The concept of discipline may often be seen in a negative light, but we have an opportunity to discipline our young children out of love, following the pattern of our heavenly Father where in Hebrews 12:6 we read that God “disciplines every child He loves.”

If we love our child and have their best interest at heart then as an authoritative and godly parent, we will establish discipline as the bedrock of their training and development. The aim being that once they have learned discipline from an external source (parents) they will have the skillsets in hand to transition to self-discipline later in life.

It starts with discipline in their activities: for example, establishing a good sleep routine is a discipline, sitting in the high chair for the duration of the family meal is discipline, healthy eating habits are a discipline, brushing our teeth and hygiene are matters of discipline. We often have a perception that all discipline is negative but, really, we are using discipline as a way of establishing priority and importance in the mind of the young child. It is an important basis for their ongoing development because once we have laid an early foundation of discipline, it will be with our child for life and we should be able to transition to training and instruction as they grow older.

One of the first areas of discipline is understanding the value of our word. Children often learn that “no” is a very powerful word and will try it out on us. By teaching them “no” they are learning respect for authority and that there are boundaries and limits to acceptable behaviour.

An integral part of discipline is outlining consequences to a child. Remember discipline is not an inherently negative word—it is related to the idea of being a disciple, and so too we want many of the consequences our children experience to be positive. We need to offer words of encouragement and observe and pay attention when they do the right thing—not just speaking up when we see them doing something wrong.

As a just parent we need to ensure that when we spell out consequences for misbehaviour, those consequences are just and fair and not an over-reaction. Specific consequences should be outlined for disobedience that is a clear breach of our command. An obvious example is if a child accidently knocks over an ornament, such as a vase. It may have great sentimental value, but we cannot punish a child for clumsiness. However, if we have a rule such as do not run in the house, and in breaking this rule the vase gets knocked over, the consequence should clearly be for disobeying the rule of not running in the house.

One of the ways we would assess an incident as parents is to analyse and consider whether it was an act of foolishness or just childishness. Childishness characterises typical scrapes and moments of developmental awkwardness. They are just part of every child’s life and so should be seen in that light. Accidentally dropping something may end up in this category as well. Foolishness, however, is where a child has deliberately disobeyed an instruction.

Proverbs particularly clarifies this and we can see that although a wise son listens to and obeys instruction (Prov 13:1) a foolish son does not (Prov 15:5,20). We are also told that “foolishness” (i.e. disobedience to instruction according to the interpretation within Proverbs) is “bound up in the heart of a child” (Prov 22:15). This behaviour needs to be met with disciplinary consequences.

So, a handy rule of thumb to parents of young children when confronted with an incident is to assess whether their action is childish or foolish. Has there been an explicit command given that has been ignored or disobeyed? This answer to this question will act as a guide as to whether we should apply punitive consequences as a result.

We need to be mindful of the personality of our child and their individual sensitivities when outlining the nature of consequences for disobedience. Not all children necessarily need to be treated the same way. Some very sensitive children will feel very chastised by a sharp tone and burst into upset tears at a rebuke. To other children, words are like ‘water off a duck’s back’ and more direct methods of drawing their attention to the issue may be required. It would be shameful to take physical punishment as a literal requirement to an extremely sensitive child where the ‘rod of reproof’ for them is already their own feeling of shame in letting you down. The object of any consequences as a part of discipline is to generate repentance, always having in view the child turning from foolishness. We do not need to go beyond what is required for this in the life of our child.

One very useful tool we found as part of discipline is the use of a timer. The timer on the oven became a very impartial adjudicator of minor disputes: for example, arguments over a toy can be avoided by setting the timer for ten minutes and then it’s the other child’s turn and vice versa. It is also a very good regulator in minor disciplinary consequences. If a child does not use appropriate manners or tone, put the timer on and they can try asking again in three minutes when it goes off. It can be used for more serious infractions when a child has to leave the room and retire to their bedroom for 20 minutes. When the timer goes off the incident is dealt with and everyone can move on and leave that in the past. The fact is that it lends itself to very defined parameters, where nothing is open-ended or uncertain. A simple device like a timer makes an exceptionally useful tool in disciplining our children.

In the same way Paul in Hebrews expounds the fruit of spiritual discipline being a positive thing, where he says in Hebrews 12:11, “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” (ESV). Here is one of the positive outcomes to discipline—peaceful fruit. The peaceable fruit can be seen in many households where children who are now older, acquiesce to instruction and show respect for authority because they have been trained in obedience and discipline at a young age and so no longer need such corrective consequences.

One other very positive attribute that comes with biblical discipline is empathy. It may seem counter-intuitive at first pass, but discipline and corrective consequences in the life of our young children actually help develop the attributes of empathy and awareness of others. A young toddler often acts on impulse and is frequently and inherently self-centred; this is the totality of their world view. This is observable with young toddlers where they do not really know how to play together. They may play with toys alongside each other, but they are each focused on their own toy and themselves, not on others.

One of the first steps along the road in getting a child to actually think about others and to understand the consequences of their behaviour and interactions with others, is to provide a well laid out structure of discipline and consequences. That is, if you do this, you will suffer these consequences. By this method, a young toddler is faced with a decision. Do they want to disobey and experience the punishment or do the right thing and avoid the negative consequences? In this way they learn to have empathy with themselves and this will later turn to empathy for others.

A selfish and self-centred child that has never had godly parents who have instilled a foundation of discipline has a far greater struggle in developing empathy and understanding for others as they have never had the opportunity to think about how someone else may feel, even if that someone else was themselves! In this way we see a practical demonstration of the wisdom in God’s Word, that discipline does bear peaceable fruit of righteousness in those that are exercised by it.