Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is Grounding Children from Church Activities Good Discipline?

The neighborhood where I grew up was a new development full of entry-level middle class houses. That meant lots of young families and lots of children. There was never any shortage of kids to hang out with.

One member of my younger brother’s group of close friends dropped from the group in his teen years. After being widowed, this boy’s father married a woman who brought her own kids to the relationship. The dad and stepmother were decent, caring people that struggled with the challenges of blending two families into one.

All children need discipline. A common method used by parents is restriction of privileges. As the father of five children, I have found that this works better for some personality types than for others. To make it work at all, the restriction has to apply to something meaningful to the child.

My brother’s friend enjoyed attending scouting and church youth activities with his friends. His parents — trying to do their best under difficult circumstances — decided that grounding him and keeping him home from such activities was an effective disciplinary method. As a teenager, this seemed like a very wrong-headed approach to me. Shouldn’t parents be promoting the kinds of positive relationships the boy had at church and scouts?

It didn’t surprise me when this boy started hanging out with some pretty rough kids he knew from school. Before long he was involved in drugs and crime. He spent his young adult years satisfying his addictions, fathering children with various women, and getting in scrapes with the law. I hear that he eventually achieved some level of stability, but his once bright mind has been permanently limited by drug abuse.

I’m not saying that punishing kids by keeping them from church activities is going to turn them into druggies. I do, however, think that this method of discipline for this boy was part of a pattern that exacerbated certain life problems.

I was once teaching a merit badge to our Boy Scout troop as part of their weekly troop meeting. In the middle of the class, one boy’s father (who was a church leader) appeared and told the boy to come home with him. A few days later, this man explained that he had pulled his son from the class as punishment for the boy sassing his mother. He said that his son would be contacting me to set up a time to make up the missed merit badge requirements.

While I respect this man’s right to discipline his son, I admit that I was chagrined. The boy did set up an appointment. The dad saw this as a responsible approach. But the dad had disrespected my time. I am busy too. I had to take extra time away from my family to do for this boy what could have been done in a group setting with time I had already invested. I earnestly feel that this father could have found a different but effective disciplinary method.

This brings me to the question of the appropriateness of disciplining children by keeping them from weekly church and scouting activities. Attendance at these activities follows church leader counsel and brings blessings that cannot be had otherwise.

Where else are these kinds of positive relationships fostered? Where else do youth get this kind of positive mentoring from dedicated adult volunteers? What kind of message do parents send to their children when they purposefully prevent them from attending these weekly activities?

I would not say that there are never appropriate circumstances to keep children from attending church or scouting activities. After all, it is LDS doctrine that the church exists to support families in their pursuit of eternal life. And sometimes well meaning church leaders imprudently overschedule families. (That topic is worthy of its own post.) But I do question the value of grounding children from weekly church youth meetings as a method of discipline.

When I was a missionary, a recent convert to our church asked what members should do if they ever fell into sin. He asked, “Should they just stop attending?” We explained that Christ is the Good Physician — the Healer of souls — and that church is more of a treatment center for recovering sinners than a sanctuary for the perfected. I wonder if keeping children from church when they misbehave might not send the message that they should stay away from church if they sin.

Each parent is tasked with appropriately disciplining their children. I do not question the motives of parents that ground their children from attending church activities. I do, however, think that parents that use or consider using this method may want to consider the long-term effects of such a path.

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