Focus on the Family

Effective Child Discipline

by Chip Ingram

There's not a responsible parent on the planet who hasn't struggled with getting a child to obey, and it can be an excruciating experience. How do you get your children to mind without losing yours?

That's a challenge, and God's Word has much to say about how we as parents can meet that challenge. It shows us how to provide the kind of discipline that helps our children fulfill their responsi­bility. If the most important thing for our children to learn is to obey, what do we do when they won't?

Four Parenting Styles

First, it's important to understand how your parenting approach may be contributing to the problem, especially in a culture that has made discipline a dirty word. To speak of a parent disciplining a child today evokes images of unreasonable anger and brutal beat­ings. That's not biblical discipline. Two case studies — one sociolog­ical and the other biblical — show us what appropriate, godly discipline is all about.

Sociologist Reuben Hill conducted a study of thousands of teens and parents in Minnesota. Hill put all of his research on a grid with an x-axis, a y-axis, and four quadrants. The horizontal axis measured how much discipline or control parents exercised in their relationship with their child. The vertical axis measured love. Hill found that different parenting styles produced differ­ent responses among children.1

parenting styles chart

1. The Permissive Parent. The upper left quadrant represents parents who are high in love but low in discipline: the permissive parent. The study revealed that permissive parents tend to produce children with very low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority. Though the parents express a lot of love, the lack of boundaries leaves their children with a high level of insecurity. The kids feel loved, but they are never sure of their limits. Their parents are generally fearful, afraid of messing up and damaging their chil­dren's psyche, so they never set firm boundaries. The kids feel very loved and very unsure of themselves.

2. The Neglectful Parent. The lower left quadrant belongs to the worst of all four combinations: the neglectful parent. This kind of parent doesn't express much love and also doesn't really care enough to discipline. Their children tend to grow up with little or no lasting relationship with Mom or Dad. They're estranged because they feel forsaken. The parents' neglect may not neces­sarily be intentional — they may simply be in the midst of their own traumas and chaos, like an addiction or an abusive situa­tion. They don't purposely desire to neglect their kids, but they don't know how to deal with their own issues adequately and don't have the tools to be healthy parents. These children grow up with unbelievably deep emotional scars, and their only hope is to find Christ, be surrounded by godly role models, and get some good Christian counseling.

3. The Authoritarian Parent. The authoritarian parent shows up in the lower right quadrant. This kind of parent doesn't express love and affection well but is very high on discipline. They raise children who are provoked to rebellion. The bar is always high and the "musts" are always abundant, so there's a strong sense of safety. But this kind of parent isn't content just to win the war; they have to win every battle too. Communication between parent and child takes the form of arguing and fighting, espe­cially when the child is old enough to fight back. Authoritarian parents squeeze their kids until the kids can't wait to leave home, and as soon as they do, they rebel. When Paul told the Ephesians not to overcorrect their children and exasperate them, he was warning authoritarians not to raise children who would reject the faith altogether.

4. The Authoritative Parent. Those who land in the upper right quadrant provide the best combination of love and discipline. This kind of parent is authoritative — not an overbearing authoritarian, but a compassionate yet firm authority. They have clear boundaries but are also very loving. Everyone knows who the boss is, but there's also a connection between parents and child, a consideration that respects and honors who the child is while not compromising his or her disciplinary needs. The result is a child high in self-esteem and equipped with good coping skills.

This secular sociological study found that the parent who balances love and discipline, without compromising either, produces well-adjusted kids who maintain a positive relationship with Mom and Dad. This research, the best available today, affirms parents who express love well and maintain a high degree of control in their home.

All of us want to be in quadrant four, and probably most of us think we are. But before we move on to our biblical case study, consider these questions: Where do you tend to err? If you had to pick a quadrant other than number four to represent your worst moments as a parent, which would it be? Make a mental note of your answer; it will help you later when we look at our parenting through new lenses.


1Reuben Hill's research as presented by Dr. Richard Meier in a seminar on parenting, MinirthMeier Clinic, Dallas, Texas, 1988.

