It is safe to remark that discipline is unfashionable today. The creed of our modern humanist society demands the freedom of expression and behaviour, wherever that behaviour might lead. To say that this approach is a mistake would be to indulge in the drollest understatement. We commenced this series of articles looking at how the family was divinely ordained. We must take an example from God if we are to order our families correctly. The premier exposition of divine discipline is in Hebrews 12, where we read “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (v6). The world would have us believe that if we loved our children we would let them be. That is not the divine method. Of course we realise that “no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (v11).

At the point of discipline no child would suggest that punishment is a desirable thing, but afterwards (when they are adults) they can look back and perceive the benefit. This is all based on the predication that the discipline is given in love and because we love. Discipline handed out in anger by an irascible and implacable tyrant is another thing completely and must be deplored. As parents we have no business being like that. However, just because some parents fail to discipline after the divine method (with love and for love’s sake) does not mean the concept of discipline is faulty. Proverbs 29:17 says: “Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul.” We need to put in the hard work early in a child’s life and then we can be in a position to reap the rewards of our labour later on.

Discipline must be offered for two reasons; to provide correction and instruction immediately and to prepare a child for a life of self-control and personal discipline. The ultimate objective is the creation within our children of godly minds intent on living godly lives. We will not always be there to discipline so we need to develop a godly conscience in our children so that they might choose the good and shun the evil. This was Yahweh’s method with Jesus (Isa 7:15).

Love and discipline

A recent convert to the gospel once asked my grandmother (Sister Alice Palmer) whether she thought that too much love spoils a child. Her response: “Oh no, dear, you don’t spoil a child with too much love; you spoil them with too little discipline”. Wiser words than these we cannot hope to find. Grandma had it right. She loved us all to bits and we were all the better for it. Several times in Proverbs (3:11–12 [cp Job 5:17]; 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 23:13–14; 29:15–17) we have this concept made clear. Our children are born, not as little saints but as little sinners. We must make them into saints with education and discipline. Love must be tough, but it must always be love. Neglect of discipline is failure to love. Even the Son of God “learned obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb 5:8). Now this is not at all to suggest that his discipline was corrective but it was instructive. For us discipline needs to be both corrective and instructive. When we consider the punishment side of the equation we need (as God clearly does Psa 103:10) to be far more gentle than the fault may have deserved; considering the instructive side, we need to be firm enough for the lesson to be learned.

The question needs to be answered, “What form should discipline take?” Certainly physical punishment has lost favour among the community around us and also within the brotherhood. This need not be the case. Scripture is abundantly clear that corporal methods are acceptable. The old adage ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ has support from all of the Scriptures in the previous paragraph. The purpose of discipline is to change behaviour, and the mechanism is pain. This might sound harsh but it is evidently true. A gentle approach just will not work as this quote from Isaiah clearly shows: “Let favour be shewed to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness: in the land of uprightness will he deal unjustly, and will not behold the majesty of the LORD.” (Isa 26:10) Since the purpose of discipline is to learn righteousness, the approach cannot be by “showing favour”. Chastisement must cause pain, mental or physical, which then motivates behavioural change. Of course the extent of the pain needs to be carefully controlled such that it produces the appropriate response, but not more than necessary to do so. We are not about harming children but educating them. An appropriately delivered smack causes no mental or physical harm whatsoever. I received my share of these as a child and I have no emotional or physical scars and only love and respect for those elders (mostly my parents) who administered them. Of course it is possible to administer corporal (or otherwise) punishment in an unreasonable and unloving way. A brother or sister in Christ should never do this. A loving parent will never be dictatorial, overbearing and unreasonable, but they will and must apply discipline. Do not get sucked in by modern psychobabble; properly administered punishment given in love is the best approach. Non-corporal methods may work better in an older child who can respond to reason. As a general rule one might say that the younger the child the more likely it is that a physical punishment will be more effective than anything else. Probably by age 10, physical punishments will have been phased out (or be well on the way out) and replaced by alternative methods. As I will later demonstrate there is not (and cannot be) a ‘one size thats all’ approach. We had three different children which necessitated three different discipline regimes.

