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>Sin, Discipline, and a Damaged Brain

June 2, 2011


Sunshine and Shadows

This subject has been on my heart for a while. But I haven’t written about it because I am not a theologian so risk making some major lay-person gaffe. It also raises questions about a cornerstone principle of Christian parenting, which makes it contentious territory.

Take this for what it is: my thinking out loud, trying to figure out if/when as a Christian mom, discipline is an appropriate response to “sinful” behaviors in my child with FASD. I would love to hear how some of you who are raising neurologically impaired kids handle it.

It started with a question.

I was talking with a woman from my church who has been a teacher-mentor to me. I admire her ability to seamlessly weave Scripture into everything and the way her heart for God shines through in everything she does and says. I also admire the way she and her husband have brought up their children.

Although the question came out of her mouth, I think God put it there because he knows it has been languishing on my to-get-to list.

She and I were talking about parenting challenging children, specifically Hope, who is on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum. The conversation turned to parental expectations. I said that one of the most helpful things we had learned was to set our expectations lower for Hope, knowing that brain damage impaired her ability to comply.

She was not challenging me but was genuinely seeking to understand when she asked the question: “So with Hope, what do you do about discipline? How do you know when a behavior is sin?”

Most of you reading don’t attend our church, so I’ll decode her question. In the process, you’ll see why it has been so thought provoking. “Discipline” means applying a negative consequence in an instance where a parent discerns a behavior is rooted in “sin” –which I’ll define narrowly in this case as willful misbehavior. The child understands the moral expectation and actively chooses to do something else.

“To be honest,” I answered off the top of my head, “with Hope, I often don’t know when it is sin. I’m not the Holy Spirit. With her auditory processing quirks I can’t be sure she previously internalized a rule, even if she can  parrot it back to me.”

I did not say the next thing that came to mind because it startled me: Yikes. I rarely discipline Hope. Have I completely fallen off the parenting bandwagon??

My internal monologue continued: We’re talking about invisible difference between typical and a-typical neurology. How can I make this concrete?

My eyes travelled across the room to where Joy was playing by the toy shelf and I extemporized: “It is like my expectations for Joy are different. She is four. In my classroom at church I expected four year olds to put the toys back in the basket and then return the basket to the toy shelf. But Joy has cerebral palsy. If the toys and the basket are within her reach, she can put the toys in the basket. I expect her to help and I ask her to do that much. But it would be unreasonable to expect Joy to put the basket up on a shelf she cannot reach.”

“So,” I continued, “lets say I said, ‘Joy, it is time to put the toys in the basket and put them back on the shelf.’ We have put toys away together so often that I’m sure she knows how to do those steps. But she only puts the toys in the basket. Then she crawls away without putting the basket back on the shelf.”

“Hmm…” my friend said on the phone. I could hear that she was following me.

“Technically, Joy disobeyed me,” I concluded. “But it was foolish of me to ask her to do something she cannot do. I set her up for disobedience with my unreasonable expectations.”

It’s the same way with Hope. I avoid power struggles and the need for what might otherwise be unremitting discipline by keeping my expectations reasonable. “Reasonable” is unique to each child. For Hope it means she that she has previously shown me she has internalized the desired behavior.”Reasonable” also means I consider how she is doing in this moment because her ability to comply varies considerably. I try very hard to not ask her to do more than I am certain she can do.

You might say I go out of my way to avoid needing to discipline her. But that is the truth. Her neurology is not typical. She generally does not learn from discipline. So the main points of traditional discipline –training a child in the way he should go and restoring right relationship –are lost on Hope. The way she learns is from consistent repetition in context and in relationship, not from negative reinforcement.

You can see why it is easy for outsiders to scratch their heads: our kids with neurological differences regularly are on the edge of out-of-control and we parents do not respond with discipline, but rather with what appears to be toleration and permissiveness, in the voice of a preternatural kindergarten teacher patiently explaining the rule again.