What the Bible Says About Discipline

Parents can learn how to best discipline their children by taking note of how the Bible says God disciplines us.

by Chip Ingram

The second case study I want us to look at doesn't come from sociological research but from inspired Scripture. The subject is a group of spiritual children, Jewish Christians who are rebelling and pulling away from Christ. They are suffering persecution and wondering if the Christian life is worth the trouble. They know the right thing to do — maintain faith in Jesus. But that seems too hard, so they're crossing their arms and turning away.

We can listen in on God's response to these Christians in Hebrews 12:1-11. This is how God disciplines His children. (By the way, any time you see God operating as a parent in Scripture, take note. If you're the kind of parent to your children that God is to His, you're right on target.)

After a brief introduction, the writer of Hebrews reminds his read­ers that they have "not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood" in their struggle against sin (v. 4). He also reminds them that God calls them "sons" and encourages them as such (v. 5-6). After all, they're Jewish believers who are very familiar with the Old Testa­ment, so they know the encouragement God has already given in Proverbs 3:11-12: "My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in." In other words, he acknowledges that they're going through a hard time and suggests they consider whether that hard time is a matter of God's discipline. If it is, it's only because God delights in His children.

Then the writer gets to his main teaching: "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disci­plined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone under­goes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!" (vv. 7-9).

The passage gives a very human illustration: "Our fathers disci­plined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness" (v. 10). The point? "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (v. 11).

Do you see what Scripture is saying here? Far from being a dirty word, discipline is evidence of love. When you consistently disci­pline your child and do it with the right attitude — compassionately, under control, with consistent boundaries and consequences, and focused on the child's best outcome — you are expressing love exactly as God sometimes expresses His love. It may seem uncom­fortable both to you and your child at the time, but in the long run, it's the most selfless, compassionate thing you can do to set your child up for happiness in life and fruitfulness in God's Kingdom.

The Bible's perspective on discipline is affirmed by what many psychologists and sociologists are now learning about child development: that children left to themselves will do what all people left to themselves in a fallen world will do. They'll make bad decisions that produce pain and turmoil in their lives. Relationships won't work right, money will be mismanaged and debt will pile up, conflict will erupt both within and without, and long-term goals will never be realized. So God tells the Hebrew Christians that the adversity they face comes from His loving hand, not because they're bad, but because He wants the best for them. That's our motivation as parents as well.


Five Characteristics of Biblical Discipline

How can you know if you're disciplining your kids God's way? Take a look at a passage from Hebrews 12.

by Chip Ingram

"Discipline" can be a really vague concept, and if you're lost in the landscape of opinions surrounding it out there, you're not alone. If you were to ask a hundred parents to describe their motives and methods of discipline, you might get a hundred different answers. But here's the good news: God's Word is pretty specific about this subject. Since the Bible is always more reliable than opinion surveys — a good principle for any issue in life, by the way — let's take a look at what God says through the writer of Hebrews.

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:

"My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."

Endure hardship as discipline: God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:4-11)

In this passage, we can discern five distinct characteristics of God's kind of discipline.

1. The necessity of discipline: to deter destruction (v. 4). The writer of Hebrews ends chapter 10 with a strong warning coupled with strong encouragement: Those who shrink back from faith and God's will are destroyed, but those who persevere receive all that He has promised. Chapter 11 is full of examples from the men and women in Scripture, and then chapter 12 continues with the encouragement to live a courageous, faithful life. The context of verse 4 is this idea that haphazard living leads to destruction. The message is clear: Disciplined lives reap rewards.

Discipline is about watching your child to see the direction in which he's going. Remember the illustration of giving your child the keys and letting him drive on his own? Action needs to be taken when you see your child take the wrong route and you know he's headed straight for a cliff. You yank the wheel or slam on the brakes, or even put up a barrier so your child won't plunge a thousand feet. He'll get mad for a moment, but ten years down the road he'll thank you.

Many parents are afraid of making their children mad. I remember the first time one of mine stuck out his lip and said, "I don't love you anymore." My first thought was, "Boy, I don't ever want to be that hard on him again." That's a lot of power to give a five-year-old, isn't it? A better response is to grit your teeth and bear the anger of your child, because it's better to make him frown than let him rush toward destruction. That frown won't last forever. Destruc­tion, however, just might.

