I must have been six or seven, not yet old enough to be fully aware of the vague sense of financial worry caused by growing up on a farm in the 1980s. But plenty old enough to know better.
I stole a couple pieces of candy from the open Brach’s bin at the IGA.
I knew what I was doing was wrong.
I also knew I wanted that candy, and that in my family, you didn’t ask for stuff like that. It wasn’t like there was a prohibition; I just always knew some things you didn’t ask for.
I don’t think most people understand this, so let me try to explain. Once, coming home from a trip, we were half an hour from home at suppertime. My parents had a long discussion about whether to go out to dinner or to go on home, pull a hunk of meat out of the deep freeze, thaw it out, and make something, even if it meant supper was an hour and a half late. I remember holding my breath, because we never, ever, ever went out to dinner.
Most people can’t comprehend the marvel, the excitement I felt when they decided to go out. But you see, we never went out to eat. We couldn’t afford it, so we didn’t do it. And by “never,” I don’t mean “once or twice a month.” I mean never. When we took twelve-hour road trips to see family, we packed breakfast and lunch and ate at rest stops. On a field trip in junior high, I got made fun of for ordering a happy meal–but I picked that because I knew what was in it, which wasn’t the case with anything else on the board. When I went to dinner with my boyfriend’s parents in college, I was so overwhelmed by the menu, I ended up picking the cheapest thing, even though I knew I didn’t like it, because I didn’t know how to process all those options, and I didn’t want to spend too much of someone else’s money. I just had no experience eating out.
Whether I was aware of it or not, all that background was exerting an influence on me the afternoon when I pocketed the candy from the bin on the end cap at IGA. I knew it was wrong, but I also knew how much I wanted it, and without being able to articulate it, I knew I wasn’t going to get it any other way.
Mom was still loading grocery bags into the trunk when my big sister found me out and told on me.
Mom marched me right back into the store and made me give the candy back to the cashier. I can’t remember if I had to apologize or not. I’m sure I did. And then she told me we’d wait until Daddy came home, and Daddy would decide on my punishment.
It was a horrible, horrible afternoon. I don’t think I left my room. There was fear of punishment, and there was the equal pain of my conscience. And when the big, dust-caked pickup rolled into the driveway, I remember the awful feeling in my stomach. I knew I was in for it. I mean, this was far and away the worst thing I’d ever done.
It seemed to take forever. No doubt they had a parental conference in the kitchen, while I tried to read, or write, or draw, there in my room at the northwest corner of the house.
And then came the heavy footsteps, creaking on hard wood floors. Dad came into the room and sat down on the bed next to me.
I don’t remember much about that conversation. There must have been some lesson about the Ten Commandments, but the only thing that’s clear in my memory is the moment where Dad paused and folded his arms and leaned back, and I thought, This is it. And then he said:
“Well, I think you’ve been punished enough, so we’re going to let this go now.”
I was stunned. In the moment, my relief was all about escaping punishment. But in retrospect, I realize that his choice to extend mercy was the single most effective discipline he could have imposed. Because I knew I deserved punishment, and escaping it made me so very aware of the need to be better. My dad’s mercy didn’t so much wake my conscience as set it on fire.
It’s never shut up since. It directs everything I do and say. (Well, almost everything. The occasional thoughtless comment gets out, and causes bounteous conscience exercise afterward.)
I don’t know how my dad knew I was already punishing myself. And I don’t know how to recognize it in my own children. In the moments when my kids tussle or act out, I often wrestle with discipline. They need to understand that what they’ve done is not acceptable. It’s our responsibility to form our children’s consciences, and you can’t do that without the concrete imposition of limits. But the point of discipline is to create discipleship—a desire to follow out of love, not out of fear of punishment.
And that gives me a question to ponder today, which I share also with you: In my parenting, am I looking for the moments when what is most needed is mercy rather than consequences?