Tears trickled down my daughter’s face. She stood in front of me, shoulders slumped and her head down, as she admitted to something that I already knew she had done. The admission was from the heart and it wasn’t coerced. She was truly penitent. That little nine-year-old is an adult now, but I still remember my struggle as I tried to decide what to do. She was clearly wrong in what she had done and I had clarified a potential penalty ahead of time. The consequences were clear and she made a poor choice. My dilemma – should I do what I said I would do or had she learned her lesson already?
As she wept in front of me, I was moved by compassion and the urge to give her grace, but my logical side was whispering in my other ear to be a good teacher. I knew that good teachers sometimes have to teach hard lessons. In the end I decided to waive the punishment. I didn’t waive the punishment because she was crying and I felt sorry for her, but rather because I thought she had learned what she needed to learn. Looking back, I know I did the right thing.
Every parent is faced with this decision with unsettling regularity. “Should I stand firm or should I teach through grace?” What a challenge it is to know which one is the right one at the time. A parent who is too rigid, who never flexes or offers grace, risks creating hopelessness in his child. Yet a parent who cheapens grace by giving it at the wrong time, teaches the child that tears or apologies are the panacea for bad choices. Any tour of a prison will demonstrate that this just isn’t true.
Parents often ask me how they can know when to “do what they say they will do” – a mantra I often cite for good parenting – and when they should back off, let the child learn from the fear and pain she experienced by being caught, and move on.
Grace is a wonderful thing. True forgiveness of wrongdoing can be a powerful teacher. When a parent carefully selects the time to offer a child grace, he teaches her that the world can be kind – that you sometimes don’t get what you deserve. This can be used later to help that child learn to forgive or offer grace to a sibling, a classmate, or a friend when she has been wronged.
When my daughter was learning to drive our tractor, she accidentally ran into a post that supported our grape vines. When the tractor came to an abrupt halt against the post, she immediately looked at me with caution, fearing I would be angry. I laughed – on purpose – and said, “Don’t worry about it.” A few days later, her sister accidentally broke something of hers and she was angry. I said, “Sweetie, what did I say when you crashed the tractor?”
“You laughed and said don’t worry about it,” she replied.
“How did that make you feel?” I asked.
”Relieved,” she said.
“Then maybe that would help your sister.”
I can’t know for sure what that lesson taught her and I can’t know what would have happened if I’d been harsh when she ran over our grapes, but I feel confident I did the right thing.
But at other times I had to be stern. I had to hold the line and do what I said I would do even though it hurt me. Just before punishing me, my father used to tell me that it would hurt him more than it would me. I didn’t believe him back then, but after raising three children myself, I absolutely understand what he meant. My father taught me lessons through his sternness and I sometimes had to do the same for my children.
I suppose the best way to distinguish which one to use is to ask the question ahead of time, “What will my child learn from this?” If she can learn the same lesson from grace then do it. If she will learn a better lesson from lovingly holding firm to what you said you would do, then firmness will be the right decision.
Erma Bombeck often said about her children, “I’m not your friend. I’m your mom.” Moms and dads do the hard thing when it is necessary, but they are wise enough to know when grace is a better teacher.
Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.