Do you see how, from this perspective, discipline — even pain­ful discipline — is actually an expression of love? It always seeks the child's best interest. A mature parent can withstand the anger of their child and say, "That's okay, you don't need to love me right now. You'll love me for it in a few years." It hurts temporarily, but to compromise your child's welfare from fear of losing his love will hurt a lot worse later on.

2. The means of discipline: actions and words (v. 5). In the Proverbs 3:11 passage that is quoted in Hebrews, two different Hebrew words are used: yasar (discipline), which involves God's actions; and yakach (rebuke), which refers to God's words. Hebrews 12:5 tells us not to make light of God's actions and not to lose heart at His words of rebuke. Yasar refers to disciplinary actions; yakach refers to corrective words.

As parents, that's exactly how we are to discipline. We bring both words and actions, warnings and consequences, into our children's situations in order to keep them on track.

3. The motive in discipline: to express love (vv. 6-9). When juvenile delinquents, as part of a research study, were asked how they knew their parents' feelings toward them, almost all of them said that lack of discipline in their home was a sign that their parents didn't love them. We often think that we're expressing love when we repeatedly say, "I'll give you another chance." What we're really doing, though, is neglecting to set boundaries that let our chil­dren know they're in a safety zone where they can feel secure. One of the most powerful ways to love your child is to be consis­tent in your discipline. And that's really hard. We're inclined to do whatever we can to maintain a friendship with our kids, when discipline is actually much more important.

I tend to do discipline well for a few weeks, and then find it more convenient to make compromises. Kids pick up on that in an instant. Try listening to them sometime when they aren't aware that a parent can hear them. Their conversation often sounds something like this:

"I got grounded last night."

"Oh no. How long?"

"They said two weeks, but it'll probably just be three or four days."

Where did they get that idea? Children are diligent students of parental behavior. They usually know when they can get away with things. Over time, they learn your breaking points and where you are prone to compromise. They aren't consciously taking notes, of course. They've been taught very well by experience.

4. The goal of discipline: to teach obedience (v. 9). When you teach your children godly submission, you're teaching them to do the right thing for the right reason. You want them to get beyond the point where they say "I've got to" and get them to the point of obeying out of love and trust. Their discipline will be primarily external in the beginning, but eventually it should become internal — so integrated into their personality that it's self-discipline rather than imposed discipline. The way you regulate how they speak and act toward other people needs to become a part of who they are so that when you remove the regulations, the behavior remains.

5. The result of discipline: short-term pain and long-term gain (vv. 10-­11). The reason we don't like to discipline our kids is because it involves short-term pain. We're sympathetic to their feelings, and we never enjoy hurting them. Verse 11 acknowledges the pain, saying all discipline — not some or even most, but all — seems not to be pleasant, but painful. But there's a process involved; those who have been trained by it yield the fruit of righteousness.

Someone advised me long ago not to ask myself whether my child liked the discipline I was imposing but to ask whether he would love me when he looked back on the situation years later. That helped me tremendously, especially when one of them would say, "What do you mean I'm grounded? I really can't go? I hate you. You're the worst parent in the world." I even over­heard one of my kids, only mildly joking, telling his friends, "It's like my dad chains me to the bedpost. I never get to go any­where." I would have to remind myself that he was reaping the consequences we had decided on and spelled out up front, and his disobedience produced the expected results. I didn't give in, and my kids came back to me later and said, "Thanks, Dad."


Discipline Is Worth the Effort

Your kids will feel most secure if they know you have set appropriate boundaries for them that you aren't afraid to enforce.

by Chip Ingram

Discipline, as Hebrews says, is painful for a moment, but it eventually yields fruit. And though few people enjoy the inconvenience and pain of discipline, they look back on the hardship and almost always decide that the fruit was worth the effort.

