spare the rod, spoil the child?

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Our son Benjamin recently passed the nine month mark. And Natalie and I find ourselves thrashing about in the murky waters of discipline.

Thankfully the profoundly divisive — and potentially explosive — topic of smacking isn’t on the agenda quite yet. But we’ve been bowled over by how frequent the word ‘No’ is becoming in our little household. (About the only thing that prevents us feeling like absolute tyrants is the assurance all the parenting books, e.g., What To Expect The First Year, give us that this is thoroughly normal.)

What I find most fascinating about the challenge of disciplining my son is the way I find it so easy to see the perfectly understandable dynamics playing out ‘behind the scenes’ of his bad behaviour (I suspect I would find this more difficult if we weren’t talking about my own child).

But I’m struggling to recognise the point I’ve heard many preachers make about people being obviously evil, corrupt, sinful, and selfish because you don’t have to teach children to misbehave or act selfishly.

Maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe I’m just going soft. But none of Ben’s bad behaviour seems malignant to me.

I may not always know why he is doing the wrong thing in the moment (often I have no idea). But, upon reflection, Ben typically seems to behave badly for one of three reasons:

  1. He’s tired, sick, and/or hungry. Because he’s hurting, he pendulum swings between desperately demanding comfort and affection and lashing out.
  2. He’s investigating his world — poking a prodding at its limits, seeing what happens when he does this (or when he does it again). Whether it’s hitting Dad in the face or messing around with the powerpoint.
  3. He’s (over-)excited. And so he pushes things to extremes that he normally wouldn’t — biting Mum in his enthusiasm to see her first thing in the morning, for example. Sometimes this is combined with reason 1. Although it seems less deliberate than reason 2.

With this sympathetic reading of the springs and motives of my son’s behaviour, you might think the whole Augustinian ‘original sin’ thing would go out the window. I mean how can I think of my child as totally depraved, corrupt, and sinful from birth when he’s simply hurting, exploring, or just getting carried away?

And yet…

I guess I’m not quite ready to surrender St Augustine’s intuition (or cash in my Reformed evangelical credentials and go deal myself into another theological game). Because the question that presents itself is:

Why does my son’s hurting, exploring, or getting carried away trip up so easily (and consistently) into hurtful, selfish behaviour?

That to me is an interesting question. And one that surely draws us in the direction Augustine takes us…

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One comment

  1. I wonder if Adam and Eve had had a chance to produce some offspring before their unceremonious departure from Eden what those kids would have been like…

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