What is discipline? What is punishment? As we parent our children, these terms can overlap and get blended together, but more important is how we live them out.
The Meaning of Discipline
In Ephesians 6, the Apostle Paul tells children to obey their parents, “for this is right.” He reminds children that it is a commandment, not a suggestion -- and one with a promise: that it may go well with you, and you will live long in the land. In many places in the Bible the Lord tells parents to discipline their children so that they may learn to live well.
Parents should heed the verse that follows, as well: “fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but raise them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
Parents are told to keep our kids in line, and it is our job to train them up in the way they should go. However, we should never boss, bully, berate, or belittle our children. We must be careful not to let our selfish desires distract us from the goal: we are to be teaching what will ultimately manifest as self-discipline in their lives.
The Mandate of Discipline
We have a moral obligation to train our kids in good character. Along the way we have to make them do things they don’t want to do. This is discipline. Even if they don’t like it at first we must remain strong in enforcing standards that the Lord commands -- or simply rules that society (or safety) mandates.
It doesn’t always come easy; we have to train them to control their tempers, their tongues, and their appetites -- things that we all continue to battle even into adulthood. Parents have to be creative in finding what motivates each child to obey. For some children a stern word will suffice. For others, a stronger deterrent is necessary. One important (and difficult) key is consistency of rules.
When my kids were little I had to strap them into their car seats every time we got into the car. There was no negotiating, and I did not question whether I should do it. Because of this consistency the kids knew to expect it, and there was little balking at it. However, there were other issues I was inconsistent with enforcing. Sometimes I made them clean up all their toys when they were done playing; other times I forgot. Kids will pick up on the inconsistency and they will challenge rules that are only enforced some of the time. It’s important for parents to think through which rules and standards they really need to enforce and make a plan for doing so. Of course there is room for adjustment and reconsideration, but if the rules keep changing inexplicably no one will be happy.
The Problem of Punishment
If we were to ask a child, he/she may say that “punishment is when parents don’t like what the kids did, and they inflict pain or take away privileges.” The problem with this is his/her perception. Try to be sure that your kids know that discipline is more than just punishment, but that it’s for the sake of their character and their future. We discipline because we love. As the Bible says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11) Shortly before that, the author of Hebrews points out that the Lord disciplines those whom He loves.
Ultimately, parents will have to know their own motives and remain in constant prayer. Sometimes a parent will need to admit that she lost her temper or served up too much “consequence” for a particular infraction. Though this is a humbling experience, it is also a powerful lesson for our kids when we model apologizing and experience reconciliation in our relationship. If you feel that you have been too harsh, do not hesitate to humbly apologize. It will not detract from your role as the person who must train up your child; in fact, it will teach your child something very powerful about how to live.
The Role of Love languages
You might also take your child’s love language into consideration when deciding on discipline. For example, if a child’s love language is physical touch, then she will be very sensitive to any corporal punishment or withholding of physical affection. A child who thrives on words of affirmation may wither under a verbal scolding. What is mildly effective for one child could be devastating for another. Discerning parents who know their children well can modify discipline strategies accordingly. (For more information on love languages, and to take a free online quiz to assess your child’s primary love languages, see http://www.5lovelanguages.com/profile/)