It's worth the grief your daughter gives you when you have to tell her that she's too young to date or that she's getting into a relationship that's not good for her. It's worth the groans from your kids when you won't let them watch a movie that everyone else at school got to see, even the Christian kids whose parents weren't quite so uptight about it. It's worth their complaints when you have to limit the amount of time your kids spend on the phone or on the Internet. Knowing how to say no firmly may make them hate you for a moment, but it will make them love you for a lifetime. And you'll have the pleasure of seeing your children experience the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

Stop worrying about being your child's buddy. You are the only one in the world with the primary responsibility of giving your child what he needs, not what he wants. Sometimes that means you have to lay down the law. Afterward you may have to go close yourself up in the bedroom and, with tears in your eyes, tell your spouse how bad you feel for being so hard on your kids. You'll probably need to check yourself occasionally to make sure you're not over the top with your discipline, letting your mate reel you back in if you're getting out of balance. But one way or another, you'll need to enforce the values and biblical principles that God has spelled out in His Word and laid on your heart. You'll need to be firmly convinced that you're preparing your child for a lifetime of fruitfulness. You may not be popular for a moment, but you'll rest easy at night knowing that you're saving your child from a life of destructive habits.

One of the saddest stories in the Bible is of a permissive parent. Eli the priest loved his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, and rebuked them only mildly for their indiscretions. He was well aware that they stole people's offerings to the Lord to fill their own stomachs and seduced the young women who came to worship in Shiloh. Still, he only told them to stop; he never actually enforced any kind of discipline on them.

If you've read the first few chapters of 1 Samuel, you know the result. God swore to cut off Eli's family forever. On one horrible day, the Israelites were defeated in battle, the Philistines captured the Ark of God, and Hophni and Phinehas were killed. When Eli heard the news, he fell off his chair, broke his neck, and died. It was one of Israel's most devastating moments, all because an old priest wouldn't discipline his sons.

I've always found this story extremely sobering. As much as I want my kids to like me, and as much as I hate conflict in our home, this story rattles me and gives me the backbone to do what's right rather than what's convenient. I'm sure Eli loved his sons; that wasn't the issue. The problem was that his love never trans­lated into discipline and his sons never learned obedience — first not to their father, and therefore not to God. The consequences were tragic. Eli's permissiveness not only destroyed a family, it wounded a nation.

Parenting Myth: Your kids will feel most secure if they know you're their buddy.

Parenting Reality: Your kids will feel most secure if they know you have set appropriate boundaries for them that you aren't afraid to enforce.

You have higher ambitions for your children, don't you? You want them to grow up bearing the fruit of righteousness, which always leads to lasting joy. That's why it's absolutely imperative to learn how to say no. Be willing to let your children get mad at you from time to time. Keep your eyes on their ultimate welfare instead of on their momentary comfort. Effective parenting always requires effective discipline.

You probably struggle with what that discipline should look like. I certainly did. How do you know when it's too harsh, or when it's not harsh enough? How do you know when you're disciplining a child for his own welfare and when you're punishing him out of your own frustration? The difference between discipline and punishment may seem subtle in your own experience, but from God's perspective, it's a monumental distinc­tion. As we get into the nuts and bolts of discipline in the next chapter, you'll see how His perspective can answer those questions.

Putting It into Practice

Ask your spouse and/or a good friend — people who can be completely honest with you — to examine Reuben Hill's analysis of the four styles of parenting (see the overview article, "Effective Child Discipline"). Then ask them to describe where you fit on the grid and to give some examples that support their opinion. (For some of us, it may be hard not to get defensive, but try to listen with an open mind.) Does your perception of your parenting line up with what your spouse/friends have told you? If you believe change in your parenting style is needed, how might you adjust your style to best suit the emotional needs of your children?


Punishment Versus Discipline

An effective parent has to learn the difference between punishment and discipline.

by Chip Ingram

Mark's teeth were clenched and the veins in his neck were bulg­ing. His son, Chad, had skipped school again — the fifth time in the last two months. Somehow, Chad and his buddies figured a few days of surfing were more worthwhile than an entire semester's worth of grades. So whenever the wave reports were favorable, they'd meet off campus, drive down to the beach together, and return home about fifteen minutes after school was out, hoping their parents would never discover their adventure — but clearly not too worried if they did. And they almost always did. Today, after getting a call from the principal and smelling the lingering scent of saltwater on his son, Mark was at the end of his patience.

