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I stood in the hall at church facing Steven (not his real name). He had the sullen, slightly rebellious look I have encountered before when such moments happen. I tried to remember the steps I was supposed to take. First, “identify the problem.”

“Does it seem that you come out here rather often?” (The music leader had sternly escorted him out twice in the last month alone.)

No response. A foot twitched impatiently.

“Does it seem that you gather more attention from the adults than others?”

He almost ventured to look at me.

“What do you think you are doing that causes that?”

He retreated into a look of defensiveness again. This step did not go anywhere. Perhaps it was my questions. Oh well, I couldn’t remember the rest of the steps anyway.

I decided to resort to what works for me. Summed up it is: 1. Let them know you care; 2. Empathize with them; and 3. Ask them to rise to a higher standard.
I started over.

“I understand that you often have ideas come into your head that you want to share. Some of them are clever.”

He actually made eye contact for a brief second. I talked a bit more about his need to tell his friends all of the things he thinks of. With a smile I reminded him that this is what is getting him into trouble. Then I made an offer,

“How about if I give you two things you can say?” I held up two fingers to illustrate. He actually looked surprised. There had been no reprimand, no threats, no narrowed eyes or bared fangs.

“During your time in there,” I pointed to the room full of children, “You can say two things to your friend. But be careful; don’t use them up right away. Ask yourself, is this one I want to say, or do I want to wait before I use up one of my two?”

He looked at me one more time, the kind of look that comes sideways like he’s not sure if I mean what I’m saying. Then he nodded that he agreed to this.

Now I need to insert that I’ve never made this particular bargain before with a child. I find that each child needs a different offer based on their age as well as their personality. The purpose of the offers is essentially to ask the child to rise to a higher standard; to begin to self-govern. I understand not every child is going to be able to sit perfectly.

It was time to find out if I’d had any effect. We walked back into the room; Steven sat in the row of chairs where his class was, and I sat down on the back row. His teacher was watching. The music leader was watching. I suspect every adult in the room and several of the children were watching.

Just the Sunday before I had presented at a Leadership Meeting in part about discipline. Unfortunately discipline tends to conjure images of harshness, rebuke, and disapproval. Yet the root of discipline is the same as disciple. They both come from the Latin disco, meaning to learn.

Discipline is a process where people learn to self-govern, it is not a series of punishments for every time they do something wrong. Just as Pavlov’s methods of immediate rewards do not change characters, neither do reactionary consequences. They may deter bad actions momentarily, but they do not change a child’s heart.

The leaders in the room who had been at the meeting the week before now watched to see how my visit with the boy had gone. I hadn’t considered that implication until then. My thoughts had honestly been on Steven. I held my breath. . .

I hoped the watching adults remembered my disclaimer the week before that changes don’t usually happen the first attempt. It takes time for the child to know you really do care and that you believe they can do better. Still. . .

The moment came. His friend said something to him.

Time seemed to stop and all eyes turn to see what he would do. I felt like we were at the horse races and Eliza Doolittle had just said the unforgiveable. But Steven didn’t respond. He paid attention to the music leader, pointedly looking straight ahead and ignoring his friend.

Once he glanced back to see if I had noticed.

His friend eventually gave up. I’m not sure if Steven used his two things. I didn’t see if he did. What I saw was a boy attempting to discipline himself because he knew that somebody believed he could.

Next Sunday I’ll catch him and let him know I was pleased with how well he did.