Raising children is a difficult task. Even the most compliant children are sometimes a challenge to handle. Every parent wrestles with discipline issues and no one has all the answers. But as a parent of six children and a student of the Bible, I would like to offer to you one of the most basic and powerful life principles that can lovingly direct your child into consistent compliance with your directions.
The biblical principle for loving discipline is built upon a right understanding of the kind of world God has made and in which we all live. Simply put, the principle is built upon the fact that every choice, every action a person makes has an appropriate consequence. This is true for all people of all ages. It happens automatically. No one can change it. It is like gravity. You may not always like what gravity does to you. You may not understand how it works. But you can’t ignore it. You must live within its rules and power.
This is true for all of our choices and actions as well. God tells us that because of who He is, a good, just, honest and loving God, there are some actions that are good, just, honest and loving—and many that are not. The good and loving actions automatically lead to good consequences: things like freedom, peace, joy and real pleasure. Good consequences result in some form of “life” and are constructive.
On the other hand, choices and actions that are not loving and good are destructive and painful. God calls these kinds of actions “sin.” Sin always leads to some form of “death.” There is just no getting around this reality. Even those who don’t believe in God live under this fact of life. It is inescapable.
Because of this, it is indispensable that every person, no matter how old he or she is, learns how to live within this framework. It is a parent’s responsibility to teach his or her child this truth and how to live within it.
The first thing, then, that we need to understand about the disciplining of children is that it is not primarily for us as parents. It is for our children. We are not to discipline children to get what we want, but to give them what they need. Woe to the child who never learns that there are real, painful and sometimes even deadly consequences for wrong decisions. So first, our purpose in discipline is for their well-being.
It might help at this point to try to depict this truth visually. In the picture below you see a circle. The line of the circle represents a boundary. Inside the circle are all of the good consequences we would like our children to experience. (We would like to experience them, too!) A person will experience the good consequences within the circle every time he or she makes a choice consistent with God’s love, goodness, honesty, etc. But the moment a person does something different that what God would do, he or she has crossed the boundary and entered into the realm of bad consequences (death).
How often does it work this way? Every single time. There are no exceptions.
How often does it work this way? Every single time. There are no exceptions.
We can see the consistency of this reality in our physical world. We don’t choose to jump off of two-story buildings. Why? Because we know the consequences are destructive. Gravity is just one example; but we can choose from an endless number of them. How about standing in front of a moving train, or eating poison, or walking up to wild lions or standing barefoot in a puddle of water while holding a live electrical wire? We learn, either by mistakes (if they are not fatal) or through the mistakes of others, not to do certain things because their consequences are too severe.
This reality is so undeniable that we as parents work diligently to protect our children from even getting near some of these painful and fatal situations. We put protective caps on our electrical outlets. We store knives high up in a childproof drawer. We put up fences. We lock the doors and keep constant watch over our children so that they will not accidentally stumble into one of the more severe consequences through their own or someone else’s wrong decision. We know that the world doesn’t make exceptions for the innocence of childhood.
What is true in the physical world is true in the invisible world as well.
Moral decisions have consequences, too.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, not all consequences are immediate and easily connected to their cause. It takes experience and a mature mind to make the proper connections. God helps us by telling us in advance what will hurt us and what will benefit us. A wise person listens to God, believes He is telling the truth and does what is right, no matter how hard it may be because he or she knows the alternative is too costly. Children know neither the fact of consequences nor do they have the ability to make mature observations. Children are vulnerable.
That’s where we parents come in. Children need us to teach them what the real world is like, that there are good decisions and bad decisions. They need to learn by appropriate experience that godly decisions always lead to good consequences and bad decisions always lead to painful consequences.
If the real world is too severe for children, how shall they learn this? They should learn it through the artificial world their parents create for them. Let’s look at the diagram again.
If the real boundary line is too severe for children, then parents need to do two things. First, do everything reasonably possible to prevent them from ever getting to that line, even when they want to. Second, establish age/child appropriate boundaries within the real one. The dashed line represents this. But the artificial boundaries parents set up are just that—artificial. There are no real consequences to deter them from crossing the artificial line. That’s why rules alone will never teach a child to comply with your commands and live safely. No matter how you plead or threaten, a human being only learns not to cross a boundary when he or she is convinced that it would be better not to do so.
That is why parents must not only set up appropriate boundaries but also appropriate consequences. The consequences must be appropriate for the age of the child, the disposition of the child, the kind of boundary crossed and the way in which the child crossed the boundary (willful disobedience or simple-minded accident). No one can say what is the best kind of painful consequence to give every child in every situation. Children are different. The same child is different at different ages. But two things must be remembered. One is that the consequences should be discouragingly painful (because the real ones are), and the other is that the consequences be consistently enforced—every time (again, because the real ones are).