"Chad, I can't believe you did it again!" Mark yelled. "How many times have we had this conversation? You're in so much trouble...."At a loss for words, Mark's mind searched for a punishment that would be severe enough. He felt betrayed by the son who had promised him two weeks earlier that this would never happen again. He was so mad that all he could think about was payback.

That's an understandable emotion for a frustrated parent to have, but when action flows out of that emotion, parenting has taken a turn for the worse. That dynamic will eventually render your efforts to raise godly children ineffective, and here's why: The idea of punishment implies repaying someone with what he or she deserves. That's the antithesis of the gospel. Punishment produces a child laden with guilt and determined to get out from under it, and Christlikeness is never the result. An effective parent has to learn the difference between punishment and discipline.

punishment versus discipline chart

As you can see, although the actions parents take to correct their children may look the same, understanding the difference between discipline and punishment makes all the difference in the world in terms of attitude and results. Allow me to take a brief look at the theological background behind these concepts to help you grasp how understanding this difference can transform your approach to your child's misbehavior.

The Gospel of Grace

We love the gospel of grace when we come to God with our sins. None of us wants justice in the sense of God giving us what we deserve. But as much as we love His mercy when applied to us, we have a really hard time applying it to others — especially when the "other" is someone who can wound our hearts as deeply as our child can. The closer the relationship, the more betrayed and frustrated we feel. And those kinds of feelings can lead to ill-conceived punishments.

Think about how God disciplines. Some translations of Hebrews 12:6, where the writer quotes Proverbs to demonstrate that God disciplines His children, use an inade­quate word: "he punishes everyone he accepts as a son" (italics added). The translation itself isn't wrong, but it doesn't capture the full meaning of the word. Literally, it means to forcefully correct, to scourge, to take whatever drastic measure is necessary to get someone to obey. Punishment, when not clarified in English with a fuller definition, implies retribution. It can be entirely a matter of payback.

As you know, that's not the gospel. When we've put our faith in Jesus, God doesn't punish us for what we did. The focus of punish­ment is always past tense: "First you did this, then you did this, and now you have to pay the price." In His mercy, God wiped away all eternal, spiritual implications of our pasts; He doesn't treat His children according to the rules of punishment.

Very simply, the gospel is that God became a man, came to earth, lived a perfect life, died on a cross to pay for the sins of all mankind, rose again from the dead on the third day, and was seen by over five hundred witnesses. Those who want that redemption applied to themselves must understand that we have a sin problem — we've all violated the commands of a holy God — and that there's no way to the Father except through the Son. Salvation means receiving the gift of Jesus' work on the Cross.

When we do that, the Spirit of God enters our lives, we are born again, and the Spirit dwelling in us now begins to develop the life of Christ in us. God's wrath toward sin was spent on Jesus as the Son hung on a symbol of the curse. When Jesus said, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34), He was experiencing the full wrath of God for all the sins of all mankind for all of history. He was the propitiation for us — in our place, He absorbed God's anger toward human sinfulness. Sharing the gospel isn't about convincing people to believe a doctrine and live better; it's about letting people know the really good news that we've been forgiven. All one needs to do to receive that salvation is turn from wickedness and receive Christ's gift.

What does all this have to do with parenting? If Jesus took all the punishment for you and me, He also took all of it for our children. I don't want to teach my kids that I need to pay them back for the bad things they've done. I want them to understand that the only way to make right what they did is to trust that when Jesus died on the cross, He paid for their sins. It makes no sense for me to fellow­ship with God on the basis of mercy and with my children on the basis of judgment. Since Jesus took the punishment, my role as a parent is not to punish them. My role is to provide appropriate consequences and instruction to help them see how their behavior displeases God and to teach them how to cooperate with God's work in their lives. The Bible calls this discipline.

Punishment produces some very negative characteristics in your children: guilt, shame, bitterness, resentment, regret, self-pity, fear, and more. Because it's focused on the past, children feel helpless. They can't undo what they've already done, and they can't change the circumstances that their behavior has produced. Punishment doesn't give them a means to right their wrongs; the tools they need to understand redemption aren't included in the punishment pack­age. It is simply retribution that leads to a lot of negative emotions.

