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October 26, 2012

Some time ago, I began writing a general rule of motherhood. This was interrupted by many events, but over the next few days, I would like to discuss some of the matters important to mothers, especially about discipline.

We begin with a reflection on the dignity of the child, which provides the essential context for anything about discipline. Discipline is about persons, not about dog training.

1.   Discipline:

A mother wants each child to have a strong self.

           It happens!

His life is not ours, 

       his thoughts are not ours, 

          his sense of time, 

             his joy in place, 

                  his first loves,

    all these are his own.


And one day, he says, “No.”

He is imitating the strongest word we have said to him,

         the one we use to say that we are in charge

                   and other people must fit in.

He wants to be like us, 

    able to have a self with its own space, 

          a self that can command action!

God created him to have such a self

    because love goes only from one self to other

         and where there is no self, 

                there is no love going forth from one self to other.


How can a mother respond to her child’s

         “declaration of independence” 

     so that it develops in the best way?

She is not in a tug of war;

      she is not trying to have the biggest self;

  actually, she is trying to have the smallest self,

          for Jesus has called us to become less 

               so that He may be more.

(He came to give us life

       and give it abundantly.)


Jesus asks us to be like children who trust.

        What is a child’s trust?

A child’s first trust is that his mother will give him life,

             and we have done so;

and with the gift of life

comes the vocation to support another self,

   with a distinct interior life

        a distinct persona

              always in the loving image of the Persons of God.

This child became separate from us at birth:

         he is alive:

Now he is going to build a self!


So when a child says, “No,”

        his mother does not insist on her primacy:

she insists upon his safety,

         for now and for eternity

    meantime, she mobilizes her heart

to defend his interior life.


If his “no” is dangerous, 

       about traffic, about electricity, about various poisons,

          his mother is firm.

If his “no” is wounding to others,

       again, his mother is firm, though gentle; 

             this is an eternal issue.


But sometimes there is no specific danger

           and a mother considers other possibilities:

   sometimes we make mistakes:

          asking for things that are not best,

          asking strongly for things of slight value.

An adult self is strong enough to bear admitting so.


If there is no mistake,

         if the child must not say, “no”

           then perhaps a teaching is due.


Telling a child why he must say “yes” 

invites him to choose his actions 

          for the same reasons his mother desires them:

                        because they are good:


                                 healthy, kind,

                                        helpful, holy.


Refusing to explain

  because you are afraid of raising an undisciplined child

       is asking him to make his choices

     based on your authority –

             sometimes just on your fears.

To develop a true self 

            A child must choose his actions 

                        — so far as possible —

          based on thoughts that have made their home in his mind

                    loves that are interior,

                        insights that he owns. 

Choices based on others’ interior lives

      build a weak self.

A mother who would govern with right authority

            will consider Jesus, who says,

    I do not call you servants,

             for a servant does not know what his master is doing.

    I have called you friends,

             because I have told you everything

                   that my Father has taught me.


Explanations do not make a child undisciplined.

Discipline is an inward character

   which develops when our decisions flow from within

           and are habitually fulfilled in action.

The disciplined child brings the greatest energy

               from the most orderly space within,

                   and from the greatest depth,

                        and with the greatest consistency.

Discipline means

        acting from a self-governed interiority.


A mother desires such a child 

          and works to ensure that what she does, 

                      all that she teaches, asks, demands, 

          will contribute to the inner life of her child.


The order of a household is a large task;

   on some days, the disorder so develops

      that there needs almost a violence to quell it.

But the stillness after violence

       is a deep-running storm;

                 it is not peace.

A mother seeks reconciliation 

     to collect the energies that are scattering

            to comprehend the inward character of unmet desires

                to calm the inner tumults.


Punishment is never enough.

If we desire children ready for martyrdom,

      then we cannot teach them to stop 

            for mere physical punishment,

                        even for a relational punishment.

Such things may be needed;

      they bring pause:

           but then the real work begins.


“What were you trying to do?

   Did you need to explore a forbidden space?

       Did I need to forbid that space?

   If so, why?

                        If not, can I open it?


It is true that a child seeks his limits.

It is true that

      so long as every pressure on his limits 

                        causes them to expand, 

            he will not be content, 

                    but will push again.

It is also the case

      that some limits are about safety,

            others are about the energy limits of the mother;

                a few are remembered prohibitions

                        from another childhood

                            or even

                      experimental prohibitions from other families.

Each of these limits is real, 

            but not all have the same value.

When a mother calls something dangerous,

            a child knows from her voice 

    whether it is deeply dangerous, 

            or only slightly so,

              or not at all.

Further, he quickly learns 

      that his mother is more fearful than he,

            and he examines for himself

     whether her warnings reflect 

                        her general anxiety

            or a truly present sense of danger.


It is a fearful thing to have an adventuresome child;

            our fear will not protect him.

When we expand the limits that we should not have set,

          until we come to limits that are real, 

                        and not merely inertial

         we give our children good reason 

                        to trust the limits that do not move.

A wise mother does not set limits 

            as an experiment in authority;

­­­­­­     and even so, her limits change 

            because children and mothers change,

                        day by day.


And all this is as true of spiritual things

       as of the physical;           

therefore discipline must be conducted

            in a manner that respects

                  that encourages

                       that supports

                             the developing interior life

                                      of a child.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy Gerdes permalink
    October 27, 2012 2:34 pm

    I absolutely love this! One thing I have done: I never said no but used the word don’t.

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. October 29, 2012 9:01 pm

    Words are very important. By saying “don’t…” you make your “no” specific and full of information, which is what children want, what they need. So you side-stepped the power play right there. Thanks.

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