This is a pretty loaded topic, and one that could fill numerous pages, but since others have said it better than me, I’m going to skip all the doctrinal and theological arguments and just share my heart on the topic of discipline. (For some of those doctrinal and theological arguments, check out Arms of Love Fellowship and Why Not Train a Child.)
Here’s the thing: When I read the Bible, I don’t see a God who punishes His people. He disciplines, yes, and allows the consequences of their actions to be experienced, but He does not inflict further shaming, guilting, or pain on top of what the child has already reaped. (His dealings with those who are not His children are another matter entirely, but that is of no consequence to me because I am His child.) But somewhere along the line, Christianity has developed this weird split personality view of God. He’s full of grace, we say, and His love is unconditional and His mercy saves us…but then, in next Sunday’s sermon, we’re told about how the pastor really got “spanked by Jesus” and how God punishes us in order to drive our sin from us. And the thing is, I don’t see any Biblical evidence to support the idea of God punishing us. And yet, so many Christian parents turn to this skewed view of God and point to it as their model for how they parent their own children.
Part of the problem is that we’ve allowed the use of the words “punishment” and “discipline” to change. Even online dictionaries now use “punishment” in their definition of “discipline.” But discipline has never meant “to inflict punishment”. Its true meaning is simply, “to teach.” The life of a parent is a life of discipleship–24/7, we are teaching, instructing, correcting, training–and not once is there a need for us to insert pain into those lessons. Do you have to spank your child make them learn the alphabet? To learn to tie their shoes? To learn to read? Learning proper behavior is no different from those lessons. With proper modeling, correction, instruction–and by the child reaching the necessary level of maturity–proper behavior and the development of a moral heart will form. Along the way, there will be some consequences for negative behavior. Privileges may be removed. Toys may be put up for a time. Fun events may be missed. On their own, those consequences can hurt plenty–but the truth of the matter is, not every consequence is going to hurt. And that’s okay. Because again, pain is not absolutely necessary in teaching.
When I think about my goals for my children, the list is topped with, “To teach them God.” What message does it send them if I tell them that God insists that I physically hurt them when they make a mistake or a poor choice? What kind of relationship does that set them up for with their Heavenly Father? It creates a fear-based relationship, and yet we are told in Scripture that perfect love casts out fear. If God’s perfect love should cast out our fear, then our children shouldn’t fear Him. But how can we tell them not to fear Him when, in the next breath, we say God tells us to hurt them? We’d be asking our children to not fear pain–and yet, the whole point of pain-based punishment is that the fear of the pain will stop the child from exhibiting that behavior. There is no logic here.
The other issue I take with punishment is that it doesn’t actually do what parents want it to do. Parent want their children to be moral beings with a moral compass that points to true north. But teaching children to suppress a negative behavior by threatening pain doesn’t teach morality. It teaches fear. It teaches them to push down the desire for that behavior–not to change their desire and their heart completely. And when the threat of pain is no longer scary enough to stop them, that behavior will surface again, because they weren’t taught morality in a logical way.
So what’s this “logical way” of teaching morality? I believe natural and logical consequences do the job just fine. The one thing parents have to remember, however, is that their children’s emotional and mental development plays a key part in their ability to learn any particular lesson. If you expect your three-year-old to exhibit self-control, then you’re going to be constantly disappointed, because child development shows us that the ability to control one’s impulses and desires does not fully develop until around age 7. Until about age 5 or so, which is when self-control slowly begins to form, whenever a child does what you ask them to do, it’s because complying with your request is the only thing they want to do in that moment–which is another reason why developing a trusting and deeply attached relationship with your child is so important.
And, lastly, we parents have to remember to show our children grace. In those times that they’re overtired, we need to recognize that their choices are not being driven by a brain that is functioning on all cylinders. In those times that they’re hungry, we need to realize that we can’t expect them to sit patiently for you to finish a conversation. In those times that they’re angry, or scared, or anxious, or lonely, we need to take a deep breath and say, “Something else is going on here that they can’t control.” And in those times, we need to extend them the grace that God gave each of us when we could not control ourselves against our sin. And when they’re fed or soothed or have gotten a nice long nap, then we can sit them down and say, “Next time, instead of screaming at me and throwing your toy because I wouldn’t give you ice cream, you need to express your frustration this way.” An easy rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “How would I want to be treated if I were in my child’s shoes?” Hence “Golden Rule Parenting,” which could be summed up as thus: Parent your child the way you’d want to be parented. Treat your child with the same grace, compassion, mercy, empathy, and understanding that you hope others will extend to you when you’re having a crappy day and not being the most stellar wife/parent/friend/coworker/Christian on the planet.
So, to sum up: Look to God as your model for parenting. Never let up in your gentle and empathetic correction and discipline. Allow your children to experience the consequences of their actions. But above all, remember grace.