One of the most difficult tasks of parenting any child is discipline. This difficulty is magnified when parenting a child with special needs. How do you strike the proper balance between correction and mercy, especially with a child who may not understand their actions or the need for correction? In church we refer to this as the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, even though as parents, on a day to day basis, we don’t always think about it in those terms. The Law, of course, shows us our sin, while the Gospel shows us Jesus. We deal with this constantly in our homes, from the littlest matters to the biggest issues, even though we may not realize it.
With our children, whether they are typical or have special needs, we tend to err on the side of Gospel. With special needs children, however, the need for Gospel is even more important. Why is this the case? The burden of the Law is a part of the special needs child in a way that typical children just don’t experience. Whether a special needs child has a physical disability that makes doing simple, childlike tasks like running impossible, is medically fragile and unable to participate in everyday activities, or has mental challenges, the result of sin in the world, and thus in their lives, is present every moment of every day. There is no escaping the effects of the Fall when you are burdened with those effects in your daily life. This makes the Gospel especially important, whether it’s extra love and grace from mom and dad, an extra reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, or even unlimited grace when dealing with a true discipline issue. This extra grace is also especially important when dealing with issues such as tantrums or meltdowns that a special needs child may not be able to control. Even when a parent wants to discipline for such outbursts, it’s important for them to remember daily, even when it’s difficult to do so (and sometimes, it really is!), that Jesus’ blood covers those sins, too.
Children who are different, for whatever reason, are also going to feel the weight of the Law from the world even more than we can imagine. Even when the world is wrong in their judgements, it’s still going to be there. “Why can’t you act like your brother or your friend?” “Stop doing that.” “A good spanking will fix that problem.” These are all comments that strangers may make, to the parent or the child directly, or passively within earshot. Even well-intentioned comments, and even comments at church, can be inadvertently cruel, and leave the hearer, parent or child, feeling hopeless and broken. It can be tempting to join the crowd, and discipline immediately and firmly for whatever the perceived wrong is, because it’s easy as a parent to be embarrassed, either by the child’s actions, or the stranger’s intervention. Again, though, this is a time when it’s appropriate to share the Gospel instead, since the weight of the Law has already been handed out, often incorrectly. You can never point your children to Jesus and His saving love too often!
As parents, we are blessed to be able to share the Gospel with our special needs children. We may grow frustrated with them, and the world may condemn them for things that are out of their control, but we can share always God’s love with them. We can daily remind them of their baptism, and the fact that Jesus died for them. We can gently correct them where correction is needed, but always remember what a privilege we have in sharing the Gospel with them every day of their lives!
By Amanda Markel