How to Discipline Children with Love: Tips for Christian Parents
How to discipline children
I’ve been going back and forth for a long time about writing this post (or any post) about how to discipline children. As the mom of 2 little boys, discipline is a huge part of my life. I know that it’s something most parents need help with, because it’s so easy to feel like you have no idea what you’re doing when it comes to discipline.
Well, I’m tackling child discipline today. Not as an expert, because…well…because I mess up just as often as I get it right. But, I have learned some things through a lot of trial and error, and today I’ll be sharing some basic principles and philosophy behind loving child discipline that work in a Christian family.
As always, my intent is not to give you an exact script for how to discipline your young children. I’m here to give you food for thought and a good jumping off point for setting up a system that works for you, your kids, and your family as a whole. And, of course, we’ll be looking at discipline with biblical principles of Christian parenting in mind.
Discipline vs. Punishment.
Often the terms ‘discipline’ and ‘punishment’ are used interchangeably, but their meanings are really quite different. As parents, this is really important for us to think about, and even more so for Christian parents! Check out this video (with my husband, Pastor for Children and Family Discipleship at Pioneer Memorial Church) for a brief rundown:
What is punishment?
Our word punish comes from the Latin root “punire” and, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, means to “punish, correct, chastise; take vengeance for; inflict a penalty on, cause pain for some offense.”
Punishment is penalty for an offense.
Punishment involves some level of pain or suffering (physical, emotional, mental).
Punishment looks back at a past wrong.
What is discipline?
Here’s the deal–the root word for discipline is discipulus, a Latin word meaning “pupil,” which is also the root of the word “disciple.” (Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about it.)
Um, yeah. It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that I realized that discipline and disciple were so closely related, and I have no idea why not, as I always considered myself pretty on top of words and meanings…but what can I say? When I read it, it seemed perfectly obvious, and now I can’t separate the two terms in my thinking.
Discipline involves teaching and learning.
Discipline is training for future behavior.
Discipline is as important for us as parents as it is for our children.
If we’re raising disciples, by definition they need discipline!
If we’re raising disciples, by definition they need discipline!
Can you discipline your children without punishment?
This is a tricky one. Some would say yes, but I say no, because in my personal (and very humble) opinion, sometimes a measure of punishment is necessary for young children because of the very immediate and concrete way things need to be presented to them for understanding.
That being said, no matter how careful we are to guide our children and not be purely punitive in our approach to parenting, many times our kids’ actions will have natural consequences that will result in pain or suffering of some kind. Discipline can be painful, too, don’t get me wrong, but punishment is designed to be painful, whereas the pain of discipline is more of a natural cause and effect thing.
Parenting for discipleship, which is our main goal as Christian parents, means we teach and guide our children to grow closer to and more like Jesus every day. We can’t do that by constantly punishing our kids, looking back at their failures, reminding them of their shortcomings, and focusing on misbehavior or mistakes.
Discipleship parenting means we exercise discipline in our own lives while attempting to teach our children to do the same. We do that by staying calm, firmly addressing misbehavior, teaching our children a better way to handle it next time, and showing grace and mercy to our kids by moving on and letting past failures go.
No article on parenting would be complete without some discussion of parenting styles. Experts have identified 4 basic parenting styles: Authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved. (Read more about this at PsychologyinAction.org.)
These parenting styles are based on two main dimensions of parenting: nurture (or warmth) and expectations (or demands).
If you’re reading this blog, you’re not very likely to be an uninvolved parent, so I’m not going to go into much detail on that type of parenting.
There’s a possibility that you could be a permissive parent–very warm and with few rules and low levels of involvement in guiding your children or helping them solve problems. Again, though, if you’re reading this, you probably aren’t a permissive parent, at least not most of the time.
More than likely, you fall somewhere in the authoritarian or authoritative parenting camp.
The truth is that most of us use practices that fall in different areas of the spectrum from time to time, but we all probably lean more heavily into one area most often.
Authoritarian vs. Authoritative Parenting
Highly involved parents will generally be either authoritarian or authoritative in their style of parenting.
Both authoritarian and authoritative parents place a high value on obedience, but authoritative parents tend to balance the need for obedience with the needs of the child.
Authoritarian parents tend to have more rules, and usually attempt to enforce them by bending the child’s will in some fashion.
Authoritative parents generally have fewer rules but enforce them consistently, listening more, using persuasion and explaining their decisions to their children more often.
Although both types of parents use punishment to a certain extent, authoritative parents lean more heavily toward discipline-with its emphasis on guidance and teaching, whereas authoritarian parents rely more on punitive action. (Read more on this from PsychologyToday.com.)
