As young parents of three "intensely-wired" preschoolers, we tried our best to do the usual Christian parenting things — read our kids Bible stories, teach them morals and pray with them. But when it came to discipline, we grew exasperated. At the time, our primary goal was to teach our children right behavior, and we found ourselves constantly proclaiming things such as: "Stop that now!" and "You are disobeying!" And, if the misbehavior was really extreme, "You're getting a consequence!"
The more our emotions collided with those of our passionate little ones, the wider the gap seemed to grow between our good intentions and the outcomes we desired. Something wasn't working. By the time our oldest child started school, we were exhausted. In spite of our best efforts, we just couldn't seem to get this discipline thing right. We kept looking to God's Word, wondering why it didn't contain more direct instructions for parenting.
Then we discovered 1 Thessalonians 2:7,11-12, a passage that changed our parenting for good. In it, Paul writes: "But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. … For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory."
For the first time, we saw Paul as a parent. And as we looked more closely at his example, we discovered that his primary goal was not enforcing right behavior from his "children," but rather developing a God-shaped identity in them. His letters almost always started with a warm greeting followed by a reminder to his readers of their special identity in Christ. Only after laying this foundation, did he address concerns about behavior.
Once we began looking at Paul's parenting example, we discovered that Jesus also focused on identity as He influenced His followers. With His own identity anchored in His Father, Jesus used seven "I am" statements to reveal His identity. He even kicked off His earthly ministry by proclaiming a new identity for His disciples: "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19).
In one particular instance, Jesus' followers became excited about their ability to cast out demons. Instead of congratulating them on their exceptional behavior, He told them not to rejoice in their results but in their identity as God's children (Luke 10:20). Later He prayed that His disciples would be protected in the power of God's name — their identity (John 17:11-12).
Jesus knew that the spread of the Gospel depended on His disciples knowing their identity as children of His Father and their actions stemming from their relationship with God. In the same way, having a strong identity in Christ can motivate our children to live in ways that are different from the world. This identity takes root as parents let go of the goal of right behavior and focus first on cultivating faith and identity in their children, particularly during discipline.
As we have sought to practice identity-based discipline with our children, here are four "You are" messages we have employed:
• You are safe
The Bible tells us that God's children are safe to approach Christ in the midst of struggle and receive mercy and grace (Hebrews 4:16). Modeling this safety for your children means setting aside stress, baggage and judgments, and responding to kids' misbehavior with calm mercy and grace. When parents slow down, breathe and even pray for insight before engaging with children who are misbehaving, their kids feel safe and learn better.
• You are loved no matter what
In the story of the prodigal son, both sons, in their own way, were selfish and disrespectful. Yet the father (a picture of our heavenly Father) offered extravagant and unconditional love to each.
Our kids know unconditional love when they experience love in their worst moments. As we show them unconditional love, their hearts are opened to understand God's redemptive love. In the midst of discipline, empathize with your child or offer a hug; maybe even say, "I love you!" out loud.
• You are capable
Every human is created by God to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). This doesn't change just because a child misbehaves. In fact, when kids misbehave, parents have a great opportunity to focus on what their children can do more than what they shouldn't do.
We want to nurture our children's capacity to figure out solutions. Instead of forcing compliance, ask children what they need to solve the problem their misbehavior has created. If they don't know, offer choices, such as, "Do you want to solve the problem now, or take a break until you're ready?" Or, "How do you feel about this problem, and what might you do to get back on track?" This engages their brains instead of just passively receiving a consequence.
• You are responsible for your actions
Galatians 6:7 teaches that we reap what we sow. This is a cause-and-effect truth. The first part of teaching responsibility is helping kids understand the natural consequences of their behavior. For example, "When you leave a mess, you have a hard time finding what you're looking for later." Simply explaining to children the natural effects of their poor choices will sometimes motivate them to take responsibility.
The second part of instilling an identity of responsibility in your child is showing him how to make right what he has made wrong. What can he do to make restitution for his poor choice? When parents discipline by emphasizing natural consequences and facilitating restitution, kids grow in wisdom and become internally motivated toward honoring behavior.
Putting it all together
Here is how a parent could incorporate these four statements into a discipline situation. Let's say that their child is whining or talking back. The parent first takes a calming breath and says a short prayer. (Child feels safe.) The parent then gently says, "I can see you're upset by something … (Child feels validated and loved.) ... but when you whine like that it sounds unpleasant. People don't want to listen." (This reinforces natural consequences.) "You can settle down and speak honorably so I can listen, or you can keep whining and I'll not listen. What do you want to do?" (Child feels capable and responsible to decide.)
As our parenting and discipline began to focus more on our children's identity and less on their behavior, our kids began to grow in respect. As preteens, they learned to reconcile independently, and now they have gone into the world equipped with both the skills and identity needed to be strong in their faith and devoted in service to God and others.
As we have observed parents growing in this simple framework for discipline, the feedback is consistent: Discipline that seeks to build God-honoring identity leads to God-honoring behavior. As you focus on giving your child a strong identity in Christ, she will be better able to withstand the challenges of today's world and be a light in the darkness.
Jim and Lynne Jackson are the co-founders of Connected Families, an organization focused on helping parents discipline with love and purpose. They are the authors of Discipline That Connects With Your Child's Heart.