Discipline, on the other hand, is future-focused, always pointing toward future acts. It has nothing to do with retribution and everything to do with redemption. Whereas the purpose of punishment is to inflict a penalty for an offense, the purpose of discipline is to train for correction and maturity. Whereas the origin of punishment is the frustration of the parent, the origin of discipline is a high moti­vation for the welfare of the child. And whereas the result of punishment is fear and shame, the result of discipline is security. Discipline always holds the child's best interests, not the parent's anger, in the forefront. It is never out of control.

Parenting Myth: Discipline requires parents to penalize their child as payback for an offense.

Parenting Reality: Discipline means applying appropriate consequences to encourage a child to make better choices in the future.

What messages are you sending your kids? Few parents will bluntly declare that they're penalizing a child for his misbehavior. We don't express punishment in terms of vengeance. But when the veins are popping, the voice is escalating, and the parent towers intimidatingly over their children, the message is easily confused. You may have discipline in mind, but your children probably inter­pret your outbursts of anger as pure punishment. It needs to be clear in their minds that you are imposing boundaries for their good because you love them.

There will be times, of course, when you are angry. Just because you don't discipline out of anger doesn't mean you won't feel angry. My kids have done things that made me livid, and it took me between ten minutes and an entire day to calm down. But I've learned that I am not ready to discipline my child until I can do so under control. The best way to do that is to have your child go to his room, or for you to go to your room, or both. There's nothing wrong with taking time to invite God to "clothe" you in the Spirit of Christ, remind yourself that Jesus has already paid for your children's sins, ask God to help you handle your anger appropri­ately, and then deal with the situation rationally.

It's fine to tell your children how upset you are, but the focus soon needs to turn to helping them get right with God and learn how to correct the behavior for the future. I confess that this approach takes a lot more work on the parent's part, and a lot more self-control. But in our home and countless others, it has turned the disciplining process from an ugly exchange of hurtful emotions to a time of resolution and deeper intimacy between parent and child.

Now that we've talked about the "why" behind disciplining our children, let's look in the next article at what Scripture says about the "how."


Discipline With Action and Words

A clear and controlled spanking is far less damaging to a child than the repeated yelling and screaming a lot of parents go through.

by Chip Ingram

You may have noticed that discipline is a fairly controversial topic in our day. If you watch a news digest program regularly, you'll eventu­ally see a story that somehow involves spanking — either about some­one who was abused as a child or someone who is in trouble for abusing their children. The subject is almost always treated with suspicion or even horror, as though anyone who spanks a child is unenlightened and barbaric. It is rarely presented as rational and frequently portrayed in its extremes. And yet the Bible, which quite a few of us still believe is true, says things like "Do not spare the rod." How are we to sort out the controversy and be obedient to God?

Actions and words — it all goes back to those two Hebrew words, yasar and yakach.1 The concept of yasar is chastisement, and it almost always implies something physical. Proverbs 13:24 is clear: "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is care­ful to discipline him." It doesn't say the one who spares the rod has the wrong opinion about discipline, it says he hates his son. Prov­erbs 22:15 is also clear: "Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him." A lot of people may not like those verses, but the Bible doesn't really give us the option of picking our favorites and ignoring the ones we don't like. These are part of the inspired Word of God, and we have to approach them that way.

Though spanking is controversial, I would suggest that there are, in fact, times when it's appropriate to spank your kids. I under­stand that for some parents, that's hard; discipline is not for the faint of heart. You don't need to spank very often, especially if you do it properly and early in their lives. At certain ages and in certain circumstances, spanking is the most effective — and compassionate — approach you can take.

For example, you may have told your nine-year-old son that you don't want him hanging out at the home of the kid who lives three doors down. You know the parents are often away and that alcohol is available and guns aren't locked away. Say that God graciously ordains, as He often does for parents, that you drive by at the exact moment your son is coming out of the front door of that house. You make it very clear to your son that if he ever does that again, there will be an uncomfortable consequence, and he knows exactly what you mean when you say that. A couple of days later, you drive by and see him coming out of that house again. What do you do?