Authoritative Parenting is the Goal
In the research, authoritative parenting is consistently linked to the best outcomes as kids grow up, followed by authoritative parenting, and then permissive parenting. This leaves uninvolved parenting for last, as I’m sure you could have guessed.
In our home, we aim to raise our kids authoritatively, because we believe that this parenting style best reflects biblical principles of parenting. Are we always high in nurture and high in expectations? Nope. Sometimes I lean a little further one direction than the other. No perfect mama lives in my house. But authoritative parenting is my goal, because I see strong biblical evidence that God is an authoritative parent to us!
- God is highly involved. He created us, sustains us, gave His Son to save us, and has plans for us. We need to be very closely involved in our children’s lives, as well. Proverbs 1:8 tells children to listen to the instruction and teachings of their parents. This means, by default, that parents have a duty to instruct and teach their children! We are not to leave the training of our kids to their teachers, their pastors, or anyone else–it’s our parental responsibility.
- God is loving and nurturing. He loves us because Love is who He is (1 John 4:7-10). Everything we do for our kids needs to be done lovingly–even and especially discipline.
- God has high expectations for us. He expects us to follow the path He has set out for us (Isaiah 30:21)He asks us to be fair, merciful, and humble (Micah 6:8). In the same way, we are to expect much of our children.
- God meets us where we are. In 1 Corinthians 3:2, Paul tells the people that he’s given them spiritual ‘milk’ because they aren’t yet ready for solid ‘food.’ God matches his expectations and requirements to our personal level of development in our spiritual journeys. We should follow His example and be sure to align our expectations for our kids with what is developmentally appropriate for them!
- God disciplines us. In Revelation 3:19 it says that God rebukes and disciplines those that He loves. We need to lovingly discipline our kids, to teach them to earnestly repent. We don’t want the false repentance than harsh punishment leads to, but genuine sorrow for wrongdoing.
To Spank, or not to Spank?
Before we get too deep into this topic, let me be clear: I don’t spank my kids, and I also do not think that everyone who chooses to spanks their child is abusive. I was spanked and I had a happy childhood. I love and respect many, many parents who have chosen to spank their children as well as many who have chosen to parent their kids more permissively than I do. I do not intend anything in this post as condemning in any way.
Let’s talk about “spare the rod and spoil the child.”
Everyone knows that the Bible says “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
Except, the Bible doesn’t say that, and we should think about not saying it, too. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” actually comes from a 17th century narrative poem by Samuel Butler, called “Hudibras,” and it doesn’t mean what most of us think it means. (Warning: The poem is not family-friendly.)
What the Bible DOES say, in Proverbs 13:24, is, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” And what the Bible says is true! Children NEED discipline. Honestly, we ALL need discipline and the Bible makes that clear. But I’m not convinced that scriptures are telling us that spanking is mandatory.
The rod was really not used by shepherds to hit the sheep. It was used primarily to fend off predators (protect the sheep from outside harm) and to firmly guide the sheep in the right direction when they went astray. Shepherds weren’t going around whacking their sheep to get them to obey. They were operating more along the lines of pressing the rod firmly against the sheep’s side to point it back to safety. (The staff, not the rod, is the one with the curved end, by the way.)
The research on spanking
Researchers who conducted this meta-analysis of studies on spanking found that:
spanking was associated with more aggression, more antisocial behavior, more externalizing problems, more internalizing problems, more mental health problems, and more negative relationships with parents. Spanking was also significantly associated with lower moral internalization, lower cognitive ability, and lower self-esteem.
The same study also found that there was no correlation between spanking and improved child behavior.
So…if there’s NO evidence that it has a positive effect on our kids’ behavior, what’s the point? Corporal punishment certainly gets a child’s attention, but it doesn’t do anything to help him learn what he is supposed to do or how he’s supposed to behave in the future.
Since we know that discipline, not punishment, does the heavy lifting in the work of character formation, it seems to me that spanking is counterproductive. When our kids willfully disobey us it is so frustrating, and spanking sometimes feels like the only thing a defiant child might respond to. Ultimately, though, what we’re after is a heart-change, and I don’t see any evidence that spankings get us closer to that goal.
Discipline, not punishment, does the heavy lifting in the work of character formation.
Pray about it, talk to your spouse/partner/coparent about it, and really be sure that your methods of discipline and/or punishment align with the family values that you’ve chosen.
Unfortunately this behavior (and, sadly, I can speak from very personal experience) often serves to bring out the most stubborn and willful facets of parents’ personalities. It can be a recipe for disaster, especially if you don’t have a game plan.
My advice? Make a game plan.
You’ll probably go outside the playbook sometimes, but if you have a pre-rehearsed strategy, you have something to return to after you take a deep breath and remember that you are the adult in this relationship.
