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Positive discipline and unconditional love image

Positive discipline and unconditional love

Sarah Condie on how parents of young children can help their kids grow to be a 'delight to your heart'.

Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart. Proverbs 29:17

Being a parent is one of the hardest jobs I have ever done. It has stretched me mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. It has exhausted me completely and utterly, and reduced me to tears often. But I have absolutely no regrets that I gave birth to three children, now young adults, who all know and love the Lord. More than this, they are three young people who I look forward to spending time with - simply because they bring me delight. They are not perfect, but they are certainly good company.

As a parent, I think the most demanding time is the first six years of a child's life. I like the above verse from Proverbs 29:17 - it's not a promise, but a generalisation about a normal pattern in life. If you invest in the life of your child, generally speaking, they will grow up to be pleasant human beings - not only for you to enjoy and appreciate, but for others also. You could compare this analogy to a garden. If you want to have a garden that is beautiful and lush, it takes time and effort and won't happen overnight. The author of this proverb is making the point that putting time and effort into discipling your children will be of great benefit - to you as their parents, and to those who come in contact with them. Again, this is something that does not happen overnight - it can take years.

In this article, I am mostly talking to mums and dads who have babies and small children.

We all have bad days

There will always be days when you go to a local park or playground, and it is your child who won't share with other children, who pinches or hits another, who answers back or flatly refuses to cooperate and simply says "no". Then you go home and face one or two tantrums trying to get through lunch. Then you find their favourite toy has vanished into a black hole and they will not go to sleep without it. By the time you reach the end of the day, you are pooped, and feel like a failure - yet again. There is no way in the world that you would consider that little bundle of energy a delight to anyone.

Positive discipline

What does it mean to discipline? Most of us naturally think in terms of punishing them when they do wrong, but this word has a much broader meaning and we miss what the writer of this proverb intended if we only think in terms of punishment. As we have seen in this article, discipline involves shaping their direction in life and includes modelling, teaching, encouraging and nurturing. It means being an affirming parent who:

  • loves them unconditionally, no matter what, and not just when they behave
  • shows affection
  • listens to them as they communicate
  • sets clear and appropriate boundaries
  • is consistent with rules and consequences
  • helps them gradually become independent and responsible for their own actions.


Sounds easy? To be honest, it has its moments. The thing about children, particularly small children, is that they behave in childish ways - their behaviour is irritating, annoying and frustrating. And it then brings out the worst in us as we respond to it.


Unconditional love

If you love your children unconditionally, you will fill their emotional tanks. They are far more likely to co-operate with you and follow your instructions. To do this, you use eye contact - look into their eyes often and not just when you are angry, listen to them when they speak, touch them often with hugs, cuddles and touch, and finally give them your undivided attention - either by playing a game, singing or reading a book for a small amount of time - five or ten minutes for small children is enough. This type of behaviour fills their emotional tank.

Ross Campbell's book How to Really Love your Child explains unconditional love succinctly. It is a gem. I read it when my first son was a month old, and it would be just as relevant today, although he is now twenty-five.

Develop boundaries

Small children love boundaries and will test them constantly to see if they are real. With firm boundaries, they will be safe and secure. This is where as a parent, you explain to your children how to behave - when they can leave the table after a meal, that hitting or pinching are unacceptable, that they can put toys away after playing with them, how to go to bed and sleep. 

This is where you teach them right from wrong, what is acceptable behaviour vs unacceptable behaviour. I have a friend who is a primary teacher at a private girl's school. The school is noticing more and more that children come to school with no idea about right from wrong. And so it comes as a huge shock when there are suddenly school rules to follow.

Babies and small children understand much more than you realise, and you can talk to them about how you would like them to behave. For example, if you are going to the park, you can tell them they must hold your hand to cross the road, and be kind to the other children they play with. You could also tell them that if they hit or punch another child they will have to sit next to you until they are ready to say sorry and behave. If they manage to pull this off, then praise them appropriately when you get home. When your other half comes home, make sure you say in their hearing " he/she played so beautifully at the park today, you would have been so proud."  Praise the positives and respond to the not so positives with clear and firm consequences.

Cultivating Christian character

Disciplining our children includes teaching our children about using words such as 'please, thank you, I'm sorry, I forgive you, hello and good bye'. Do they hear you using these words? These five small words pay enormous dividends. Have you spent time with anyone who doesn't use them? They don't make pleasant company and you will find that you don't particularly want to spend time with them. You need to teach them the importance of using these five words and quietly encourage them to use them as they relate to you and others.

What about the fruits of the spirit such as kindness, gentleness, self-control and patience? Or the qualities of mercy, respect, justice, faithfulness and generosity?

I have four suggestions:

  1. Remind them of God's love for them in Jesus - because it is truth of the gospel that shapes our character.
  2. Pray for your children that they may develop these qualities. Here is a list of daily prayers you could pray over the month for your children: http://www.truewoman.com/?id=365 (Source: this list comes from Bob Hostetler - www.bobhostetler.com
  3. Model - remember actions speak louder than words. How do you behave?
  4. Books  - one tool that I found invaluable was reading books - lots of books with my children. We met many characters who displayed kindness, gentleness, bravery, integrity, honesty and other qualities. Rather than saying "I want you to be kind", you could say "you know how Alfie put his blanket down at that party to hold his friend's hand, that was such a kind thing to do, I would love you to be kind to your sister".


Set up some routines to give your days a bit of predictability so your children know what to expect. For example, after dinner, they play quietly, then have a bath, two books, bible story, prayers and bed.  Routines such as these will help settle children's behaviour - they will help them feel safe and secure.

Managing emotions and listening

There are so many emotions that we can teach our children how to express and manage such as sadness, happiness, envy and anger. If we listen to them and try and hear what they are trying to communicate, we can work out what they are feeling and help them learn about that emotion.  

Modelling Jesus' love

It is easy enough to read the Bible with our children, organise them to have long devotions and family prayer times, but do they see you behave Christianly? Are you modelling Jesus' love to them? Do you say sorry and forgive? Are you a Mum who displays the fruits of the spirit in your life? None of us are perfect, but how we treat our children will have far more impact upon them than any words we speak.

Just remember, your children are a work in progress, and it might be years before you see the results of your investment of time, energy, and prayers. Invest in your children when they are young and you will reap the benefits when they hit adolescence.

Your children are also God's children. He loves them as much as He loves you. We can commit to him our disappointments, our failures and shortcomings, confident that He forgives, He cleanses and washes us clean. He will answer your prayers if you ask for help. He will also work in the lives of your children - you can trust our God completely and utterly.  

Feel like a failure?

You are not a perfect parent, you won't ever be a perfect parent. When we feel like a failure, that we have stuffed up yet again (and believe me, this is still my experience), we can fall on our knees and say to our Lord and Saviour "I am sorry, please forgive me". Speak grace to yourself, remember these beautiful words in the book of Hebrews:

"Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:14-16)

I love that we can start afresh each new day.


Sarah Condie is a librarian who works part time at the State Library of NSW.  In her spare time, Sarah loves quilting, walking, writing and having cups of tea with friends. She is married to Keith who is the Dean of Students and on the faculty at Moore Theological College. They have three adult children, two of whom still live with them in Newtown. As a family, they still enjoy gathering around the kitchen table for meals.  

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