about that occasion when I smacked eight-year-old Callum. I can’t remember what he’d done wrong, but I do remember how frustrated I felt. I lashed out at him and my hand met solid-boy flesh and came away stinging. Callum didn’t look repentant at all. My smack hadn’t made him reconsider his behaviour and so I felt even more frustrated.
Callum grinned as he remembered my futile effort to smack him. “Yes, it didn't work.”
“Why didn’t smacking work?” I asked.
“I was tougher than you. The smack hurt you more than me. It didn’t convince me I needed to change my behaviour,” my son replied. “Children are clever. If they can avoid punishment they will still continue to do what is wrong… as long as they don’t get found out…. Maybe children have to want to behave because it’s the right thing to do and not because they might get caught and then smacked or punished in some other way.”
“So children need to develop a sense of what is right and what is wrong and want to live by those standards?”
“But sometimes doing what is right isn't much fun at all. What makes children freely choose to do the right and necessary thing, if there is no threat of punishment. Couldn’t a child just say, “I refuse to do that and stand his ground?”
“He could but if I’d have done that I’d have felt bad inside.”
“You wouldn’t have thought, ‘Hey! She can’t make me do anything I don’t want to do,’ and enjoyed that powerful feeling?”
“No. It wasn’t like that. Do you remember when we were fighting over whose turn it was to do the dishes and you came in and said you’d do them instead of us. We didn’t go off thinking, “Hooray, Mum is going to do the dishes. We can go and play.’ We felt bad and all of a sudden we wanted to do the dishes ourselves.”
Callum thinks some more. “I guess it’s a bit like how I feel now I’m no longer on the roster and don’t have to do any household chores.”
“I thought you’d like not having to do any jobs around the house.”
“In one way it’s good because I don’t feel overloaded now that I’m working full time, but in another way I no longer feel I belong. I get up in the morning and see the rest of the family working away together and it doesn’t feel right that I've nothing to do.”
“Belonging… Yes… Maybe every child needs to feel they belong, that the family is a team and they have a valued place in it?”
Callum agreed, "When children feel loved and valued and have a role within the family they feel right inside. And they don’t just want to be part of the good things in the family. They accept they have to work too and have to be considerate and think of others…. It’s all part of being a family. Children grow up expecting to do all these things. It feels normal. It’s all part of being on the team. When they misbehave or don’t cooperate or pull their weight, they feel they have let the team down. It doesn’t feel good.”
We were silent for a moment and then Callum added, “That unhappy feeling has to come from within. It can’t result from a mother’s reaction to the situation.”
“So a mother can’t withdraw her love because of misbehaviour.”
“No. Punishments and withdrawal of love can lead to resentment. It can spoil a relationship. You have to do what is right because it is right and not because you have to keep your mother happy. Actually it feels even worse if you know you have done wrong and your mother still loves you."
“A mother has to show unconditional love?”
As we finished our coffees, I tried to sum up what we’d been discussing: “A child needs to grow up feeling loved and part of the family. He accepts that a family means both working together and having fun together. It’s his safe place where he belongs and wants to be, and he will do what is necessary to keep his place in the family and to feel good about himself…”
“… and when he misbehaves, he knows he has let the team down and he feels bad inside. He will be unhappy until he puts things right,” finished Callum.
“So you did learn to do what was necessary and right even though I didn’t smack you?” I concluded.
Callum grinned. “Yes.” Then he added, “Not that I’m always perfect.”
No. None of us are perfect. We know what we should do but we fall short. Children are the same. As long as we all just try and do our best.
We were driving home and I was still thinking about our conversation when I had a new idea. “Unconditional love… That’s how God loves us. He doesn’t withdraw His love for us when we sin, does He? Maybe because we know He always loves us regardless of our behaviour, we feel worse when we let Him down. We don’t feel right inside. Do you think it’s because of that great love we want to do what is right and necessary?”
"It could be," Callum agreed.
I think back to the big question I posed at the beginning of our discussion: How can a parent best influence a child’s behaviour so he does what is right and necessary? Perhaps it all comes down to love. It doesn’t really matter how we choose to discipline and bring up our children. - all families are different- as long as we remember love, the most important thing of all. A child needs to feel unconditionally loved and valued. He has to feel safe. He has to feel he belongs.
Somewhere to belong, and someone and Someone to belong to…Isn't that what we all need and want? Isn't that we are all searching for?