‘Big Fish’ Style Discipline

big fish disciplineAt the moment Boaz is into Octonauts in a big way. For those of you yet to experience this joy, it’s a children’s TV programme all about sea creatures and the adventures of the Octonaut characters as they seek to ‘Explore, Rescue, Protect’ the oceans and said creatures. So perhaps that is why the story of Jonah has been on my mind recently! But I’ve found it’s actually had some pretty helpful insights to offer on the subject of obedience and discipline in parenting.

I find obedience a really hard balance to strike when parenting. I want my children to grow up able to question authority and not to fall foul of peer pressure. I want them to be able to discern when to be obedient and when, actually, it may be appropriate not to be. I’m also aware that I can be quite impatient – if I ask Boaz to go and get his shoes on, I want it doing right then. But, if I’m in the middle of something, and someone asks me to do something, I’m not usually that inclined to drop everything and jump to it. So I know I need to be careful that I am respecting my children as individual people and giving them fair warning of instructions, and teaching them about compromise by modelling my willingness to sometimes compromise with them.

However, what I ultimately hope and pray for my children is that they will know and love the Lord, that they will be able to discern His call on their life, and that they will be obedient to that call. And the last of these, obedience to that call, is going to take some practice. And it is my job to train them up in that obedience to God. To help them practice obedience now in the minor things of washing hands, sitting at the table and saying please and thank you so that, when the time comes, they are able to obey God in the plans He has for their lives for His kingdom.

And the account of Jonah seems to give us a reasonably clear model that can be applied to most situations of childhood disobedience (I don’t want to say all because I find that there is never a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting!)

Step 1 – Make your expectations clear

This is pretty obvious when I’m sat at a computer typing. God clearly said to Jonah “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) But when I’m rushing to get out the door and everything feels a little chaotic, it’s easily forgotten. In my experience, you simply cannot say to a 3 year old “Can you please get ready to go out”, and expect to find them at the door 10 minutes later fully dressed, shoes on and bag packed with any toys they want to take (not that it stops me foolishly trying). At this age each step needs explaining, and usually not all at once. Clear and reasonable expectations for your child that you have clearly communicated are key. It’s simply not fair to discipline for disobedience when they never had a fighting chance to be obedient in the first place.

And also notice, God gave Jonah a ‘why’: He told Jonah why he had to go and call out against Nineveh – ‘”for their evil has come up before me.” (1:2) Perhaps I need to be more intentional about explaining that I’d like Boaz to get his shoes on quickly because we need to leave so we can get to the doctors on time and we’re running a little (or a lot!) late.

Step 2 – Consequences clearly following on from the disobedience

Jonah disobeyed and boarded a boat to Tarshish, so God sent a storm which threatened to break up the ship that Jonah was running away on. If our children disobey, there needs to be a consequence that they know is related to their disobedience. If they won’t get dressed because they won’t stop playing with a toy, perhaps that toy gets taken away. If they won’t help with their particular jobs around the house, perhaps you don’t help with something they need, like a lift to get somewhere.  Sometimes the disobedience will bring with it its own obvious consequence, which is sometimes fine. However, I’m not about to let my 3 year old experience the logical consequence of running into the road! I’ll grab him before he gets into the road and set a consequence that he has to hold my hand the rest of the journey.

Step 3 – Give them the opportunity to repent and obey

God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah, and whilst he was inside the fish, Jonah chose to repent. God didn’t either leave him to drown in the sea, or frog march him to Nineveh. He left Jonah to come to the conclusion that obedience to God was the best option. In our house we use the ‘step’ for this. Boaz is told to sit on the step until he is ready to apologise for his disobedience and to then obey. And then God gives Jonah the instruction again – and I suspect after the ordeal of getting this far your child may well have forgotten what it was he or she was supposed to have been doing, so a reminder might be kind (if, indeed, you can remember what it was by this stage!)

This might also provide a good opportunity to discuss with your child why they disobeyed. Firstly, it helps to ensure that they know that we don’t just think of them as our little robots and that we respect them as their own people. And though the reasons might seem insignificant now, there will come a time when we really want for them to be able to open up to us and share what’s on their hearts and I don’t think you can ever lay too much groundwork for that. Secondly, I’m not God. My decisions are not always right and my judgements are not fair and just. So by talking to my child I could well come to the realisation that the expectations I had or requests I made were unreasonable. If this is the case, then we need to be apologising to our children too. We might also need to apologise if we acted in a way that doesn’t meet our expectations of our parenting: did we shout, or use words that were unkind and demeaning? In our house at least, it’s very unusual for only one party to need to seek forgiveness in any situation!

And, if I remember, and if I’m not completely pulling my hair out by this point, I try to explain to Boaz that the primary reason he needs to obey mummy and daddy is not because whatever I’ve asked him to do is so important, but because we are practising for obeying God.

Step 4 – Forgive and show grace

God doesn’t mention it again. He forgives Jonah and sets him on his way to Nineveh. Even when Jonah moans at the mercy shown to Nineveh, God doesn’t bring up the mercy He has shown to Jonah. He doesn’t remind Jonah of his sin and how, by rights, he should be somewhere on an ocean floor. He uses a new example of a plant giving shade to Jonah, and teaches using that. Forgive, forgive and forgive again. Yes, I want my children to obey God. But I want them to know a God who is forgiving. I want them to know that when they disobey God, which they will, He will forgive them. That though their actions and disobedience have consequences, Jesus bore the ultimate consequence. Forgive. Don’t bring it back up. When they do the same thing tomorrow, don’t remind them how they did it today.


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