Some time ago, my oldest son did something that got him in big trouble. He received stern discipline, and a few days later, he did it again.
I called him into my office and closed the door. I crouched down to look at him, and I asked him if he knew why he was in trouble. He nodded.
We were both quiet for a while. Honestly, I was praying, trying to figure out what to do.
Finally, I asked him “What do you think would be a fair punishment?” And that’s when he lost it.
My son is very sweet and compassionate kid, often content to go second, or even last if there are other kids who really want to go in front of him. He never brags about what he has or puts other kids down to make himself feel better. And he’s more likely to give you half of his piece of gum than keep the whole thing for himself. But on this day he had crossed a very clear line, and his tears were sorry and nervous at the same time.
He had no answer. I asked, “Do you think it would be fair if you received no punishment at all?” He quickly raised his eyebrows and started nodding up and down vigorously.
“Really?” I said. “That would be fair?” My kids are like most kids in the US, fond of keeping track of what is fair or not fair.
He drooped his head and acquiesced. No, that would not be fair, we decided. He cried for a little while, in anticipation of discipline, and feeling badly for what he’d done. Eventually I said, “OK, since we agree that it would definitely not be fair if you received no punishment at all, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
He was confused.
“Even though you should be punished for what you’ve done, you will receive no punishment. We are going to do what’s not fair and call it good. Do you understand?”
He smiled, wiped a few tears away and I gathered him into my lap, and we just hung on to each other for a while. After a few minutes, I asked him not to tell his brother or sister about what had happened. If they asked, he was just to say it was “between me and dad.” But they never asked.
Amazingly, since that day, he has never made the same mistake that got him in such trouble. But my excitement is not about some neat parenting trick that inspired behavioral change. The more important thing that happened was the almost tangible experience of grace for my son.
So far, this is the only time I’ve done this. It had never occurred to me before. But I hope God provides the opportunity for me to give this experience to my other 2 children at some point. My parenting so often involves so many missteps and seeming failures that I’m eager to share the few successes I cling to as the proof of God’s presence in the midst.