Parents: The Punishment Must Fit The Crime, Part 2
In our last blog post, we discussed the how to respond to a child who is socially thoughtless and rude. We also looked at the importance of discerning a child’s intent before enacting discipline. But behind social rules, what about moral laws? What about reckless and even rebellious behavior that seriously hurts people? How is a parent to respond to these?
With regard to moral laws, there are unintentional responses and intentional reactions. In both instances the children do something that is innately wrong. They can be reckless and rebellious.
Unintentionally Bad: Morally Reckless
A nine-year-old boy is swinging a baseball bat in his bedroom while his younger brother is running in and out of the bedroom. Danger is written all over this picture. One whack of the bat across the side of the head of the little boy and he could have a concussion if not instantaneous death.
Maiming or killing his little brother is innately bad. This is not a gray area. This is not about social etiquette. This is about life and death. This is a matter of doing what is clearly the right thing to do: do not swing the bat with the brother around. Injuring his brother is clearly wrong, and the older brother has a moral duty to act morally responsible.
However, a nine-year-old boy can be reckless. Though he intends no harm, he can bring serious impairment. A parent must act immediately to prevent an unintentional tragedy. But since this is the first time the nine-year-old has swung the bat in the home, a parent need not yell and scream, but coach him on what is safe and unsafe. This is not a minor infraction, but could be manslaughter.
At the same time, one need not punish the boy since he is not intending harm. A parent can act on 1 Peter 4:8, which says, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” A parent can move on after a one-time coaching. No need to jump down his throat with anger and threats. The punishment must fit the crime. Reckless does not mean he is rebellious.
A sixteen-year-old is driving in a hurry to get to school since he overslept, jumps in the car, backs out of the driveway quickly, and puts the pedal to the metal as he peels off down the street. As the mother watches, she sees a small child crossing the road up the street. In semi-shock, screaming in fear, she observes her son slam on his brakes and skid to a stop as the child keeps moving to the other side.
Though the teen had no intention of running over a child, his reckless driving was legally and morally wrong. He did not do what he did deliberately or with malice. Even so, he crossed a line that needs “punishment that fits the crime.” A parent may take his license for a painful period of time, and have the teen do some project that serves the neighborhood to prevent his reputation from going in the toilet.
Remember, though, as an inexperienced young man, who makes some assumptions about safety that are too simplistic, he gains wisdom on the heels of such naïvety. If you know his heart as good-willed, he will learn from this. As Proverbs 8:5 states, “O, naïve ones, understand prudence; and, O fools, understand wisdom.” This is a teaching moment for him.
Intentionally Bad: Morally Rebellious
A ten-year-old boy had been playing a video game without permission. He had specifically been told by his father not to play with his brother’s new video game. Not wanting to obey his dad, he went ahead and played with the new video device. His dad catches him and tells him he needs to be disciplined for his disobedience. The consequence would be no playing outside this afternoon. Instead, he would spend an hour helping dad clean out the garage. Feeling provoked by this discipline, he retaliates against his dad and throws his brother’s video game up against the wall in a fit of rage and smashes it.
What the boy does is beyond being socially thoughtless and rude, and beyond being morally reckless. Consciously and willfully, he has rebelled against his dad. This is open defiance. What he does is innately bad.
Whatever the father does, the punishment must fit the crime. In this instance, he must not under-discipline his son. To let this son win is comparable to a judge telling a person selling cocaine that their sentence is reduced to a parking ticket. Instead of sending the drug dealer to prison, the judge acts like a meter maid.
Whatever the discipline a father metes out, he must make sure his decision is based on what is best for his son. If the father fears the son, lacking the courage to confront, correct, and enact consequences (which I address in Love and Respect in the Family), he is a mere meter maid. A dad must hear this Scripture that says, “For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7)
Jason, an eighteen-year-old, plays tennis at the country club in a tournament with another senior, Michael. Both have had a rivalry for a couple years academically and athletically. They are not friends, especially since Michael took Jason’s girlfriend. As the tennis match escalates, both make derogatory comments to the other. Things heat up to the point that both make threats to bust the other in the mouth if the other doesn’t shut his mouth. Rushing the ball at the net, they meet face to face as the play ends. Staring each other down, Michael smarts off, and Jason breaks his tennis racket over Michael’s head, leaving a deep cut from which blood pours out. Others rush in to separate the two who are about to brawl. Michael curses Jason, who returns a few choice words. Both are ushered out.
At home, Jason’s parents tell him there is no excuse for this. As bad as Michael is, two wrongs don’t make it right. His loss of self-control, his violent action toward Michael and his damaged reputation demands serious consequences. Michael could press legal charges for assault and battery, which remains to be seen, and everyone watching them knows that Jason was flat out wrong for his explosive and brutal reaction.
Dad may say to Jason,
“Truth is, you thumbed your nose at the club members who do not tolerate playing the game of tennis this way, and you declared that might makes right, not honorable and just living makes right. I will be calling the tennis club and recommending that charges be brought against you. My dad did that toward me when I had marijuana in my possession. Yes, he called the cops, but that was the wake-up call I needed, and you need a serious wake-up call on this one. As they say in the military, this is conduct unbecoming. At the same time, I am actually excited for you. You can see firsthand that might does not make right. If you intend to beat Michael, beating him over the head is not the strategy. There is a foundational biblical principle that parents must not compromise: ‘For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality’ (Colossians 3:25).”
In conclusion, I cannot tell you what punishment should fit the crime in the case of your offspring. There are too many circumstances, and I do not know your frame of reference.
What I can urge is two major thoughts:
First, do not punish beyond the crime, and do not punish below the crime. The punishment must fit the crime.
Second, determine intent. Did my child do this intentionally or unintentionally? If intentionally, never punish as though the child did not intend to do this. If unintentionally, never punish as though a child intended to do this.
We need to learn these two things from the courts.
- Do you tend to over or under react when you children are being morally reckless?
- How do you handle moral rebellion?
- When handling your child’s moral rebellion, do you make decisions that are best for your child, or do you lack the courage to confront and correct them?
- Do you make sure to take intent into consideration in these circumstances as well?