As I have mentioned before when complaining about the state of the American educational system, my wife and I--for the time being at least--are homeschooling.
Our kids have started back to school, my six-year old doing second grade and my just-turned-five year old beginning kindergarten. Since this is the first time my youngest has done a full day of school, he needs a lot more attention than my older one. Ryan (the youngest) obviously has not yet developed the ability to work at his seat alone, and all of his work is new, while Alex's early work is review.
To avoid being a distraction, my wife decided to allow Alex to do his reading chapters in his room. We did this for a week and then were worried about whether he was actually reading, or was just playing in there. Now that he can read silently there is no way to really know.
My initial reaction was just to call Alex into the kitchen and say, "Listen, make sure you aren't playing in there. I want you really reading, not messing around."
Thankfully, we did not do this. Instead, we decided to quiz him casually about what he read...and quickly realized that he had the entire story not only read but memorized, and had thought through the morals of the story, to boot.
He wasn't playing in his room because it has not yet occurred to him that he can skip his reading. If we do not mention it, he might not ever come to this realization.
As parents, we frequently forget Paul's teaching in Romans 7:
"Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead" (Rom 7:7-8, ESV).
This is why Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge led to the Fall. Think about how children can run around the house naked, completely innocent, with not a bit of sinful thought. Yet as soon as they learn about sex--or even that nudity is wrong--immediately within their flesh is a desire to sin and rebel. The innocence is lost, and the activity which was fine before now becomes sin.
As parents, we often create the very behaviors that we fear when we institute the laws into our kids' lives. If you are going to church and say, "I can't wait to hear about your Bible story today! As soon as we get out I'm excited to find out what you kids learned!", then you are very likely to find your children behaving and listening for the Bible story. If, on the other hand, you say, "You kids had better not act up today. No hitting. No running. No yelling. No picking on other kids", then you are much more likely to have your kid act up.
We are all lawyers. We wish nothing more than to implement the law to those around us (even while we fail to uphold the laws given by others to ourselves). So it is very natural for us as parents to define our relationships with our kids by a list of rules--what NOT to do. I have read some surveys reporting that a typical preschooler hears the word "No" over 400 times per day. This is our natural "default" mode of parenting: establish a series of laws and punish consistently if they step outside of those laws. Indeed, many parenting books will tell you to do precisely this: they assume you are setting down the law and thus spend a great deal of time discussing how to consistently and effectively punish those violations.
Thank God that He treats us, His children, differently!
As parents, it is critical that we approach our kids with a grace-centered, Christ-first worldview. This means to expect that they will make mistakes, no matter what kind of punishment methodology or explanations you give. Grace-based parenting does not focus on punishment, but discipline; not on perfection, but growth; not on the law, but grace. It means recognizing that instituting strict laws around your kids will actually result in causing more sin, not less. (They may be clever enough to hide the sin from you, but rest assured that they still sin!)
Try to avoid your relationship with your kids being built upon a series of laws. Rather, invest in strong relationships with them. Tell them that you love them so often that they roll their eyes about it. Make sure they know--and hear you say many times--that no sin they do can ruin your love of them; you have (as the Jesus Storybook Bible says) a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always-and-Forever Love. When you talk to your kids going into an event, talk about what you wish them to do, rather than what you wish for them not to do.
There was a time, at our old church, where our son Alex was seen as a "tough" kid. (I happen to disagree, but that is neither here nor there.) He is no longer that kid; if anything, we worry about him being too kind and too sensitive to other kids. Part of that was his maturity. Part of that is the wonderful workers at Grace Church. But a big part of it is our shift toward grace-based parenting rather than law-based parenting--building our children up rather than trying to force them to fit into a very specific box.
I do have some practical advice to give. This article discusses some practical and creative disciplines my wife has come up with. In addition, we eliminated all rules in our house but three, which we have posted on a chalkboard in our kitchen: "Love God, Love Others, Obey Mom & Dad". We emphasize for them that the order is important, as well--loving God comes first, then others, then obedience. When we talk to our kids about behavior, it is always in light of these three rules, and only these three rules; if it doesn't fit in them, then we don't talk about it. And, as mentioned before, talk about what you hope they WILL do, rather than what you hope they do NOT do. Finally, spend quantity time, not just quality time, with your kids.
But also remember that even these suggestions are not "law". There is no set of perfect suggestions for parenting, of that I am convinced. What is important are not the exact parenting actions, but rather the spirit behind them. The primary point is to understand that the more you increase the Law in your child's life, the more they will sin. Sin increases in direct proportion to the amount of Law given.
God is our Father, and gives us a great model in the New Covenant. Teach your children what is healthy. Love them unconditionally and make sure they know it, time and again. Forgive them radically. (Note: forgiving does not mean "ignoring"! You have conversations about their sins, and they may have to experience consequences for the sin, but there is no anger or condemnation!) And just as God does with us, focus on helping train them and mentor them so that they can allow God to make them more holy.
You do your children a great wrong when you forget that it is God, and not your rules, which makes your children holy. The natural impulse for most Christian parents with a misbehaving child is going to be increasing the law: avoid this temptation! For it is not law, but grace, which leads to freedom from sin. The more law to which you expose your children, the more sin you tempt them to partake in.