You have to follow through on your word and impose the expected consequence. Children go through various phases of rebellious attitudes, such as talking back, lying, and stealing, and even though they know where the boundaries are, they'll cross them to see what happens. When we as parents fail to follow up consistently with firm, concrete discipline, it makes our children very insecure.

In one way or another, every child will fight this battle with his parent. The earlier you win that battle, the better, both for your sanity and your child's. You can win it when your kids are toddlers, or you can wait and try to win it when they're teenagers. Victory comes a lot easier when a child is two, and it's more quickly accom­plished at that age when you use spanking, appropriately and lovingly applied, to enforce it.

Using "battle" terminology when talking about discipline may seem harsh to some, but from all the psychological research I've done, a clear and controlled spanking is far less damaging to a child than the repeated yelling and screaming a lot of parents go through. It's also far less damaging than the ambiguous boundaries and mixed messages a lot of parents give their children. When a child knows he's done something wrong — something that is clearly forbidden — and is spanked for that wrong, shown love, prayed with, restored, and allowed to proceed with a clean conscience, he experiences much less trauma than the child whose parents don't know how to enforce discipline.

In contrast, when a child is sent to her room for a time-out, the measure of discipline is more protracted. The message usually isn't as clear, the resolution is often more uncertain, and the opportu­nity to cleanse the conscience isn't immediate. There's less sense of closure. Sometimes it may be a good first consequence when verbal instructions are ignored — I don't encourage spanking as a necessary first resort in every situation, since a loss of privileges or a time-out can often get your point across — but I don't believe parents should be afraid of applying physical punishment in a godly way. The idea ingrained in some people that time-outs are always better than spankings is a false assumption.

I want to be very clear that discipline never involves slapping or hitting a child. Anyone who has a problem with this needs to get help immediately. If you come from an abusive background, the last thing you want to do is continue the cycle with your children. If that is your situation, let me strongly encourage you to swallow your pride, override your fear, and do whatever it takes to protect your kids from physical abuse. Also, remember it's never appropri­ate to spank babies or toddlers younger than fifteen to eighteen months of age. Even shaking a very young child can lead to brain damage or death.

Spanking — not slapping or hitting — should always be done by a parent who is in control of his or her emotions. In our home, we used a wooden spoon to spank. My kids dreaded seeing the wooden spoon coming, but they never had to dread the hand of Mom or Dad. Our hands were used exclusively for loving touches, caresses, and hugs; an inanimate spoon was the object of discipline. That may seem like hairsplitting to some, but I believe that in the psyche of the child, there's a tremendous difference. Scripture makes a strong case for the use of appropriate spanking, and it also identifies an object (the rod) as the tool. Some may believe that the rod implies discipline of any kind. All I know is that using an object fits with biblical instruction, and I'm much more comfort­able reserving my hands for loving touches.


1Charles Swindoll explores the meaning of these two terms in depth in his book You and Your Child (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1977), 87-99.

The Biblical Approach to Spanking

Seven steps to disciplining your child.

by Chip Ingram

Regardless of the method, the Bible's word on discipline clearly demands that parents be responsible and diligent in spanking, but strongly prohibits physical abuse of any kind. Obviously, the biblical approach is balanced, reasonable, and controlled. So let's get very practical. What does it look like to spank in a way that obeys Scripture, modifies attitudes and behavior, and actually strengthens the bond between parent and child?

Seven Steps

Don't panic when you have to use action to enforce discipline. I know how much second-guessing a parent can do. Let me give you seven key steps that will enable you to discipline your child without fear of overstepping your bounds.

1. Clear warning. Your first interaction with your child about a situa­tion should be verbal. A child should never be blindsided by the discipline you hand down to her. It should always be preceded by a clear warning, both for her sake and for yours. You want to know whether your child deliberately crossed a line or made an honest mistake. A clear warning will help her steer clear of danger and will help you know you're correcting intentional disobedience. That's why it would be appropriate to issue a warning to Johnny the first time you see him walking out of the neighbor boy's house.

