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For nearly twenty-five years, I’ve sat down with parents who seem to struggle with a single issue between the two of them— balancing love and discipline. One parent is all about some love. His delight in his child is plain for all to see. It is not that he believes his child can do no wrong, but wrong seems to be relative and less noticed while the focus seems to be more on potential. It may seem this parent, who could be Mom OR Dad, is afraid of conflict or lazy, but it is more likely that the rearing of this parent is lavishly spilling over into a new context of parenting without being checked at the door, examined and evaluated in terms of the needs of a child born in this century.

This, of course, drives the other parent nuts. She most likely grew up in a home where structure ruled the day and there was a place for everything and everything in its place. She knows that her child’s behavior is not always black and white, good and bad, but she firmly believes that for every action, there is a reward or consequences. For an unwanted behavior to continue without negative consequences is a nightmare! A child should learn upon entry into the world of breathing on his own that there are firm boundaries. These boundaries may exist at first around feeding schedules and sleep, but layer upon layer is added as the child gets older and he or she is expected to tow the line. 

So, who is right and who is wrong? Well, the truth is both styles, in their extreme, increase the chances that the child will keep a psychotherapist in business someday! When both styles are fruitful and multiply, then little does the little guy (or girl) know that the light they see at the end of the birth canal is really an oncoming train. It may often take new parents years for these differences to rise to the surface, but when they do, the problem is not contained in the process of parenting, but spills over into marital conflict. At best, inconsistent parenting weaves through the years. At worst, tensions saturate the entire marriage and bitterness is born and grows with each parental disagreement. What’s worse is the great divide, is that the child does not get what she needs, and she is caught up in a competition of parental styles. So, what is the right answer? Who is right? Who is wrong?

Maybe the wrong question is being asked. Rather that permissiveness or strictness on center stage, consider the possibility that the star of the show is really the child’s heart. “Love” and discipline are attempts to manage behavior. Parenting in such a way as to gain the attention of his or her heart moves past training for behavior and gets to shaping a child’s operating system, values and motivations. Behavior training certainly has a place, but evaporates as a child gets older unless heart-training is engaged with fully present parents who pursue a relationship of depth and age-appropriateness with each stage of a child’s development.

It is a child’s heart that makes effective decisions when parents are not on the radar. The heart of a child has motivations about authority generally, about justice, mercy and compassion for other human beings. A child with lots of love and no discipline may be sweet at times, but potentially entitled and spoiled. A child dunked in discipline knows how to put up a good front, but may rebel without the relationship that is aimed at shepherding the heart. When a parent is self-aware, purposes to pursue the heart of his or her child, knows the child intimately, then love and discipline begin to balance themselves.