How Should Christian Parents Discipline Their Children?
Parenting is a lifelong journey. It is a tremendous source of blessing, but also an incredibly sanctifying process. For those of you who didn’t catch that joke clothed in theological jargon, I’m saying that being a parent has a way of revealing what kind of person you really are. I’m the father of 5 mostly awesome kids whom I love dearly.
I truly believe as it says in Psalm 127:3 that “children are a heritage from the Lord…”
Unless your were born perfect, you’ve undoubtedly struggled in the area of how to discipline your children.
Before walking through a few passages that address this topic, lets look at what we mean by discipline. When you think discipline from a Christian perspective, you may think of spiritual disciplines or even church discipline. It is helpful to divide up parental discipline into two categories: formative discipline and corrective discipline.
Formative discipline is broad and is the basic discipleship of your child. To use an analogy, formative discipline is like the rumble strips on a highway. They are there to wake you up to the fact that danger is coming without having the negative consequences of a concrete barrier. Formative discipline has the heart of the child in the forefront. It includes all of the steps you take to form your son or daughter’s heart to look more like Christ.
For some, this discipline is making sure your son addresses adults as “sir” or “ma’am.” For others it is making sure they clean up after a mess they have made. Formative discipline is the rumble strip on your long-term parenting strategy that helps alert you and your child when they are slipping off-track. As parents, we need to make sure we take a long-view when it comes to raising our children. What kind of adults do we want them to be? What kind of spouse? Neighbor? Employee? Church member?
Proverbs 29:15 says, “The rod and reproof give wisdom but a child left to himself will bring shame to his mother.”
It is so easy to jump to the rod part of this verse, but that is not the focus. The contrast is between wisdom and shame. Parents who practice formative discipline will give wisdom to their child, whereas an absentee or lax parent will reap shame instead.
Proverbs 19:18 says, “Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.”
This verse shows that discipline is not the end goal, but rather the tool by which you reach your goal. The idea of formative discipline should give hope! We shouldn’t give up or just let them go.
Where formative discipline was more broad, corrective discipline is more narrow. Corrective discipline is a specific action taken in response to a specific sin. What is most important to note is that corrective discipline must fall under the umbrella of formative discipline. Often times for parents all their discipline is of this nature and, unfortunately, there is no connection to a broader goal/hope.
Proverbs 23:13 says, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.” Similarly Proverbs 13:24 says, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”
Let me first just say that these verses are NOT a blanket endorsement for spanking. There is clearly something bigger going on here. This form of corrective discipline taking place has a larger purpose, namely, saving the child from a much worse fate than the corrective discipline. The corrective always falls under the formative. This step should only be taken if there is a clear sin issue in place and ONLY if the action taken will lead to repentance on behalf of the child.
A Word of Warning
The bible anticipates the difficulty of discipline and gives a clear warning to fathers (with application to mothers) on this subject. Corrective discipline outside of its formative context is abuse. Corrective discipline that is not formative in its aim is abuse. Both Colossians 3:21 and Ephesians 6:4 warn fathers not to provoke your children or stir them to anger. Discipline not done while in full control of you emotions is abuse and runs the risk of turning the heart of your children towards anger or discouragement instead of God the Father. The goal of any discipline is to cause our children to look to Jesus. So quickly it can become about us, about convenience, or be forgotten altogether.
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
The Hebrew context renders this verse in a different light than most people interpret it. It basically means that how you train your child will be how they turn out. If you are too harsh, they will grow to be broken or stirred to anger. If you are too lax, they will grow to be narcissistic or selfish. The stakes are high. Practice makes permanent. Sociological research backs this up as well as Christian Smith (in Soul Searching) found that the number one determining factor in the faith of teenagers was the faith of their parents.
Discipline should always be formative. Corrective action should always be a part of this formative process, but should never be acted upon in impulse or without restoration in mind. We see in Scripture that we should live like Jesus and that is a pretty good example for our kids to be guided to. It is our job to look long-term and set up those rumble strips that will keep them on the highway.
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