Consequences for bad choices must be painful enough to discourage repeat offenses. My wife tells the story of how in her teenage years her parents set a particular boundary and clearly explained the negative consequences that would follow if she disobeyed. In this particular case, she weighed the benefits of her disobedience against the negative consequences and concluded that the benefits were worth the painful costs. She broke the rule with calculated disobedience.
To enforce discouragingly painful consequences is a painful thing for parents as well. The old saying, “This is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you” is true for loving parents. Who wants to see their children suffer? Who wants to be the messenger of that suffering? Many parents don’t discipline their children because they don’t want to see them suffer for any reason, or because they believe it is wrong to discipline with some form of pain. God disciplines us because He loves us. True love always does what is best for the one loved.
This is where we as parents need be diligent. It is all too easy to discipline some of the time, when it is convenient, but to neglect it when we are tired or distracted.
I remember when our first child was two. Like most parents we were warned about this challenging age. But my wife, Becky and I were determined not to let our child become one of those “terrible two-year-olds.” When Michael started to throw tantrums and willfully disobey us we made it unpleasant for him. Of course, afterwards we would comfort and reassure him. But the first two weeks of this was hard—I don’t think as much for Michael as for Becky. It even started getting to me. I remember talking with Becky, both of us lamenting that we were going to have to be so “hard” on Michael for the rest of his life. But then his rebellion stopped. The war was over. Oh, there were occasional skirmishes, but he became obedient, that is, until his world got bigger and he had to go through the same lesson again. (I’ll talk more about that later.)
Children who receive inconsistent consequences for the same offense learn that the rules don’t really need to be obeyed because the consequences are uncertain—they might even get away with it altogether! Children living in such situations learn that they don’t need to be consistent because their world isn’t consistent. They are in for a very rude surprise when they become adults.
Now we must remember that in giving consequences not only do bad choices have bad consequences, but good choices also have good consequences. We must learn to positively reinforce good behavior with pleasant rewards. Again, you must become a student of your own child and learn what is pleasing to him or her.
When we were potty training Michael we used jellybeans to reward him. It was so successful that we started using them to reward our second child, Nichole, when the time came. But to our surprise, jellybeans weren’t having the same effect. Then one day Nichole came to us and said that she would try to use the toilet if we rewarded her with “make-ups and dinners” (plastic play food). It worked!
It is also important to note that consequences work better when they are known beforehand, when the rule (boundary) is being explained. To threaten a child with unknown consequences, or to entice them with unknown consequences is usually ineffective. Make the rule clear. Make the consequences clear. Make sure they understand what is going to happen to them if they obey and what is going to happen to them if they don’t. Then be prepared to follow through on your word every time!
Again, the key words are appropriate and consistent.
Now, consistency never changes, but appropriateness does. As children grow, their perception of their world grows. There are new possibilities, new temptations, new pleasures and new pains. Their question always is, “Do the old rules of consequence apply to my new world?” You must supply the right answer.
As a child grows in perception, ability and responsibility, the parents must enlarge the boundaries of his or her world. That is, they must make new age/child appropriate rules to match the child’s new world. New rules must be made. New consequences must be decided upon. And both must be communicated clearly.
Our experience is that this process happens in cycles. After two weeks of diligently disciplining Michael, he became a wonderful two-year-old. After a couple of months, his world got bigger and he again consistently resisted our directions. But just like before, after a brief phase of focused discipline, he recovered. He had learned that the old rules of consequence still applied to his new world.
As children become teenagers, this process actually accelerates. Never in a person’s life is so much power heaped upon someone so quickly than in the teenage years. Financial power, sexual power, political power, social power, physical power and more come in waves of titanic proportions. I don’t believe most adults are yet able to successfully handle such a deluge if it were to happen to them again. It is no wonder so many of our teenagers fail the trial and scar their lives permanently.
During the teenage years it is necessary to find the balance between too many rules and too few. Remember the goal is to teach responsibility, not control their lives. Teenagers are fast approaching the time when they will be completely responsible for their every decision, both the good ones and the bad ones. We ourselves demanded this freedom as we reached this age. Don’t be surprised when they do the same thing. The way to help your teenager to make good decisions is to train your toddler to make good decisions.
What if we didn’t do this when they were young? It will be harder as they get older, but the principles don’t change. It is better to start late, explaining to them what you did wrong and do the best you can now before you lose all opportunity to teach them.
