In my mother's home there hangs a mysterious pen and ink drawing. Two overlapping faces. A weeping toddler rubs his tear-stained cheek on one side. On the other, a dark wolf snarls out at us. They share an eye. They are the same face.
As parents, it is important to remember that sometimes bad behaviour comes from physical or emotional pain rather than from bad character. And it is important for us to learn which is which.
I knew a toddler who had chronic urinary tract infections. She had no vocabulary to describe the agony she felt. She just screamed and cried for the slightest discomfort - a wrinkled sock or a tight waistband. It took some time for her parents and her doctor to discover her illness, and meanwhile, no amount of reproof could stop the screaming. When the illness was treated, the child became a cheerful, reasonable, delightful person.
While pain should not be allowed to become an excuse for inexcuseable behavior, godly discipline must take circumstances into account. Comfort must be as present to sense as firm, familiar boundaries. If a child knows that Mommy always puts him down for a nap when he is irritable, perhaps the nap is exactly what he is asking for when he throws a tantrum. The embrace of a familiar routine and expected cause-effect relationships are part of the comfort we can offer to those who are hurting.
However, we must take care to keep in mind the whole object of discipline. Discipline should restore the soul, not woodenly apply the law. We need to lean on the Lord to show us when to address the wrong first and when to address the wound first. Setting up a test of wills which the hurting child will fail again and again in her wounded state, is abusive.
And is this really so different from our dealings in our adult relationships? Consider this bit of wisdom from John Piper:
"Let us learn to discern whether the words spoken against us or against God or against the truth are merely for the wind--spoken not from the soul, but from the sore. If they are for the wind, let us wait in silence and not reprove. Restoring the soul, not reproving the sore, is the aim of our love..." A Godward Life