Let’s revisit the anecdoete about the defiant little boy:
There’s an old story about a father disciplining his son. “Sit down,” the man says, and the boy refuses. “I said sit down,” the father demands, but the boy continues to stand. The father grabs the boy’s shoulders and forcibly puts him into the chair, whereupon the lad says, “I’m sitting down on the outside but I’m standing up on the inside.”
The question is: now what? The boy is sitting down; is that enough?
Let’s sharpen the point a bit:
“Sit down,” the man says, and the boy refuses. “I said sit down,” the father demands, but the boy continues to stand.
The father takes the boy aside, confronts him with his sin, gets him to admit that he was sinning, administers a spanking, takes the boy on his knee, asks him if he is sorry for what he did, receives the boy’s assurance that he is sorry, prays with the boy, then returns with the boy, who sits in the chair.
Whereupon the lad says, though not necessarily in words, “I’m sitting down on the outside but I’m standing up on the inside.”
I’ve been through variations on this story many, many times. It can be infuriating. After all, God put me in charge; He gave me both the responsibility and the authority for dealing with such situations. Unfortunately, He didn’t provide me with the means to change someone else’s heart. And so if that heart is set on defying my authority, even if only in private, then that particular sin—defiance—is by definition out of my reach, maddeningly so.
When confronted with defiance, I used to make a fairly common mistake—I refused to pronounce the situation resolved until the offender exhibited a sufficiently repentant and submissive attitude. And there was no clear, externally established standard for what was sufficient, just my own private judgment. This led to tense, lengthy standoffs which were usually resolved when the offender was willing to say words and assume a demeanor that could be interpreted as repentant and submissive. Of course, there was no necessary connection between the words or demeanor and the attitude of the heart; the same outward behavior could follow from both a truly changed attitude and a simple desire to say or do whatever it took to end the standoff. And, of course, my own private judgment on whether there was sufficient repentance and submission was greatly affected by my own desire to get the unpleasant situation over and done with.
I changed my mind on this when I saw what was coming. Early on it was possible to bend our children’s will to ours, to confront them with their bad attitude and push them to repent of it, but only because of their own youthful lack of guile. We used to laugh at how surprised our kids were when they were discovered doing something wrong; we always found them out, because they had no idea that stealth was an option. But we realized that it was all too easy to put a stumbling block in their way by making the consequences of being discovered so bad that they would be highly motivated to develop the skills that would help them to escape detection.
In the same way, repeatedly forcing an unpleasant confrontation over a bad attitude where the only way out is repentance and submission can provide major motivation for the offender to learn to simulate repentance and submission. Generally what keeps someone from doing this automatically is their pride, their unwillingness to acknowledge that they are under legitimate authority. But humility is not the only way out; developing a robust contempt for authority—in effect denying its legitimacy—will also work, since it is easier for us to mask and misrepresent our true attitude if we have no respect for the one who is demanding a testimony. The guidance and protection that a loving authority can provide is precious, and I can’t risk cutting off my children from the blessings of authority by hardening their hearts against it unnecessarily.
These days we generally don’t require repentance for having a sinful attitude. We will admonish a child who exhibits one, and we will counsel them at length about the dangers of cultivating a sinful attitude. And when sinful action was clearly motivated by a sinful attitude, the child will get an earful about their attitude while they are being disciplined.
But discipline in our house is focused on wrong action, not wrong attitude. I realize that a bad attitude is a sin and should be confronted, but I don’t have the wisdom necessary to do so without putting a stumbling block in the child’s way, to do so without provoking him to wrath, to do so without tempting him to even greater sin.
If you have wisdom of your own to offer on this matter, I’d be grateful if you shared it with me. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.