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Discipline That Disciples

Ken McDuff

A Changed Heart is the Key to Better Discipline in Children's Ministries.

You have them. The kids who disrupt your class with their antics. The kids who challenge your authority and try your patience. The kids who ignore the rules without fear of consequences. Admit it: Sometimes you wish they wouldn't walk through your classroom door! Even the "good" kids can get on your nerves from time to time when their behavior is -- well, childish.

Today's child can be a handful, and teachers are scrambling for new ideas to control their classrooms. Too often, classroom discipline is reduced to a stern face and a set of ineffective rules and escalating consequences, with the only solution coming when kids graduate from their class. Then the game begins anew.

While there's no secret formula guaranteed to calm classroom chaos, approaching discipline from a different perspective can help. Don't think of discipline as punishment for unwanted behavior. Think of it as a disciple-making strategy. Turn those trying moments into teachable moments. To do that, we must first understand the truth about children's hearts.

Fruit Of The Heart

"No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit"(Luke 6:43). Jesus wasn't talking about trees when he said that; he was talking about people. He was telling us that misbehavior reveals a heart that's bad -- "desperately wicked," says Jeremiah. And kids aren't exempt! Proverbs 22:15 reveals that, in their natural state, children are driven by a heart of foolishness -- ready to yield to their selfish cravings without thought of the certain effects.

We can attempt to control the behavior of children with bribery, contracts, threats of punishment, time-outs, and the like, but the heart remains unchanged. If we're to make disciples rather than to simply diffuse classroom tensions and distractions, we must seek to discover the heart issue that each misbehavior reveals.

Sailing illustrates this truth well. I've been sailing once. Until then, it made no sense to me. The wind blows one way, so I figured that's the direction the boat would go. "How does it get back?" I wondered. "Wait for the wind to change direction," I guessed. Here's what I learned: Your destination is determined by the trim of the sail, not the direction of the breeze.

That's how it works with kids, too. The "wind" of your discipline (does that term accurately describe your huffing and puffing?) may not take children in the direction you intend. It's the trim of their "sails" -- inclined toward God or toward self -- that'll ultimately determine their direction.

Discipline, commonly understood, molds behavior. Discipline that disciples molds the heart. If you recognize this, you'll focus on revealing to children the nature of sin and instilling in them the character of God. To do this, we must tackle the task of teaching our children a principle about the choices they make.

Sowing And Reaping

My wife and I have a small, raised bed garden. Usually we purchase those little six-packs of sprouted produce, but sometimes we get adventurous and plant seeds. We work the soil, we water, we weed -- and we wait. It sometimes seems that the seeds will never sprout, but eventually a shoot emerges and a full-grown plant slowly develops.

Children have a hard time believing that the seeds of their misbehavior will ever sprout. They must learn the principle of sowing and reaping -- their choices made today affect their harvest tomorrow. "Do not be deceived," Paul warns. "God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life" (Galatians 6:7-8).

We must teach our children that their choices bring results, good or bad, sooner or later. But how can we do that?

Use a variety of strategies. Discipline should not be a knee-jerk reaction to misbehavior; it involves an ongoing process of training and nurture. It includes instruction, warning, praise, and encouragement for good behaviors and attitudes. Don't simply reprimand your students. Engage them.

Discipline that disciples, says Tedd Tripp in Shepherding a Child's Heart, involves "helping children understand themselves, God's world, the ways of God, how sin works in the human heart, and how the gospel comes to them at the most profound levels of human need."

Teach children to recognize the consequences of sin. The sowing/reaping principle underscores the natural consequences of sin, but how do children understand this when consequences don't materialize immediately?

"Kids learn to respect the reality of long-term, natural consequences," says Daniel Hahn in Teaching Your Kids the Truth About Consequences, "when [teachers] use short-run, logical consequences as a routine part of shaping behavior."

Teach kids to recognize the natural long-term consequences of their actions. At the same time, use immediate consequences to demonstrate the logic of their course of action. Also, keep consequences reasonable and as closely associated with the behavior as possible. For example, if the child's misbehavior involves property damage, require the child to replace or repair the property. With a relational offense, help the child understand the other person's perspective and the need for reconciliation.

Explain the "why" of behavior as well as the "what." Behind the choices a child makes is a set of values, hopes, and dreams. Do these values reflect the attitudes and qualities exemplified in Christ? Or do they reflect a heart of selfishness? The "why" of behavior penetrates the heart, sometimes revealing values and attitudes contrary to God's nature.

We "tend to see...behavior in very naive terms," says Tedd Tripp. "We see the fight over a toy as simply a fight over a toy, when actually it's a failure to prefer others." When we help children recognize the motives of their hearts, we help them better understand themselves and their actions. Recognition of sinful motives is the foundation for heart change.

Practice church discipline. What? Isn't that just for adults? It shouldn't be. If you think of your class as a mini-church, you'll find that the Bible provides an abundance of wisdom and instruction to help you handle relational tension. You can aid your children in learning how to confront another child when they've been wronged (in accordance with Matthew 18), seeking your intervention only as a second step. Role play several possible scenarios with your class. Follow God's principles of church discipline to teach your children what it means to be part of the body of Christ.

"I'm continually running into people who are forcing, bribing, tricking, pleading, kicking, and screaming -- trying to get their kids to 'be good,' " says Daniel Hahn. Does that sound like your classroom discipline strategy? Then perhaps it's time to reexamine your methods and redirect your goal toward discipling rather than simply controlling the classroom.

Ken McDuff is a children's pastor in Bakersfield, California.


Bible Talk

When it comes to setting up classroom rules, most teachers create their own. Instead, use imperatives from Scripture the next time you need to train a child. The following are biblical corrections for common things kids say.

  • "He hit me first!" -- "Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other..." (1 Thessalonians 5:15).
  • "She's stupid!" -- "Do not let any unwholesome talk come from your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up..." (Ephesians 4:29).
  • "You're not my friend anymore!" -- "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32).
  • "You're not my boss!" -- "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established (Romans 13:1).
  • "Why do I have to do that!?" -- "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus...taking the very nature of a servant" (Philippians 2:5-7).

But A Child

I am but a child
whether big or small.

I don't always obey the rules
or even know them all.

But please be patient with me.
I'm really truly trying.

It's just sometimes my energy
makes my feet and mouth go flying!

I am growing up so fast
and going through such changes.

It seems as if 'most every day
my whole world rearranges.

I need your help to be my best,
We're family you know.

So if I'm getting out of line
please kindly tell me "no."

-- Susan L. Gordon

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