Whatever approach we take our motivation must be love. We discipline to make our children into the sort of people God will be able to work with eternally. To fail to discipline our child (possibly in fear of abuse) and hence modify their behaviour, making them unlovely and ultimately rejected by God, might also be considered as abuse. May I recommend the book The New Dare to Discipline by Dr James Dobson, an American paediatrician, for those of you who may still be unsure on this matter?

Education and expectation

All this of course means that rules need to be established. Expectations need to be explained and rehearsed over and over again. We cannot hold a child accountable for breaking a rule that was not evident or had not been previously established. However we must take some care over the interpretation of this. A child cannot maintain that we had not told them that torturing the cat had been specifically prohibited if we have previously made it clear that we are to treat all creation with respect. On the other hand children tend to interpret things literally or with a narrow scope which we as adults would not. One day, having told the children they could play outside providing they did not get into mischief, Karen was astonished to discover that our nephew and son had dismantled the drainpipes from the guttering and built an elaborate creation of suspended waterways with the pipe work on the back lawn. They maintained that they did not believe it was mischief and they had not been specifically told they could not take the drainpipes apart. Sometimes generic instructions just do not provide enough guidance for children. A balance needs to be set between the two extremes, and parents need to determine if behaviour was the naivety and simplicity of children or wilful neglect or disobedience, and then provide an appropriate response.

This same dilemma is encountered when listening to stories made up by children. It may be fanciful, but is it a lie, or just the vivid imagination of a child? In this context a lie is defined as an untruth (or partial truth) told with the intent to deceive. I do not believe that a child should be punished for their imagination unless they are using it for an evil purpose.

It can be very difficult to tell if a child is lying or not. We do not have the insight of God and therefore must rely on other factors which are less precise. However it is likely that a child will lie to escape punishment and many of them will implicate others to either deffect blame from themselves or at least share the blame. Proverbs 12:22 simply says, “Lying lips are abomination to the LORD”, and they should be to us also. Make it your practice to punish lies more severely than almost anything else. A practical way to achieve this when a child has done something wrong and lied about it, is to administer an exceedingly small punishment and be clear that this is for the misdeed, and then administer a significantly greater (possibly tenfold more) punishment for the lie and be very clear that this extra was because of the lie, and that lies will not be tolerated. You may even consider further reducing a punishment if a misdeed was confessed rather than discovered. In this way openness and honesty are promoted. A child who has no reason to be honest can hardly be expected to be honest.

An individual approach

Discipline needs to be ‘child specific’. If we banished Murray to his room it was no punishment at all. He was always content in his own company and social exclusion simply did not work. There was seldom (but not always) a need to smack him either because usually a scolding would produce immediate and significant repentance. With his sister however, a reprimand was exceedingly unlikely to work, a smack might result in a cheeky retort of “that didn’t hurt” (which itself did not go unpunished!) but social exclusion was torture of the most severe kind. We need to remember that the purpose of discipline is not to make us feel better, but to make them behave better. Use a tailored approach for each child and use what works best. Discipline also needs to be ‘age appropriate’ and suitable for the occasion and offence. A child who broke the command not to play ball in the lounge room should not be treated differently from one who broke a vase whilst doing so. It was only good luck which prevented damage in the first instance. The child who accidentally broke the vase may feel hard done by if they perceive they are punished for an accident. Do not punish accidents, punish rebellion. If there are two children playing and one broke the vase, punish them both equally for breaking the rules and punish neither of them for breaking the vase.

