Discipline and Character

“Hey Miss, do you spank your children?” I always lose my voice at this moment, and my brain freezes like an idiot as I analyze who’s asking the question.

One of my students, when I asked about his disciplinary experience growing up, likes to tell me the story of his grandma. He grew up in Florida. One hot, humid summer day Grandma left him and his brother in the car while she ran inside the store. As you might expect, the kids got hot. In the process of getting some air into the car, one of the boys accidentally broke the car window. Grandma spotted this instantly and started beating on the children with a belt, no questions asked. So his version of the story goes. Other students drop stories of the adults picking up the nearest item in anger, never really addressing the problem, and never reassuring their son, step-son, nephew, grandson, whomever, with love afterwards.

In my students’ world spanking is synonymous with hitting is synonymous with aggression. Even the word discipline can strike a negative chord, and these young men profess a laissez faire parenting philosophy. “My children are going to do what they want to do,” they contend, as if a parent has no authority, not to mention an obligation, to govern a child’s depravity. On the other hand, this same person might confess that he greatly fears his child becoming like himself. If you don’t instruct your child, I guess you have no responsibility for how he or she turns out.

I can’t have these conversations anymore.

During the last one I had, the father maintained that his angelic daughter would abstain from drugs, alcohol, and other habits that he himself intends to enjoy. He suddenly changed his tone with me during the conversation (he’s like that), and it didn’t end well.

At these moments I envision my strong-willed red-head telling me, “No. No, I will NOT be going to school ever again.” I see myself dropping everything to chase her down one frosty morning when she decided to run away instead of going to school. (Good thing only cows were around to blink at the sight of a mom in a blue uniform running down a four-year-old; a suburban mother might have felt obliged to call me in otherwise.) There was also that time I had to pry her fingers from the school entryway. Lately we’ve been working on accepting responsibility for her actions instead of calling everyone mean along with a pout and a glare. Do my students truly expect me to permit that kind of behavior? I will not. My child will go to school; I will chase her across every cow field in the county; she will respect her teachers/elders; and she will, someday, be kind in every way. My will will be stronger.

There are times, I admit, when I spank my child to fulfill my parental duty. I do so out of love and in love. In Hebrews 12:5-11 we’re told

…and ye have forgotten the exhortation which reasoneth with you as with sons, My son, regard not lightly the chastening of the Lord, Nor faint when thou art reproved of him; for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth… but if ye are without chastening, whereof all have been made partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.

Did you catch all that? Those whom we love we correct; moreover, if we do not discipline our child we deny their very legitimacy, they are “bastards.” You may disagree with my methods, and that’s OK. I’ve watched enough episodes of Super Nanny to conclude consistency is more important than your style.

This connection between love and discipline is too often lost on my students. They complain bitterly when I remind them to button their shirts, wear their belts, clean up their language, and put a period at the end of their sentence, to name a few of their minor offences. “Why you hatin’ on me, Miss?” they ask. They try to shift the responsibility back to me with, “Don’t trip, Miss. Why you so mad today?” I do get weary, even discouraged, after telling the same student sixty-five times in one semester to button his shirt, but I’m not “hatin’ on” him; I care about influencing his character, even in a tiny way. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t say anything.

One or two students seem to sense the relationship between my concern and my correction, but they fail to see how it applies beyond my classroom. To even suggest that love and discipline relate to each other would ostracize me, so I remain silent on the subject. How do I speak over and through and around and past the memories of abuse or neglect? How am I to convey the difference between a spanking session and a beating without modeling? How do I show that the one demonstrates love and the other anger? How can they possibly see how the one builds character and the other destroys the heart?

Over the weekend a friend of mine recounted the story from her sister who once served as an Assistant Principal or Dean of a charter school in Washington DC. A boy was acting out in class and she told him in no uncertain terms to stand facing a corner for thirty minutes. A few minutes later he whimpered that he needed to use the restroom. Educators recognize this ploy, so she marched him down to the bathroom and sharply told him, “You are not going to make a mess in that bathroom.”

“No ma’am.”

“You are going to go to the bathroom, wash your hands, and come back outside. If I even think you’re throwing toilet paper around I’m coming in there.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Back in his corner he blurted, “I wish you were my mommy.”

He knows. He knows that children feel loved when given boundaries and structure. My students, I think, got tired of seeking this kind of love long ago and buried their longing for it. Now they’ll fail to deliver for their own children.

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About hey miss

A teacher. A prison guard. I used to think that was like oil and water. Like lightening and metal. Some days it is. Some days it's magic.
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