But I digress. Theologically, sin is anything that transgresses God’s holiness, or as Wayne Grudem defines it in Systematic Theology, “Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” (p.490)

God does not leave us in the dark about his moral law. It is written on the universe for even non-believers to see. (Romans 1:19-20) God’s holiness is one of the major themes of the Bible, and in some cases, the Bible makes the right response explicit, as in the injunction, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this right.” (Ephesians 6:1)

Hope has memorized that verse and she can even explain what it means. But her ability to comply, or using Grudem’s word, to conform, is less than age-typical. So the same way I do not expect a two year old to comply with more than basic requests without help, I have reduced my expectations for Hope’s independent obedience to a level I know she can comply with. Then I can use that Bible verse to praise her obedience, instead of disciplining her for falling short.

It doesn’t mean there are no consequences for her behavior, or no restitution. That’s something I’m still figuring out and am sure it will show up someday in another post.

So what does this mean? In not disciplining her as frequently as her behavior might indicate, am I tolerating sin? Conversely, if I set her up for obedience am I helping  her not to sin in that moment? Those questions are too theologically deep for me to answer.

But I know this: in one very real sense, it doesn’t matter in God’s eyes. Even if Hope never committed one sin of commission or omission in outward behavior or inward attitude, she would still be, as Leslie Fields put it, “in severe need of this glorious and merciful Savior.” Hope’s human, inborn sin nature (Grudem calls it “inherited corruption”), doomed her to eternal separation from holy God at conception –before her mother took her first (unwittingly pregnant) drink. (Psalm 51: 3-5)

Hope needs Jesus for the same reason the rest of us do: we are inherently sinful even on our very best days. 

Kids with FASD are sinners just like kids without FASD. One difference, it seems to me, is that due to their neurological impairments, they are not good at faking righteousness. What you see is what you get. If God tallied sins, his daily total would probably mount no higher for Hope than it does for Mercy, who is internally motivated to outwardly comply. But God sees the heart of both girls. He knows when Hope is responsible for her impulsive behavior or lack of compliance, and he knows when Mercy silently grumbles about fairness while outwardly conforming to expectations.

Hope is no more in need of a Savior than Mercy is, even if Mercy’s style of sinning is a lot easier to live with. They equally need Jesus. Jesus can’t be earned by behavior. He can only be had by faith. I feel like that needs to be my main message inside my family, not “I am your loving authority and it is my high calling to discipline you into righteous conformity.”

If there is a silver lining to raising children with permanent brain damage like Hope and Joy, it is that it has the effect of casting me more fully on God and his grace. When one of my neuro-typical kids shines a bright burst of gratifying behavior, I might be tempted to think that it reflects favorably on our parenting. But I have been blessed with two who are typical and two who are not so the truth is obvious: None of it is about me. All of it is about God.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith.
And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
not the result of works so that no one may boast.”
(Ephesians 2:8)

It may be that erring toward not disciplining in favor of teaching, relationship-building, and logical restitution is not the best strategy over the long term. After all, Hope is only six. She has shown that with time and lots of repetition, she is capable of learning. As time goes by, her repertoire of things for which we can reasonably hold her responsible will grow. Then I’m sure my husband and I will be revisiting this territory.

As I said at the beginning, I would love to hear how some of you who are raising neurologically impaired kids handle issues like this, even if you disagree. I am much more interested in learning to raise my children in a way that honors both God and the way he made them than I am in being “right.” Comments are welcome. Or if you have blogged about it or want to, I am happy to link your posts.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jennifer permalink
    August 29, 2011 7:28 pm

    I love your post! We have 4 young boys with FASD ages 10, 9, 8, and 5
    I know EXACTLY what you are talking about, and the frustration of trying to explain to people why our reactions to behaviour are so different. I have tried traditional discipline, it DOES NOT work, it only made my sons more angry. It can work if you are using it to stop a situation, but not to teach them a lesson. Sending a child to his room when out of control can be very effective to calm him down, but he will not be able to think next time, I better not do that, I’ll get sent to my room!

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