One of the absolutely toughest quandaries we face as parents is how to most effectively help our children grow into functional adults. The reason this is so challenging is that we are constantly walking what feels like a very narrow line on when to be firm and when to be kind.
Here’s a scenario that elicits two very different responses from parents. The differing answers are dependent upon both your and your teenager’s personalities. What do you do if your teenager calls you from a party and sounds as though he has been drinking?
Possibility #1: You pick up your teenager and you tell him you’re incredibly proud of him for calling you. You say you’re thankful he didn’t get a ride home with someone else who had been drinking. You commend him for being responsible enough to let you know he needed a bit of help. You feel grateful that even though he made the mistake of drinking in the first place, he was humble enough to ask for help instead of making another mistake in an attempt not to be caught for the first mistake.
Possibility #2: You feel irate and betrayed that your son could go out drinking. You tell him because he has violated your trust you’ll be making yourself privy to his text communication with friends for the foreseeable future so that he doesn’t wind up in such a situation again. You tell him he’s grounded because he definitely knows better than to go to a house where there are no parents and then get drunk.
One response is soft and full of grace. The other response is firm. Neither response is wrong. There is a time when it is appropriate to show grace and there is a time when it is appropriate to discipline.
If we’re all softness and grace all the time then our kids miss out on something really important in their development. They don’t learn to take correction, they don’t learn limits, and they don’t learn the value of obedience. These are skills that are absolutely essential to your teenager’s future ability to function in the workplace. If you work in any situation other than self-employment you have to take direction, correction and criticism well. You have to intuitively pick up on limits set by the culture of the company. You have to be obedient to your superiors. You will certainly have times where you speak up if something is wrong, but for the most part you do what you’re told. These skills are learned from discipline given to your young children and then teenagers.
On the other hand, if you are nothing but firmness and discipline, your adolescent children miss out on something else very important to their growth. Your kids cannot function effectively in interpersonal relationships. They will be black and white. They won’t know when to teach someone and come alongside them versus when to draw a line. They won’t know how to forgive themselves. And, possibly worst of all, if they sense someone will disapprove of an action they are about to commit, they’ll just sneak. In fact, if you’re nothing but discipline, then your teenager is sneaking right now. That’s a promise.
Walking that very fine line between grace and firmness was modeled better by Jesus Christ than anyone the world has ever known. Do you know what he used to make the determination of when to use which? He examined the hardness of people’s hearts. If their hearts demonstrated a genuine sorrow for their sin, then he was all softness and grace. If their sorrow for their sin was only on the outside but their was no inner remorse, Jesus was firm and convicting. In essence, Jesus Christ showed unprecedented levels of emotional intelligence when dealing with people.
Now, neither you nor I will achieve Christ-like levels of perfection in raising our kids. However, we can certainly do our best to examine their hearts. Remember, discipline for the heard heart, or for the heart that continues to repeat the same mistake, but softness and second chances for the truly repentant and sorry heart.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT