The nonviolent parent

While setting up our tent in the sweltering heat of Osoyoos, B.C., my husband and I struggled to keep an eye on our two-year-old who was wrestling with our instruction to stay off the campground driveway.

His escape attempts progressed from tentatively shuffling his feet across the gravel to confidently marching out to the driveway as we tried to disentangle ourselves from tent poles. When he made his final break for the roadway, I hastily decided to administer his first spanking.

My son laughed nervously, I cried, and I knew that I wanted his first spanking to be his last.

Corporal punishment and pacifism

I’m certainly not the first parent to shed tears upon physically punishing her child for the first time. However, my distress came not only from having caused my child pain, but also because I could not reconcile my actions with my faith.

I became a member of a Mennonite Brethren church just after my 20th birthday, and the MB teachings on active peacemaking and nonviolence resonated with me. Though I don’t share the heritage of pacifism of many Mennonites, I have found my spiritual home in a group of people who identify as a people of peace.

Our MB Confession of Faith reads: “Believers seek to be agents of reconciliation in all relationships, to practice love of enemies as taught by Christ, and to be peacemakers in all situations. We view violence in its many different forms as contradictory to the new nature of the Christian. We believe that the evil and inhumane nature of violence is contrary to the gospel of love and peace.”

Confronting conflict at home

We often limit our discussions about peacemaking and nonviolence to large-scale conflicts, but more often the real conflict in my life is with my child having a meltdown in the cereal aisle.

And I’m not alone.

Many Canadian parents spank their children, and Christians have often been the most vocal proponents of spanking. A handful of literally-interpreted verses from Proverbs (e.g., 13:24) and some familiar quotes (that sound scriptural but are nowhere to be found in the Bible) provide the basis for much Christian acceptance of spanking.

And yet, the Jesus I meet in the Gospels embodies nonviolence. Jesus teaches us to turn the other cheek and even rejects violence as he is being handed over to his betrayers (Matthew 26:52). In all of the recorded interactions between Jesus and children, Jesus holds children in high regard. There is no reason to think that a commitment to creative conflict management would not apply to children.

Parenting in God’s shadow

As I teach my children to pray, “Our Father in heaven,…” what does my earthly parenting teach my children about the nature of our heavenly parent? Does my manner of disciplining my children reflect the ways God disciplines me? It is God’s kindness and grace that brings me to repentance (Romans 2:4).

As Mennonite Brethren, can we reconcile being peacemakers – agents of reconciliation in the world – if we can’t be such at home? What does it do to our own hearts as parents to employ forceful physical discipline on our children?

Whether we use corporal punishment or not, we all love our children. Disciplining them is an essential part of helping them reach a stage of maturity at which they are capable of self-discipline.

However, discipline should prepare our children for natural consequences while protecting them from harm, rather than teach our children that they deserve punishment when they fall short of expectations.

A toddler who throws wooden blocks across the living room may have those toys removed until he is able to understand the danger posed by makeshift projectiles.

A child who has difficulty getting ready for school on time may have to experience the embarrassment of collecting a late slip. She may need help learning how to be self-disciplined by creating a picture chart of tasks to be accomplished each morning. A conversation about how running late affects her parents, the rest of her classmates and teacher may help her to understand the impact of her actions on others.

I want my child to grow in empathy for those he has wronged, rather than simply modifying his behaviour to avoid an arbitrary punishment.

Finding an effective means of discipline requires creativity and patience, and finding a foolproof method is impossible. Like most aspects of parenting, developing strategies of discipline involves learning from experience. Methods that have worked for one of my sons are not always effective for the other, and their discipline needs sometimes change as quickly as I can figure them out.

Challenging as it may be, we must press on in disciplining our children in a way that maintains their dignity and our integrity.

With only seven years of parenting under my belt, I’m hardly a seasoned expert on discipline. But, as I look back on the conviction to avoid physically punishing my children that began to cement itself within my heart on that hot summer day, I have no regrets.

—Andrea Heinrichs, an occasional blogger and writer, is mother to Oliver and Theodore, married to Dave, lives in Port Coquitlam, and is a member of Eagle Ridge Bible Fellowship, Coquitlam, B.C.

2 Comments on “The nonviolent parent

  1. I disagree that spanking can not be done in a loving way. My children are teenagers now and I did spank them when they were toddlers. I would sit down and briefly explain why they were being spanked and after the spanking I would cuddle them. Toddlers are not able to fully understand when things are dangerous and they need to understand that they need to listen. If my child runs into the street at two years old after I’ve told them to stop, trying to reason with them the dangers of what they are doing is not going to be as effective as a spanking. I also believe in non-violence, but I feel that spanking when children are toddlers (as long as it is done lovingly and in rare instances) is a valuable discipline tool.

    • Spanking can be done in a loving way, but there’s no way to tell even if the parent does everything “right” whether the toddler is really getting the message that the parent wants them to get, or if the underlying message (what I want is more important than your right not to be hit) is also lurking in the background. What we find is that kids who are spanked are more likely to grow up to be spankers…and no matter how lovingly you spank your own kids, you’re still teaching them that violence is (sometimes) ok.

      So I guess that’s really the question at issue: is violence committed in the name of a really good cause ok? Because to me, there’s just no difference between saying that and saying “might makes right” or “the end justifies the means.”

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