Discipline has been defined as “training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement.”1 So the best discipline is something that will teach the child and help him to learn the lesson and avoid making the same mistake again. This does not suggest heavy corporal punishment. There are many ways to correct a child without being abusive or harmful, such as assigning extra chores, grounding, missing certain activities, or having them do something good to make up for the bad. Wise, loving correction gets the point across without harming the child physically or emotionally.
Still, correction is often difficult on both child and parent at the time it is administered. It takes conviction on the part of the parent, but in the long run if wisely administered, both child and parent will be happier, and both will benefit from a more stable and rewarding relationship.2 Parents should try to keep situations that call for discipline to a minimum by making it as easy as possible for their children to keep the rules.
The Bible says that foolishness is bound in the heart of a child, but when you correct your children, it helps them to gain control over their behavior and to avoid falling into other foolish activities that could be more serious or dangerous (Proverbs 22:15).
To correct a child properly, you need to be firmly convinced yourself of what is correct. God’s Word is a reliable standard to go by, as it has stood the test of time better than modern so-called expert opinions and personal feelings. The standard of obedience that we expect of our children should be one that we ourselves respect, a goal that we also strive for, one that leads us to a happier, more fruitful, harmonious life. (Familiarize yourself with Scriptures on childcare by reading “Bible Study on Child Care and Training” in Power for Parenthood, another booklet in this Keys to Parenting series.)
Here are a few general guidelines to keep in mind when you feel you need to discipline your child.
1. Don’t rush to judgment.
“He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13). When something goes wrong, it’s important to hear all sides from those involved before meting out correction or punishment. There are always at least two sides to every story, and things are not always as they first seem. Taking time to hear your children out not only helps you get the facts, but it increases your children’s respect for you and gives you time to cool down and pray to see the situation through the Lord’s eyes.
2. Discipline must be appropriate to the offense and to the age of the child.
Rules that are too lenient are seldom obeyed, and rules that are too severe are seldom enforced. Don’t make rules so hard that your child can’t keep them. If you do, your children will be more likely to get rebellious and throw them all to the wind.
It’s also not fair to expect as much from a younger child as you would from an older child. For example, you shouldn’t make a family rule that says, “Everyone must sit quietly at the dinner table until everyone else is done,” and then expect two-year-old Tommy to sit as still as ten-year-old Mary. Or if Mary were to misbehave while out in public with you, she would probably respect you and the correction more if you wait to correct her in private. But if you waited until you got home to correct Tommy, he would probably have forgotten the incident by then, miss the point, and feel unjustly punished.
For a third example, a chart on the wall with stars for good behavior and sad faces for misbehavior might work well with Tommy, but your infant wouldn’t understand, and Mary would probably think it too childish.
3. Establish rules and punishments.
Establish rules and corresponding punishments so your children know what to expect and so you are less likely to overreact when they misbehave.
Children need boundaries, and they need to know what the consequences will be if they cross those boundaries. Having these clearly defined also makes it easier for you to react in a calm, even-handed manner, and that’s to everyone’s advantage.
For example, you may not allow your children to run wild in the house, and if they do, they know you’ll make them sit on a chair for three minutes. Two-year-old Tommy gets carried away, runs through the living room, trips, and knocks over your favorite house plant. You’re upset and feel like giving him a punishment he’ll never forget—but does Tommy really deserve that? If you know the punishment is three minutes of “time out,” you’ll be less likely to react in a way you’ll later regret.
The best time to set boundaries with your children is when none of them are in trouble and you’re relaxed. Choose a comfortable place, perhaps serve a snack to lighten the atmosphere, and sit down together to discuss the rules of the house. If you have both younger and older children, you’ll probably want to talk with the younger and older ones separately.
It’s best, of course, if your children understand why each rule is necessary, and are in agreement with the punishment for breaking it. First make a list of all the rules, and then decide on the corresponding punishments. This will help keep things in perspective and reserve serious punishment for truly serious offenses.
Try to let your children come up with the list themselves, or at least get it started. You might be surprised to find that when you appoint your children to be their own judges, they will often set higher standards and be stricter with themselves than you would be. However, it is good to moderate their standards if you see they are too strict.
Son, I am saying this as you lie asleep, one little hand crumpled under your cheek.
Just a few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper, a wave of remorse swept over me and drove me to your bedside.
These are the things I was thinking, son: I had spoken crossly to you. I scolded you as you were getting ready for school because you gave your face merely a dab with a towel. I took you to task for not cleaning your shoes. I called out angrily when you threw some of your things on the floor.