Steps toward an intentional discipline plan
Here are the basic steps I recommend to form an intentional discipline plan that works for your family:
- Pray– Pray for your kids and for yourself as a parent every. single. day. Ask God to help you be loving, consistent, respectful, firm, diligent, gracious, and trustworthy as you disciple the children He has entrusted into your care.
- Use backward design– With your partner (if you have one), decide how you want your kids to end up (character/behavior-wise), figure out what that looks like realistically for your child’s age/maturity level, and work backward from there on how best to teach your child to embrace and value those values.
- Discuss discipline strategies– talk to your spouse/partner/coparent about the discipline strategies you want to put in place. Consider what natural consequences would look like, as opposed to the other discipline or punishment methods you have put in place.
- Use common language to talk to your kids– Get on the same page with your child’s other caregiver/s about the language you use to discuss disciplinary issues with your kids. (Need help with this? Learn how to make a family list of core values to get you started.)
Characteristics of Christian Discipline
Preparing for this post has meant doing a lot of thinking and biblical study about what Christian discipline looks like. Here are the 5 R’s of Christian Discipline:
Okay, I know I might be losing some of you already, because “respectful discipline” sounds a little too…relaxed…to describe conscientious biblical parenting, right?
Well, hear me out.
I truly believe that we need to be respectful of our kids in the way that we approach discipline. Yes, I am fully aware that the Bible tells kids to “Honor your father and your mother,” and I expect my kids to do just that! But, I also think the best way to teach kids to be respectful is to teach them how it feels to be respected.
What does this look like?
Well, it doesn’t mean letting the kids call all the shots. Respectful discipline is not the absence of discipline.
Respectful discipline means keeping my child’s worth and significance as a child of God, made in His own image, at the forefront of our minds when I’m teaching him how to behave.
Respectful discipline means remembering that my child is a real, complete person–miniature, perhaps, but whole; younger-than, but not less-than. God values my child as fully as He values any other person, and the way that I treat her is the way I am teaching her to think of herself.
Respectful discipline means recognizing that my child always has a choice–just like I always have a choice with my heavenly Father–and that I can either ‘embitter‘ or encourage him (Colossians 3:21).
Respectful discipline means both showing and expecting respect, and this is better accomplished through patient instruction than swift punishment.
Ready (rather than reactive) Discipline
Unlike punishment, discipline doesn’t kick in after an offense has occurred. Discipline implies readiness over reactivity.
The key here is thinking of it as developing self-discipline. Self-discipline isn’t a reaction to a problem behavior or a bad decision that we make. People who are self-disciplined rarely exhibit problem behaviors or make really poor decisions because they have a well-practiced plan in place for how to respond to people and situations.
Of course our preschoolers or toddlers don’t have much in the way of self-discipline. We have to teach it to them.
So, we get proactive. First, we model appropriate behavior. This is really important. Our kids learn most from what they see us doing. Then, we talk them through it. Try to tell your kids that the reason you always say thank you when they give you something is because you want them to understand that it means that you are happy that they took the time to make it for you (or whatever applies). Help them to grasp (at a developmentally appropriate level) the principles behind your good behavior, rather than only teaching them to place a high value on the behavior itself. Point out the natural consequences (good or bad) of the different ways of handling a situation.
Your kids will mess up. Mine do all the time. We’ll mess up, too.
Sometimes we have to react to the immediate situation. Reacting is fine–it’s inevitable! It gives you the opportunity to model forgiveness and grace, and provides a perfect chance to discuss the natural consequences of the problem behavior. The beauty of being more focused on readiness than reactivity is that you don’t have to introduce principles in the heat of the moment. You can refer back to them, because your child has been exposed to them with a clear head many times before.
We’d love it if our kids were models of ideal behavior from day 1, but that just isn’t how it is. We have to be realistic about how we expect our kids to handle themselves. For this reason, it’s very important that parents are familiar with what are developmentally appropriate expectations for our children’s behavior. Should my standards for the behavior I expect from my 4 year old differ from what I expect of my 2 year old? Yes!
Also, some situations require foresight and fore planning to help us bridge the gap between the behavior we want our kids to exhibit and how they actually behave.
- At home vs. out- When they’re in an unfamiliar place (or even a familiar place that they aren’t in every day), we should anticipate different behavior than when our kids are at home. They may need an extra snack or more snuggles than usual. They may not speak as readily to people as they usually do. Try to see the situation through your child’s eyes and realize that the situation is probably more bewildering to them than it is to you.
- Routine change- If your routine is different than usual for some reason, try to talk it over with your kids in advance when possible. Most children thrive on routine, and when it’s off they’ll do better if you’ve talked them through what to expect instead.
