In Part 2 of Heartfelt Discipline Clarkson shifts to a more practical style. Now I’m learning with reading Clarkson is that it’s important to understand how he defines terms.
Take, for example the chapter titles in Part 2: “Sympathy Versus Strictness,” “Encouragement Versus Guilt,” Nurture Versus Neglect,” and “Instruction Versus Information.” You can see the value of the first two chapters here are going to depend on how Clarkson defines terms like strictness and guilt.
What Clarkson chooses to emphasize is good: we do need to listen, understand, and encourage our children. Parents can be cruelly rigid, to the detriment of their children. His chapter on Nurture (spiritually nurturing one’s children) is excellent, and contains a helpful acronym (ARTS) for using the Bible for family devotions (or just casual discussions).
- Ask a Question. Think of a fun or thought provoking question on the passage (Like, what would it be like if you grew up to be nine feet tall, when discussing David and Goliath).
- Read the Bible. Read the passage slowly and with expression, to the best of your ability.
- Talk about It. Ask the children questions about the text. Ask factual questions, but also application questions (How can we trust God in situations we face?)
- Speak to God. Pray about what we just learned, and ask God to help you and your children apply the specific lesson to your own lives. (pages 107-8)
Isn’t that great? I thought it was, anyway.
Now, for the part that I didn’t like, and we have to start talking about terms. I’m still trying to understand the hangup about strictness. It seems like Clarkson is creating a false dichotomy: you either have sympathetic, understanding parents, OR you have strict parents. Here is a paragraph that gave me pause:
In contrast with the sympathetic parent is the strict disciplinarian. The image that comes to mind is the parent who controls her child’s behavior, punishing disobedience whenever it surfaces and tolerating no challenges to her authority. The rightness of strict discipline is widely accepted among Christian parents, and yet it has no real biblical basis. My guess is that the widespread acceptance of the idea of strict discipline originates with the “spare the rod, spoil the child” axiom and the misapplication to young children of the Proverbs passages about the rod. (page 81)
Now, at this point, I’m trying to figure out what Clarkson means when he talks about strict parents, because I would have a problem with rigid, insensitive parents who control every decision to the smallest detail. I can agree that a number of Christian parents would benefit from taking the time to think like the child. I don’t think Clarkson is objecting to having high expectations for children’s behavior, even though it sounds like it (I don’t knowingly ignore challenges to my authority, for example). Clarkson actually explains what he’s talking about in the very next paragraph. I’ll just give you the first sentence.
Strictness in discipline emphasizes the parent as the controlling party and puts parents in an adversarial role with their children.
I’m still trying to figure out why a parent as the controlling party is inherently problematic. This isn’t the only reference to this concept. God did create an authority structure, with the parents in authority over the children. Our young children don’t choose on their own to do right, share, say thank you, brush their teeth, and so on. If we want those things done, we must control our children. Right? Granted that as children grow older, parents should be gradually controlling less of the child’s environment, but I do not believe control is a bad thing, nor do I believe that a parent exercising parental power (or authority) precludes loving the child, showing mercy, and so on.
The problem is, Clarkson is not speaking in biblical terms. The biblical concept that parents need is not sympathy, but biblical mercy. Yes, some Christian parenting experts believe justice and mercy are incompatible (that is, if a parent is just, he will not be merciful), but this contradicts what we understand about God and His mercy. We are commanded to be merciful, even as God is merciful. Love does cover (or overlook) a multitude of sins. But even as God is merciful, he still does not tolerate sin. He still disciplines us when we allow sin in our lives, even as he gives grace when we are humbly repentant.
Altogether, I think Heartfelt Discipline is a profitable book for parents to read. The Clarksons have a gentle approach to parenting that can be a helpful corrective for the unbiblically harsh and unkind parenting that passes as “Christian.” I do worry that some of the biblical imprecision will turn away some of the people who would benefit most from their words.