Discipline: A Heart-check for Parents


parenting comicDiscipline… the paradox of parenting. It’s a love/hate relationship brought with tons of emotion – overwhelming love, yet inseparable from overwhelming grief at the same time. On the one hand, you hate disciplining. You hate that your child needs it; you hate the consequences of your child’s disobedience. But, you love your child regardless; you love the opportunity to train your child in righteousness. And with a strong-willed toddler of my own (I blame my wife – she prayed that he would be like me), and another due in less than a month, I’ve been contemplating this reality:

Discipline is necessary, but often we’re consumed with the heart attitude of our child when we discipline, but I think we often miss an important opportunity to evaluate our own.

Namely, are we motivated to discipline out of pride and fear of damaging our reputation and self image? Or, do we discipline out of genuine love for our child with “no strings attached,” as it were?

This is one of the great battles of parenting. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” right? But use the rod wrong, and you exasperate your children (Eph. 6:4). We don’t want that… doing so will ultimately drive our children away. They will not listen to our council or wisdom, and in many cases, they will reject the faith as soon as they leave the home, but not before much anguish is spent during the teenage years when you realize your son or daughter’s desire to pursue the world. But how to we ensure that we don’t exasperate our children without spoiling them at the same time?

There are a lot of principles you can follow, and a lot trees have already given themselves to the many volumes written on the subject, but I think it all begins in the heart of the parent. Having the right heart will guide your discipline, and how you discipline – consistently. That doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes, but your child will respond graciously, and will eventually grow to appreciate how much you unconditionally loved them (especially when they have children of their own). calving and hobbes parenting

Now, I write this as a new parent, but there are at least two major mistakes I’ve observed many parents making in their discipline – mistakes that I also know I regularly battle in my own heart.

1. Parents who are selfish…

…so they don’t discipline. These parents deliberately overlook the disobedience of their children, perhaps to the point where they don’t even notice their disobedience anymore or deny it when someone (like a teacher) brings it to their attention. They make all kinds of excuses for their child, or might even make up excuses for why they can overlook their son or daughter’s disobedience – “After all,” they might say, “Doesn’t God overlook my sins?” No He doesn’t. Other parents I’ve even heard boasting, “I don’t discipline my child, because I want to show him/her the same grace God has shown to me.” Well… God has shown you grace perhaps, but remember, your sins were still paid for by Christ. Yes, as a Christian, He no longer holds sin against your account, but you better believe those sins weren’t overlooked! They were worn on the cross! So, if you really want to show your child the same “grace” God has shown you, a more accurate picture would be for you to pay the penalty for your child’s disobedience. Sin doesn’t go without penalty.

Now, I’m not saying that any parent who has practiced this is selfish… they might have had good intentions. happy faceam saying they might be selfish, and categorically, parents who simply don’t discipline are selfish. Let’s face it, it’s WAY easier, less heart-wrenching, and less time-consuming to just ignore disobedient children. We hate seeing our children suffer the consequences of their disobedience, and would far prefer to give them some candy, pat them on the back and say, “Just try harder next time.”

Remember Proverbs 22:6?

Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it. 

How many times have we heard that verse used by parents who faithfully disciplined their children who still wound up rebelling? Quite often. Has the verse failed? “Of course not! It’s just a proverb, not a promise!” That’s true… but you have to admit, given the number of parents we’ve seen whose children still rebelled and rejected the faith in spite of their faithfulness as parents, makes this out to be a pretty weak proverb doesn’t it?

Unless we’ve gotten this proverb backwards. And we have.

In the Hebrew text it’s obvious, but the English translation confuses things. When we hear, “Train a child in the way he should go,” we think it’s saying, “In contrast to the way he will go, train a child in the way he should go.” But, that’s just the problem, because it should be translated “will,” not “should/shall.” Small word, HUGE difference because we all the the natural way a child will go – they’re totally depraved! Their natural way fulfills their sin nature, unless you proactively intervene as a parent.calvin-hobbes-principles-the way he will go

The question then becomes, “How do I train a child in the way he will go?” To put it in modern vernacular, “How do I encourage a child to continue on the path he’s already on?”

Don’t discipline. That’s how.

So is it worth it? Will you selfishly overlook the sin in your son or daughter’s life, effectively encouraging him or her to live a life in opposition to God and His Word? Will you essentially condemn your child (as the proverb goes) by avoiding discipline because you just want your child to be happy (albeit temporally)? Those are easy questions to answer.

But do you avoid disciplining your children and make excuses for their behavior? Why? That’s a harder question to answer.

2. Parents who fear…

…so they discipline inconsistently or so they over-discipline so that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. For example, I remember one of my childhood friends left his socks out on the floor overnight when we were in Junior High, so he got grounded for a month. Now, as the parent, you have the right to make house rules, but when your children break these rules, the punishment should fit the crime right? After all, if a govt. enforced it’s laws this way it’s called tyranny, and I’m glad our govt. doesn’t practice capital punishment for traffic violations!

What does that kind of parent fear? Maybe their child’s salvation or that they will rebel if they don’t impose harsh punishment for every infraction. Ultimately though, I think this shows a distrust in God’s sovereignty over salvation (I wish I had more time to develop this point – maybe in a future post).

But what about the parent who disciplines inconsistently? Obviously we first have to ask, “Why are they disciplining inconsistently?” Are they lazy? Do they wrestle with any of the above? Perhaps.

public disciplineBut if they have a fear of man they will also discipline inconsistently. Because they don’t practice consistent discipline in the home, their children will act out in public, to the embarrassment of their parents (i.e., their fear of man). Sometimes they’ll discipline right in public (which I DON’T recommend – and I’ll tell you why in a minute), or they’ll discipline for a short-lived period of time until the “dust settles” a little. Once their child starts behaving in public again, they back off. In time though, your child will see this inconsistency, and he or she will grow to resent you for it. You’ve exasperated your child.

But what about in public? What if your child acts up at the grocery store, park, or the church? Is it bad if you don’t discipline in those contexts? Is that out of fear of man? Maybe… or CPS (depending on your state). But I would actually argue that you should seldom, if not, EVER discipline in public – and here’s why:

1) Discipline can wait. Already my son, who is only two, has a comprehensive memory (possibly better than my own). He’ll remember something we did hours or days before (usually a a game we made up together) that I won’t even remember! That being said, if your child needs discipline but you’re in public, you can be sure that you can quietly, but firmly tell them that they will need to be disciplined for their behavior when you get home (or someplace private).

3) Discipline does not need embarrassment. Let’s face it – you’ve had parents do this to you before… it’s just awkward when a parent freely disciplines his or her child in front of you, but think about how the child feels. Yes, discipline might be needed, but it can and should be done without embarrassing your child in front of other adults or friends. If you do, your child will scoff at you as soon as you leave (they won’t want their friends to think it was a big deal). You’ve thus lost the whole point of discipline.

2) Discipline needs time. Discipline is not an end, it’s a means to an end and requires instruction. In other words, discipline can’t be done hastily. Your child needs to see your grief if they’re going to know you discipline because of your love. They need your explanation – why their actions required discipline and why it was dishonoring to you and to the Lord. And they need your reconciliation – they need to see your forgiveness, tenderness and care after your discipline. Give them time to talk to you, and for yourself to reaffirm your love for them.

To conclude, I think we can all agree that discipline is a hard thing for parents. But, it also offers an important opportunity for parents to check their own hearts for their motivation behind the discipline.

And never EVER discipline in your anger.