There’s no quicker way to ignite an emotional debate than to raise the issue of discipline. At one end of the spectrum are those who say, “The problem with today’s children is that they aren’t disciplined enough—our generation was smacked and it taught us to be respectful.” At the other end of the spectrum are those who warn about how discipline can be abused and result in negative consequences for children.
So, what does the Bible say? How can Christians chart a course through the murky waters of the discipline debate?
The model of discipline
According to the Bible, there is only one perfect parent: God. To find out what it means to discipline our children, we first need to look at his example.
The letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to “endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children” (Hebrews 12:7). Later we read: “we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).
Our human discipline is imperfect: we have limited wisdom, limited patience, and a limited timeframe. But God’s discipline of his spiritual children is perfect. In his infinite wisdom, God allows us to experience hard things so that we will mature into people who share our Father’s character and values.
As we discipline our children, we are also being disciplined by our loving heavenly Father.
The heart of discipline
The Bible is clear that the heart of discipline—both God’s and ours—is love for our children. In Proverbs we read, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke; because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:11-12).
Our discipline should be a sign of our love and commitment to our children. But what exactly does that mean?
The goal of discipline
According to the Bible, parents are responsible for helping their children grow towards physical and moral maturity. Childhood serves as an apprenticeship in your parents’ character and values. Parents who love their children take this responsibility seriously—they care deeply about what kind of people they are seeking to raise.
A common misconception is that discipline is another word for punishment. In reality, discipline is something much broader—it literally means “discipling”. While punishment looks back to a wrong committed, discipline looks forward to the goal. As Christian parents, our ultimate goal is to teach our children to follow us as we follow Jesus; we want them to become children of God too, reflecting his character of love in the world.
Once our children are adults, they will be responsible for their own moral decisions. So the goal of childhood discipline is also self-discipline: we are equipping our children with the skills to make good choices for life.
The process of discipline
In the Bible, discipline includes all the ways we guide our children towards discipleship with our words and actions. On the proactive side, discipline involves modelling, teaching, encouraging, training, and setting clear expectations. On the reactive side, it involves praising, correcting, rebuking, and letting children experience the consequences of their actions.
Discipline is just as much about our positive, proactive teaching—teaching our kids to pray, training them to say “thank you”, showing them how to cook, modelling a kind gesture—as it is about managing tantrums and time-outs.
Like any process of formation, discipline takes a lot of time, energy and repetition.
Can we spare the “rod”?
The book of Proverbs talks about the “rod” as a means of parental discipline. Some believe that these verses require Christian parents to discipline their children in a physical way.
Others interpret the rod in Proverbs as a symbol of disciplinary punishment as a whole, and so choose to use different kinds of negative consequences, often on the advice contemporary experts who dismiss physical discipline as unnecessary, ineffective, and open to abuse.
At the very least, the use of “the rod” in Proverbs certainly implies that smacking can be one element of loving discipline, alongside all of the others mentioned above.
On this issue, I believe that it is vital for Christian parents to encourage each other in our shared goals for our discipline—to lovingly guide, teach and disciple our children—even if we disagree on the specific details of how to get there.
The limits of discipline
All parents are human—we will inevitably get discipline wrong sometimes. All human parents are prone to discipline out of anger or impatience. We can get lazy and focus on the negative, reactive aspects of discipline, while neglecting the positive, proactive things we can do to encourage our children’s discipleship.
Paul warns against this tendency, saying: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Our children are human too—and so, good discipline does not guarantee that our children will grow up to share our character and values as adults.
In spite of these realities, God has entrusted our children into our care; as their parents, we are responsible for helping them move towards maturity as disciples of Jesus and children of God. With God as our model of loving, goal-oriented discipline, we ought to love our children enough to teach, train, encourage, correct, and sometimes punish them, for the sake of their long-term growth.
And no matter what happens, we and our children can always run into the arms of our perfect Heavenly Father; there we find God’s forgiveness, and strength to live as his children in the world.
Harriet Connor lives on the Central Coast of NSW with her husband and three sons. She is the author of Big Picture Parents: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life. Find out more at www.harrietconnor.com.