Directive discipline is the process of lovingly leading your child along the path of life. The goal is to have your children follow you as you walk that path and to open and win their hearts along the way. The four faces that you present to your children—sympathy, encouragement, nurture, and instruction—are relational skills that enable you to relate to your children at a heart-to-heart level. They are skills for discipline that will open the door of a child’s heart both to the direction you have to offer and to the correction that you must exercise.
If heartfelt discipline is about putting a new, biblical face on childhood discipline, then let me recommend sympathy as the place to begin. You might be thinking, My child needs a firm hand and good values a lot more than my sympathy! As we discussed earlier, biblical discipline is about much more than simply controlling a child’s behavior. It’s about shaping the heart, which is why heartfelt discipline has sympathy at its root. I want my children to know, beyond a doubt, that even when I’m exercising my authority as a parent, they’ll find no better and no more loyal friend and confidant than me. Even when they do their worst and I must correct their wrongdoing, they still need to know that I’m completely on their side.
It is sympathy, which is an expression of God’s grace and love, that describes the heart attitude that is missing in much of our parenting. In order to offer a biblical view of sympathy, I will first explain what it is not. Sympathy is not permissiveness or a parental softness that “lets children be children” with a disregard for restraint or correction.
Sympathy, very simply, is “feeling with” another person. It is like coming alongside your children as they process their own thoughts and feelings. That is what Jesus did when He observed the multitudes who were “distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). He had compassion for them; He was sympathetic.
The strict disciplinarian emphasizes the parent as the controlling party and puts parents in an adversarial role with their children. Exercised as a quick way to stop unwanted behavior, strictness as a guiding principle can easily become an expression of parental power rather than parental love. From the child’s vantage point, adherence to the parent’s exertion of power is based on the fear of further punishment rather than a heartfelt desire to please the parent.
Contrast that with the exercise of sympathy. Sympathy as a guiding attitude in discipline attempts to put parents in the role of advocate, enabling them to lead the child with love rather than with fear. Sympathy also desires to stop unwanted behavior, but it takes the time to look past the child’s behavior to his heart. It asks, “What prompted my child’s misbehavior, and how can I address the cause?”
The greatest challenge to my walking in the power of the Holy Spirit at home is when I need to discipline one of my children. If I get upset and discipline out of anger or frustration, my discipline is ineffective because it has ceased to be in the power of the Spirit. Paul told the Galatians, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16-21). In contrast, he says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit,” the fruit of which includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control (see Galatians 5:22-25). Those are all the qualities of a sympathetic parent.
Anger is something to be very careful of in childhood discipline. James teaches, “The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (1:20). If I want my children to respond with an open heart to my discipline, I dare not let anger control me. It will close their hearts to me and to the Holy Spirit. Paul reminded the Romans of God’s “kindness and tolerance and patience,” and that it is “the kindness of God [that] leads you to repentance” (2:4). God judges hearts that are hardened against Him, but He patiently disciplines and directs all who have open hearts. Parental sympathy reflects God’s kindness, and it keeps my children’s hearts soft and open to me and to Him.
If you want to offer your children sympathy that will help open their hearts to your directive discipline, you first must walk in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a spiritual discipline to listen for the Spirit’s voice, to confess any fleshly sins that may be characterizing your discipline, and to ask God to fill you with His Spirit (to control or to empower you). When you pray like that, you open your heart to God for the fruit of the Spirit to be obvious in your life. The power of the Holy Spirit will enable you to respond lovingly to your children, with self-control, so that the character of Christ will be evident in your words and actions.
There is a language to sympathy, but we don’t use it all that much, so we have forgotten it. Although sympathy is also expressed non-verbally through hugs, touches, and loving looks, it is the verbal expressions of sympathy that touch the heart and spirit of a child. Interpersonal communication skills can be learned and mastered, but it takes practice. Effective communication means knowing how, through what you say and how you say it, to give your children the ability to express their feelings, fears, disappointments, weird ideas, and even wrong thoughts. It means knowing how to communicate your own thoughts and feelings in a way that your children will understand. It means learning how to ask questions and give advice effectively without putting your children on the defensive or piling up more guilt. It means being able to pray with your children.
Faced with a frustrated child who is exhibiting a bad attitude or who has just exploded into an emotional meltdown, I find that my natural inclination is to say, “Get control!” and then move on. But sometimes my children need to know that I know they’re having a tough time. That’s when I need to express concern in a sympathetic way: “I’ll bet that was really frustrating for you. It sure would be for me. I can remember getting upset about things like that when I was your age.”
This next point is so obvious that it sounds odd to state it: You can’t show sympathy unless you first really know your child! Each child has a unique personality. And the utter uniqueness of each child is essential to keep in mind when showing the face of sympathy. What communicates sympathy to one child may not do so to another.
Finally, you need to discern your child’s real needs. Maybe sometimes a child doesn’t need discipline, he just needs a nap. Maybe sometimes your child just needs a better diet. Spiritual and emotional needs can also affect behavior. If children are struggling with spiritual issues or fears, they may act them out or become withdrawn. In many different cases, if we are not addressing the real needs in our children’s lives, we’ll end up disciplining symptoms instead of the true cause.
Heartfelt discipline means accompanying your children along the path of life, extending sympathy as you go. Essential to that journey is knowing that God created your children’s heart to be open to your guidance. Your children naturally want to walk alongside you because they know you want the best for them. As you provide the guidance your children need, their hearts will be further opened to you by the sympathy you offer them. This allows us to also encourage, nurture and instruct our children, which is integral to directive discipline. For more on this, check out Heartfelt Discipline by Clay Clarkson.