One of the most frequent challenges I deal with as a Mission Director is discipline. What do we do with children that are acting badly?
It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, under no circumstance do you ever hit a child. I have had volunteers tell me, "What that kid needs is to be taken out in the back yard and given a good whippin'." They weren't kidding, it was sincere advice! It may have been sincere, but it's also dead wrong.
One of the challenges I have with the kids I work with is comparing God to a heavenly father. Believe me, God is nothing like these kid's fathers. We have had to call DFACS on fathers because they had beaten their child so severely. That type of punishment doesn't work and builds real resentment in the long run.
The Chinese have a saying, "The wise man knows his limitations." Perhaps you're saying to yourself, "I would never strike a child." These are not easy kids to work with. What if you told a child not to throw a crayon at another kid and they did it anyway - totally disrespecting you. Or even worse, throw it at you! What if they shot you "the bird" and told you to "f*** off?" How would you react?
I know what sets me off, it's when a big kid beats up a little kid. No matter how objective we try to be we will always have our favorites. I feel like they are my own kids. When I see them getting hurt it makes me see red. I realize the reaction I'm having, I break up the fight and then put myself in time out!
When I have guests come visit the mission sometimes they're taken aback by how rowdy it can be. Twenty kids in a two bedroom apartment can get pretty intense, especially if I only have one helper. They'll make comments like, "You need more discipline with these children."
Let's examine the situation. The children have just spent eight hours in class with little or no exercise. They jump off the bus and head straight for the mission. Do YOU think you'd want to, Sit still, be quiet and do your work?" I doubt it. So here's the rules I play by:
1. No fighting in the mission.
Play fighting, wrestling, horse play, whatever you want to call it, whether they're having fun or not is not tolerated AT ALL. And here's the hard part - I send both kids home. This teaches the whole group not to fight and not to constantly come running to you every little grievance.
Over time I've come to realize that the worst punishment I can give is to send them home for the day. If their "crime" is really bad (someone is really hurt) I tell them they can't come in the mission for several days or a week. In a few cases I've had to ban them indefinitely, until I really see a change in attitude.
Make sure you apply the "cookie rule" to the injured. Unless the child is really hurt, which is doubtful, offer a cookie and most little hurts will be forgotten or ignored.
Usually a short suspension does the trick. If they are caught stealing or breaking mission property I also go talk with the parents. Most of my volunteers can't do that because they don't speak the parent's language.
2. No eating or drinking in the mission.
Time is precious. Do you really want to spend yours cleaning up a big mess every day? The kids I work with have the idea that gravity doesn't apply to them. So only fill up the cups half way, and make them go outside to eat. Cleaning up messes can lead to real resentment over time, so it's much better to establish and enforce this simple rule than to constantly be telling kids to be careful.
3. Work first, play/eat later.
Working with kids is all about leverage. People are motivated two ways, either with a carrot or a stick. Obviously, we're not going to whack them with a stick, but generally the threat of being sent home or having a talk with their parents is enough to get them to change their behavior. But remember, if they were fighting the time for talking is over. Send them home!
The ironic part about discipline is that the kids who need the mission the most are usually the ones we send home first. So there has to be a balancing act between forbidding them to come in and their naughty behavior.
I have had some success with giving them the choice of standing in a corner or going home if they've done something naughty (like eating in the mission, or cussing).
There is no room for tolerating fighting.
Although we are there to help with homework, the primary reason for our presence is to build relationships with the children which results in more Christ-like behavior. Therefore I do let them into the mission even if they don't have homework.
Some of my partners are against video games. I have found that the Nintendo 64 game system is nearly indestructible and that that Mario games are entertaining and not terribly violent. I buy the games used from places like Game Stop for cheap. I buy four controllers to let the maximum amount of children play. Many times getting to play games with their friends is an excellent "carrot."
Girls love doing crafts and the promise of an art project can have wonderful results on their study skills.
For the children who have done something naughty but have been allowed back into the mission (the next day) I also insist they help with the cleaning jobs: sweeping, gathering and taking out the garbage, etc.
There is no perfect answer for how to deal with the behavior problems of certain children. We have to temper our discipline with love. However, it's my feeling that if one child continually causes problems, then they must be suspended from the program for increasing amounts of time. If you have enough volunteers, perhaps one of them could work with that child individually, but I don't allow them to harm the whole group for weeks on end. It causes too much stress for our volunteers and for the other children. I am also a believer in keeping the parents in the loop on your decision. The sad fact of the matter is that their parents probably have as bad or perhaps even worse behavior.
Pray for guidance. Love the children. But be firm in your decision.