- Hunger- When kids are hungry, the situation can get critical very quickly. If I’m being totally honest, it takes me (a bona fide adult human being) a remarkably short time to go from perfectly reasonable to full-on hangry if I don’t get food when my body decides it’s time. Some people handle this better than others, but many of us feel downright rotten when lunch is late or we don’t get the mid-morning snack that we’re used to. Try to be prepared for uncertain situations (think church services or wedding receptions) with extra snacks or juice if you think you’ll need a quick infusion of calories to cheer up your little one and avoid a meltdown.
Having realistic expectations and being prepared for unusual situations will prevent many disciplinary issues, but not all. Realistic discipline also means that when discipline IS necessary, you give a consequence that makes sense and is doable!
Don’t threaten a consequence that you can’t follow through with! Your kids will figure it out pretty quickly if you threaten to take them straight home but you’re strapped into your seat on a 747.
Really, don’t threaten at all. It’s better to simply present kids with a choice: You can a) put your shoes on, or b) stay inside. You get the idea.
Christian discipline (for people of any age) should be redemptive. What does that mean? It means that a child’s true identity as one of God’s beloved children is emphasized. Every effort is made to give loving correction with a focus on relationship with God rather than judgement.
Think about it this way: Does the value of your daughter increase when she’s more obedient? No, of course not! She’s inherently valuable (priceless, in fact) because she’s God’s child. Period.
Sure, she’s easier to be around when she’s obedient, and obedience is convenient for us as parents. But obedience doesn’t change her value.
So, let’s be proactive with our kids and emphasize their value as rooted in their identity as Christ’s family, rather than making them feel that their value comes from obedience.
Discipline should positively reinforce a child’s relationship to God and to us as parents.
What we don’t want to do (and it’s easier to fall into this trap than you might think) is use God as the great ‘bad cop’ in the sky. When we do this, we’re not offering an opportunity for kids to work toward repairing relationships or atoning. If you say something like, “God’s watching you and He’s not happy that you won’t clean your room!” there’s a finality to the mistake or bad choice the child has made, and you’ve struck a blow aimed at driving a wedge between your child and God.
We can talk to our kids about expectations and enforce them firmly, but always offering an opportunity for them to think about the loving relationship they have with us and also with God. Think something like, “God loves you no matter what, just like mommy and daddy do! But it’s hard for us to do the things we need to do when you don’t help us by cleaning up. One way we show love to God and our families is by doing our special chores to keep our house nice and clean.”
Disciplining toddlers and preschoolers should be restorative. What do I mean by that? Well, restorative discipline means taking steps toward helping kids understand how they’ve affected themselves and others with their actions, and then helps them figure out what they need to do to get those relationships back to where they should be.
Restorative discipline looks like helping kids understand their responsibility for their own choices, teaching them how to ask for forgiveness (from God and other people), and learning what it takes to regain trust from those they have hurt.
Talking through and modeling genuine forgiveness is a huge component of restorative discipline. Forgiveness doesn’t equal restoration, but it must occur before a relationship can be fully restored. So, teach your kids (over and over and over again) to forgive.
By forgiving them over and over and over again. By accepting apologies and forgiving others. By letting go of past offenses and letting your child start fresh when they’ve experienced the consequences of their negative actions.
Here’s something that we don’t always think of doing, but it’s just as important as forgiving our kids: We need to ask our children for forgiveness, too.
I’ve actually had parents tell me that they would never apologize to their kids because “I’m the adult, and he’s just a kid. Adults don’t need to explain themselves to kids.”
You guys, that’s exactly the opposite of the approach we need to take. Kids take their cues from their parents. If we want our children to value “the least of these” as in Matthew 25:40 we’d better show them that we value them, too.
If you’ve messed up, apologize. Ask for forgiveness. Forgive the wrongs you kids do. And, then, let everyone move on. If trust needs to be earned back, show them how to do it–and let them earn it back to restore the relationship.
The bottom line: Discipline must come from love.
Christian mamas and dads, no matter how you choose to discipline your kids, it’s got to come from a place of love.
We set the example for our kids.
The way we react to them is the way they learn to react to others. The way we respond to their mistakes is the way they’ll respond to the mistakes of the people around them. Sometimes I think, as Christian parents, we are so worried about turning our kids into perfect people that we forget to teach them how to love imperfect people. The best, (and really only) way to do that is to model it and love them through their mistakes.
It’s not going to be easy. You already know that. I fail pretty much every day, at least in some small way. But you know what? We can either beat ourselves up over our parenting missteps, or we can get back up, ask forgiveness, and thank God for revealing our great need for Him–our heavenly Father.
Our kids will learn a whole lot from us, either way.
It’s up to us to decide which lesson we want to teach.
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