At breakfast I found fault, too. You spilled things. You gulped down your food. You put your elbows on the table.
As you started off to play and I left for work, you turned and waved a hand and called, “Goodbye, Daddy!”
“Stand up straight!” was my goodbye.
Then it began all over again in the late afternoon. As I came up the road, I spied you down on your knees, playing marbles. There were holes in the knees of your pants. I humiliated you in front of your friends by making you come in the house. Pants are expensive, and if you had to pay for them yourself you wouldn’t wear them out by crawling around on the ground. Imagine that, son, from a father!
Do you remember later, when I was reading and you came in timidly, with a hurt look in your eyes? When I glanced up over my paper, impatient at the interruption, you hesitated at the door. “What is it you want?” I snapped.
You said nothing, but ran across the room and in one tempestuous plunge, threw your arms around my neck and kissed me. Your small arms tightened with an affection that God had set blooming in your heart and which even my neglect could not wither. And then you were gone, pattering up the stairs.
Well, son, it was shortly afterwards that my paper slipped from my hands and a terrible sickening feeling came over me. I realized I’d fallen into a horrible habit—the habit of finding fault, of reprimanding. This was my reward to you for being a boy. It wasn’t that I didn’t love you; it was that I expected too much of you at your age. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.
Meanwhile, your love for me was as big and bright and unstoppable as the dawn. Your spontaneous goodnight kiss showed me that.
And so I have come to your bedside and I knelt here in the darkness, ashamed. It’s a feeble atonement.
Tomorrow I will be a real daddy! I will play with you and share your ups and downs. I will bite my tongue when impatient words come. I will remember that you are a little boy, and won’t ask too much.
—Adapted from W. Livingston Larned
4. Keep the list of rules as short, simple, and clear as possible.
The fewer strict rules you have, the better. That’s what the Lord has done with us: He made it real simple when He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Just one rule, really—“You shall love!” Teach your children to be ruled by love and you’ll hardly need any other rules!
Pray for wisdom to know which rules are necessary and which ones aren’t.3 It’s far better to have a few important rules and adhere to them than to have many little rules that neither you nor your children can keep.
5. Follow through.
You have to teach your children that you mean what you say. Better never to have promised that punishment than to have promised it and not given it. If you warn your children not to do a certain thing, and explain to them that they’ll be punished if they do, they may go ahead anyway just to test you. Then if you don’t carry out the punishment, they’ll try it again. And if you repeatedly allow them to get away with things, they will lose confidence in your role as a figure of authority.
Of course, that’s not to say that they won’t try it again if the agreed-upon consequence is enforced. Some children seem to need to “learn” a lesson repeatedly before it finally sinks in for good. But by providing consistent boundaries, you as a parent can ensure that even these testings become times of growth and progress, rather than the child simply seeing how much he can get away with and how often. Once your child realizes that he truly will be held responsible for his actions, chances are he’ll change his behavior.
Are you a Parent or a “Sparent”?
“Sparents” are those who spare correction
When offspring need attention,
And they find their troubles multiplied
In ways too sad to mention.
6. Be consistent.
Inconsistent discipline is the worst kind of discipline. It’s no discipline at all! Consistent discipline means being true to your word and following through lovingly, patiently, and prayerfully. Be frank, be fair, be honest, be loving, be firm, and be consistent.
Whether you’re in a good mood or a bad mood shouldn’t have any bearing on the correction you give your children. Otherwise, your children won’t learn the lessons they need to; they’ll just learn to be careful around you. They’ll take advantage of you when you’re in a good mood, and they’ll make themselves scarce when you’re in a bad mood.
Under special circumstances, the Lord may show you not to carry out a certain punishment that you had previously agreed upon with your children. Such cases will probably be rare, but they may happen occasionally, so be sure to ask the Lord for wisdom in every case.
7. Be fair.
Few things undermine a parent-child relationship more than resentment and distrust on the part of a child who feels unfairly punished. What makes this such a dangerous pitfall is that your child’s idea of fairness may be very different than your own, depending on his level of maturity—but it’s just as strong, and to his way of thinking, just as valid. What’s a parent to do?
Don’t jump to conclusions. Let your children explain themselves, and try to see things from their point of view. If you take time to hear their version of the problem situation, you put yourself in a better position to judge the matter fairly. And when they see that you’re trying to be understanding and fair, they will respect you and your judgment more.
