Christian Living

In Praise of Unpleasant Discipline

My maternal grandfather is currently on his deathbed, and by the time you’re reading this it’s almost certain he’ll have passed away. Naturally, this state of affairs has led me to reflect on what I’ve appreciated about the relationship I’ve had with him.

He’s a man for whom I’m deeply thankful, for he, along with his wife (my late grandmother), provided a much-needed dose of solace and stability amidst my otherwise not-so-stable childhood. ‘Going off to Granny and Grandpa’s’ was what happened when I was sick, or on holidays with no one to look after me, or what I got to do at Christmas. It was always a tremendous joy.

Though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, being at Granny and Grandpa’s meant there was an emotional weight lifted off my shoulders. Home life was difficult: mum and dad had divorced when I was quite young, and, perhaps because I’m the eldest, mum’s series of relationships with less-than-ideal men left me on edge when they were ‘on’, and had me picking up what pieces I could when they invariably came to a traumatic ‘off’ (one was married to someone else, one tried to commit suicide, one attacked me physically – it wasn’t pretty). But all of that faded into the background when I was at Granny and Grandpa’s.

What made for such a contrast? My grandparents were happily married. He worked in middle-management and she was a homemaker, and they both loved their grandchildren. But a vital ingredient in maintaining the solace their hosting afforded me was their commitment to unpleasant discipline. The strictness with which they disciplined me was a blessing in disguise: as the boundaries were tighter, so my perceived areas of responsibility were proportionately reduced. As those clear boundaries were enforced with unpleasant discipline, I was able to be a kid again.

It’s obvious to me now that the periods of emotional stability my grandparents gave me in my developmental years have reaped dividends in my adult life. This is why it concerns me greatly that, ostensibly at least, there has been a trend towards removing the unpleasantness from the discipline that loving parents ought to give to their children. I’ve taught Scripture classes where a child of Christian parents has been the worst behaved by far. I’ve had to protect my children from the violence of a child whose Christian parents seemed to think that repeating his full name would somehow curb his bad behaviour.

But taking our cue from the Scriptures, ‘unpleasant discipline’ ought to be seen as a tautology. The writer to the Hebrews says: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.” Such is the discipline that “produces a harvest of righteousness and peace…” (12:11).

It’s not surprising that in the Proverbs of Solomon, the writer sees fit to urge parents to undertake what is implicitly an unpleasant task: “Discipline your children, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to their death.” (19:18).

The right fear I felt at the prospect of being on the receiving end of my grandfather’s strict discipline was proportionate to the bliss of being able to relax and enjoy my time there. The few times I did receive his discipline were entirely justified. Emotionally, I had given my grandfather the ‘right’ to punishment – for the one who disciplined me was also the one who taught me how to build things in the work-shed; who hugged me tight in the midst of delirium brought on by fever; who read me books at night and allowed me to playfully roll him out of bed in the morning; and who, importantly, never abused me – never inflicted injury to satiate his anger, but who disciplined me with unpleasant discipline on account of his great love for me.

On the eve of my grandfather’s death, I’m thankful to God that he was not a willing party to mine; that one of my most pleasant memories is that he loved me enough to give me unpleasant discipline. I hope and pray my children will one day be able to think similar things of me.