Children have exquisite sensitivity to justice, so if the punishment is far harsher than the crime deserved, or even more serious, truly unfair (it really wasn’t your fault), shame is mixed with distrust and resentment.
When we cannot trust the ones entrusted with our care, a huge cave of emptiness opens inside, and it can take years to refill. For some individuals, that never happens. They are left with lifelong loneliness.
It isn’t that children should be spoiled or coddled! Their moral and spiritual growth depend on fair, firm, educative (not punitive) discipline.
Ephesians 6:4 says: “Fathers do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” The strategies of The Virtues Project help us to understand what that looks like.
Speak the language of the Virtues
When children are firmly, yet respectfully called to a virtue, it’s like being given a clear job description. This is “instruction of the Lord” – to be kind, peaceful, obedient. It is far more likely to get positive results than constant shouting, growling or name-calling: “You’re useless!” “Stop bullying or I’ll bully you!” “You never do anything right!”
Instead, use the power of your words to encourage them: “You need to be helpful,” “Be obedient now,” “Please use your peacefulness”, or “Persevere. Try again. I know you can do a good job.” In a conversation with a respected resort executive, he agreed that using a virtues approach of “ACT with Tact” – Appreciate Correct and Thank - as “a positivity sandwich” makes employee correction far more digestible.
He tells his staff, “Acknowledge something positive, whether with a guest or staff.”
We need to hear affirming words at every age. Persian poet, Saadi said, “Use a sweet tongue, courtesy, and gentleness and thou mayest guide an elephant by a hair.”
Recognise teachable moments
Everything that happens is a potential life lesson. Every challenge can strengthen our spiritual muscles. Philosopher Nietzche said, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Don’t be a jewel thief and steal a child’s opportunity to learn – to be kinder, gentler, more persevering, or patient.
When our five-year-old granddaughter waits for us to pick her up on a Saturday, she usually gets ready hours before we come. Even though we are always on time, she says, “I had to be so patient. I was patient all day!”
Recently, several children were playing at our house, and I brought out some snacks: crackers, sun chips, oranges, apples etc. One child stacked his plate as if he was at a big feed rather than having a light snack.
“Have you ever heard of moderation?” I asked him. He shook his head. I asked our granddaughter to explain moderation. “Modawashun - just a little bit.”
Set clear boundaries based on restorative justice
Every family and organisation needs to set ground rules about how we want to treat each other and our home, our school or workplace. Rather than relying on physical punishment or shaming, a boundary states:
1. What virtue is needed: “Be helpful by putting your toys away every day.”
2. What consequence will occur if the boundary is broken: “Only if you help to put them away will you get to play with them the next day.”
3. How to make amends when we have wronged someone: “Apologise and do them a special kindness.” Screaming louder and louder just makes children deafer and deafer.
Christian monk Tolbert McCarroll says, “Virtue is the muscle tone in the daily and hourly training of a spiritual warrior.” We are all spiritual warriors in training, each of us a work in progress. Virtues strategies make all the difference in how we see ourselves and our sense of who we are in the world.
“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,”