One way that you can help your child understand your side of things is to always take time—either before or after the discipline—to explain what went wrong. Sometimes children get so caught up in the moment that they don’t realize what they’re doing. A child with his mind fully set upon something else may not realize that he’s running over the new living room carpet with his muddy boots. Taking a few moments to explain what he did wrong, and the reason why you’re having to give him the agreed-upon punishment, and making sure that he understands all that has taken place, will help greatly in him feeling justly treated by you.
One human failing that parents and those who care for kids are sometimes guilty of is showing favoritism for different children. It’s quite easy to let a cute little girl get away with more than the “naughty” boy. This is where the rules can help you check whether you are being fair. How do you respond in dealing out the correction to different children? Of course, you also need to consider that children are individuals and have different temperaments. Some are harder and resist correction; others are soft. Some take a light hand, but others a very firm hand. Try to step back from the situation and take a few deep breaths, a few moments of quiet time, and ask the Lord to help you see things fairly.
8. Avoid disciplining in anger.
One of the worst things you can do is to give punishment that is too severe, too harsh, more than the crime or disobedience really justifies.
Although it is natural to be upset or angry with your child for something he or she has done wrong, give yourself some time to cool down before administering the discipline. If the child is very young and needs immediate correction but you don’t feel capable of handling the situation patiently and objectively, ask your spouse to be the one to follow through with the discipline, if possible. If there is no one else nearby to follow through, give your child a few minutes of “time out” to sit quietly and think about her actions. Use that time to calm down and seek the Lord about what you should do.
Disciplining in anger is usually not fair to the child, and can negate the positive effects that the discipline could bring; the child feels he is being punished because the parent is angry rather than because of something done wrong. The parent’s reaction becomes the issue in the child’s mind; the lesson related to the mistake is not understood, and the child is likely to become resentful at the correction.
9. Reaffirm your love for your children and your faith in them.
Children need love, especially when they don’t seem to deserve it. They need to know you love them unconditionally, and that even if they’ve been bad, you’re still their parents and you won’t give up on them.
Always remember to show your children special love and encouragement after you’ve had to correct them or administer discipline. Take them in your arms and hug them, do something special with them, or tell them how much you appreciate them, and how proud you are of them when they try to do the right thing. Tell them you know they’ll do better next time. That will make the difference between your children going away discouraged and resentful, or happy, encouraged, and desiring to please.
Showing faith and encouragement is an important part of discipline, because that’s an important part of love. Your children will be happier and follow the rules more closely if they’re motivated by love more than by fear of the consequences. That should be the goal. Otherwise, if they are only doing the right thing because they’re afraid of punishment, they may simply wait until they’re out of your sight or reach, and then continue to do as they please.
Love and faith in them will help them want to be good and do the right things because they have a sense of right and wrong, and because they want to return your love—and God’s love. That’s really the best motivation they could find in life: a desire to please the Lord.
10. End discipline with a prayer.
Encourage your children to say “I’m sorry,” both to you and Jesus for a wrong they’ve done. Always say a simple prayer together afterwards. Let your children know that you’ve forgiven them, and remind them that Jesus has forgiven them as well. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits: Who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:2-3).
We Love Our Children
We love our children when they’re good,
But when they’re bad, in trouble,
For reasons barely understood
We love them almost double.
We love our children when they want
Affection and expect it,
And even more those times they taunt
Our loving and reject it.
We love them when they make us cry,
And when you’d think we daren’t,
And no one knows the reason why,
Except another parent.
A Parent’s Prayer
heavenly Father, make me a better parent. Teach me to understand my children, to listen patiently to what they have to say, and to answer all their questions kindly. Keep me from interrupting them or contradicting them. Make me as courteous to them as I would have them be to me. Forbid that I should ever laugh at their mistakes, or resort to shame or ridicule when they displease me. May I never punish them for my own selfish satisfaction or to show my power.
Let me not tempt my child to lie or steal. And guide me hour by hour that I may demonstrate by all I say and do that honesty produces happiness.
Reduce, I pray, the meanness in me. And when I am out of sorts, help me, O Lord, to hold my tongue.
May I ever be mindful that my children are children, and I should not expect of them the judgment of adults.
Let me not rob them of the opportunity to make decisions.
Bless me with the bigness to grant them all their reasonable requests, and the courage to deny them privileges I know will do them harm.
Make me fair and just and kind. And fit me, O Lord, to be loved and respected and imitated by my children. Amen.
—Abigail Van Buren