There is no point at all in handing out chastisement to children unless it is also accompanied with a reason and a lesson. A good piece of advice is to ‘first talk to the end that listens; if that fails then ‘talk’ to the other end’. We do not want them merely to learn that a certain behaviour results in a punishment, so much as we want them to learn why the action is bad and what we expect of them next time. Every time (without exception) you discipline your child explain why they were wrong and bring God into your explanation. A child needs to know that we are all accountable to God Who has given us the moral code by which we live. I have found that even the most fractious child will usually draw the line at arguing with God, even if they want to argue with you. Bringing God into the reasoning may just be the extra help a struggling parent needs to make the child accept the lesson.

When to start?

One might ask, “ How early should I start disciplining my child?” I believe the correct answer is as soon as they do something unacceptable. We must however be understanding of the nature of children in this, because the continual whining of a six month old child (however annoying it is) is likely to mean there is something physically wrong with them, whereas the continual whining of a ten year old is likely to indicate unreasonable selfishness. One we might punish and the other we would not. It may surprise many how early children start being naughty. By age one children know many things, including what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. If we wait till then we are far too late. A six month old child who bites their mother must be disciplined and we must explain even to them why that is wrong. When the behaviour of a young child is dangerous and not just naughty then we must take instant action. It is not inappropriate to smack the hand that reaches out to the hot stove when we have said not to touch. Failure to take such action could result in serious injury; failure to explain could result in a repeat of the action another time.

Consistency and persistency

All of our discipline must be as consistent as possible. If it is wrong then correct it. If it was wrong yesterday, then it should still be wrong today. In this way the child knows where the boundaries are. Boundaries and rules which are consistently enforced make a child feel safe. Children know that the parents will have wisely set the boundaries and providing they stay within them they will not come to any harm. Sometimes a child just wants to test the boundaries and engage you in a contest of wills. These must be won by the parent. Any loss in a battle of wills is catastrophic. A child will simply repeat the exercise again and again and wear you down until discipline is non-existent. Even the most eventempered child will have these contests at some point.

I remember one Sunday morning when Murray, aged about three (certainly old enough to know what was expected in terms of behaviour), during a memorial meeting had made noise and disrupted the meeting. Now my tolerance for disruption to a memorial meeting by a child is extremely low (and I believe yours should be also), so I took him out quite promptly and administered the hand of education to the seat of the problem. I then explained why he had received the smack and enquired as to whether it had taught him to be a good boy in God’s meeting? “I don’t think so” came back a naughty reply. “Well you can have another then” and he received the hand of correction once more. “Has that taught you?” “Not yet” came the cheeky retort. So he got more. The battle continued with gradually less rebellious answers until finally he said “I think I am learning”. “Well you had better have one more just to be sure”, to which he responded “I think I have learnt now”. I was flabbergasted! How could he be so stupid? He had just talked himself into a much worse punishment than was ever originally intended. Any sensible child would have shut their mouth, taken their medicine and minimised the damage. Apparently the expression on my face when I rejoined the meeting was priceless. This was a child who did not normally even need a smack, yet he was engaging in outright rebellion just to see if I would crack, and he was prepared to go to ridiculous lengths in pursuit of his experiment. We did not have another contest of wills with Murray for many years. Had I cracked under the pressure and given in I imagine that, a precedent having been set, I may have had them often.

Now not every child is the same. I still have battles of wills with his sisters on a regular basis. While I cannot therefore say that if you win the first major battle then your child might give up and not have another one, I can say that it is important to win every battle of wills with your child.

That is not to say that as a parent you are always right. Should you discover that you were in the wrong then it is important to apologise and restore the relationship. To not do this is to provoke our children to anger and discourage them, which is the subject of a warning directed at fathers in Colossians 3:21.

A loving context

Discipline is just one of the tools of a loving parent. It will not do to neglect the others. Children will perceive that we are just capricious and disciplinarian and not respect us. Discipline should not be the only face that our children see. The Apostle Paul said we are to “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Clearly we are given to understand that both love and discipline must be present. Parents should not discipline a child because they are angry, and preferably not while they are angry. We must discipline our children because this is what God expects a loving parent to do and it must be in an overall context of love. Appropriate discipline is part of nurture. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prov 13:24 ESV).