How can we do this? By loving our teenagers no matter what. That means learning how to “be on their side” wherever possible, sharing in their joys, pains and fears. It means spending time with them, having fun, learning how to be their friend, yet still being their parent, too, making appropriate rules and enforcing the consequences when necessary. As teenagers get older the issue turns from enforcing consequences to that of permitting consequences.
One of the difficult things about being the parent of teenagers is the fact that in many cases the appropriate boundaries for them are the real boundaries in the world! As parents, we would like to continue to protect our children from all real consequences, sometimes at all costs. But for teenage children, full protection becomes less possible and is not always the loving or responsible thing to do. Adults live in the real world, facing its real consequences every day. Even though we might want to protect our children from all pain, at some point we must allow our children to become adults and become fully responsible for their decisions. To prolong the process inappropriately sets our children up for severe resistance and anger towards us. However, if we let appropriate real consequences come naturally, then we will not be perceived as the cause of our children’s pain. Instead, we can focus on comforting them and help them think through how to avoid repeat, painful experiences.
Let me give you two example. When Michael turned eighteen, he received a letter in the mail from the U.S. government informing him that he must register for the draft. I briefly explained that this was important and he needed to do this before the deadline or else there would be serious legal consequences. He said he’d do it soon. Sometime later, he received another letter from the government informing him of the consequences he was soon to face for not having registered before the appointed time. Noticing the letter, I pointed it out to him and reminded him of the seriousness of the consequences and insisted that he register that very day. He did so. In this case I had to put pressure on Michael to protect him from acting irresponsibly and suffering serious consequences.
However, another time Michael received a speeding ticket that carried with it a rather significant fine. Did I pay it for him? No. He had to pay for it himself. Nor did I give him money for a recreational trip he no longer was able to afford. He missed out. The world enforced the natural consequences. I didn’t have to. I just had to stay out of the way.
So what have we covered?
First, that we must learn to discipline our children for their sake, not ours.
Second, that we must discipline our children according to the pattern of God’s real world, protecting them when necessary, but teaching them the law of consequences.
Third, that we must make appropriate age/child rules with matching consequences for both the good and the bad choices they make.
Fourth, that we must communicate the rules and their consequences clearly to our children in advance.
Fifth, that we must be prepared to enforce the good and the bad consequences every time, in order to teach consistency.
Sixth, that we must continually adjust the boundaries and their consequences as our children grow.
And seventh, that the time will come, when we as parents must release our children into the real world and let them be adults, fully responsible for their own decisions.
There are two more things that must be said about disciplining children.
First, without real love, all discipline ultimately fails and becomes destructive. Real love is express naturally, automatically and in many verbal and non-verbal ways. Children who feel loved respond to discipline differently than children who do not feel loved. Children who do not feel loved by mom and dad respond to discipline with confusion, self-condemnation, rebellion and anger. Real loved cannot be faked. Children read adults better than most of us realize.
Let your love for your child be rich and full and unhindered. Guard your time with them. Make them feel special and wanted and valuable. The world is going to “love” them based upon their appearance, performance and possessions. May your home be a place where your children are loved unconditionally—just for who they are, your children.
Second, it is not possible to discipline, or educate your child into goodness. What I mean is this. Every human being is born with a self-centered, selfish nature. This is why children and adults must learn to control their impulses and desires. If left unchecked, human beings, even at young ages, hurt and abuse one another. Good discipline restrains the selfish nature, but it cannot change it. Selfishness comes from the inside, from who we are.
If anyone is to become a truly good, loving and selfless person, then our very nature must be changed. Education and discipline cannot do this. Only God can. This is why every human being needs Jesus Christ. Jesus not only paid the penalty for our sins so that God no longer needs to execute justice against us, but Jesus also is able to change the very nature of the one who believes in Him. Jesus save us by making us into people like Himself; good, loving, pure, kind, generous, etc.—in short, perfect.
People who believe in and are learning to follow Jesus are in this process of being made anew. Apart from this, all discipline ultimately falls far, far short of the goal. Your children need Jesus, and so do you.
If you are already a part of a Christian fellowship and are experiencing the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ, wonderful! If not, we invite you to come and learn with us. God is not in the business of making people religious. He is working to make people good and loving.
God wants to make you the parent your child needs. After all, our children are not really “ours.” They belong to Him, just as you and I do. He loves you. He loves them, even more than we as earthly parents do.
Come and learn about Jesus and how you can let Him change you.
If you would like to know more about the Walnut Creek Friends Church, please contact us, or come and be with us on a Sunday. We would love to have the opportunity to get to know each other and walk with Christ Jesus together.