The enforcement of discipline comes only after words have not done the job. Physical means of correction are only appropriate in cases of clear disobedience, and then only at certain ages.

2. Establish responsibility. It's important for your child to own up to his misbehavior. Many parents make the mistake of asking, "Why did you do that?" That's not a good question; "why" doesn't help him admit his responsibility in the situation. Besides being a theological no-brainer — your child is a sinner with a predisposition to disobedience, which he inherited from you and every other generation all the way back to the first parents in the Garden — that question gives him room to inject shades of gray into his under­standing and explanations. He'll begin to rationalize, and you'll lose sight of the real issue. Here's a better way to go about it:

"Johnny, what did you do wrong?"

"Nothing. Everyone was going over to that house, and I just went in for a minute."

"Try again. What did you do wrong?"

"I only went in to ..."

"I'm going to give you one more chance. What did we talk about?"

"I'm not supposed to go over there for any reason."

"So what did you do wrong?"

"I disobeyed you."

Do you see how, with that kind of conversation, you're calm, controlled, and not trying to punish? You're trying to help him learn. Remember that your child can't learn without being able to own up to his responsibility. No one can. When you put your child in a position of having to do that, you're preparing him for responsible adulthood.

Remember to always keep your focus on the child's behavior, not his identity. If Johnny says, "I'm a bad person" or "You don't like me anymore," affirm how much he is loved and how special he is, but turn his attention immediately back to his actions. You want him to understand that the act was wrong and that he is fully capable of doing the right thing.

3. Avoid embarrassment. Never embarrass your children in front of their friends, siblings, or even strangers. Don't yank them out of a booth at a restaurant, don't yell where everyone around can hear you, or do anything else that will make your children feel as if all eyes are on them. All that accomplishes is shame. Instead, go to a private place. At home, that can be the bedroom. In public, it can be a trip to the restroom for a young child or a firm statement that "we need to talk later" to an older child. However you do it, don't damage your kids' esteem among their peers or even among strangers. Embarrassment can do a lot of damage that you'll have a hard time undoing later on.

4. Communicate grief. I want my children to know that more than being angry, I'm disappointed and heartbroken when they disobey. Early on in their lives, I let them know I trusted them. And when that trust has been violated, they need to know that the relationship is wounded. Many times I've had tears roll down my face when their actions hurt me and betrayed our relation­ship. When kids see the grief of their parents, they'll better understand how their sin affects God. They'll understand that God isn't shaking His fist at us every time we make a mistake, but He grieves just as a loving parent does when witnessing the destructive nature of disobedience.

5. Flick your wrist. This is an extremely practical method that will save you a lot of second-guessing. Remember the point of a spanking: It's to sting, to provide a painful deterrent to misbe­havior, not to injure.

The Bible never implies that the rod of discipline should be violent. It offers no specifics about how hard a spanking should be, and there's no reason to assume that it's talking about a brutal form of punishment. Just the opposite, in fact. A parent who reaches back and swings hard is acting out of anger and frustration, not out of love and desire for the child's welfare. That's unbiblical by anyone's definition.

When you spank, use a wooden spoon or some other appropri­ately sized paddle and flick your wrist. That's all the force you need. It ought to hurt — an especially difficult goal for mothers to accept —  and it's okay if it produces a few tears and sniffles. If it doesn't hurt, it isn't really discipline, and ultimately it isn't very loving because it will not be effective in modifying the child's behavior.

Have the child lean over his bed and make sure you apply the discipline with a quick flick of the wrist to the fatty tissue of the buttocks, where a sting can occur without doing any damage to the body. You want to be calm, in control, and focused as you firmly spank your child, being very careful to respect his body.

As your children get older and begin to think more abstractly, spanking becomes less effective and less necessary. A preteen is probably getting past the spank­ing stage and more into the lost-privilege approach. But if you've done your job earlier in their lives, spanking will have become less necessary at that point anyway. A firm, grace-controlled hand of discipline in early years, combined with a loving atti­tude, will usually prevent or soften the rebellion of later years.

6. Sincere repentance. When my kids were small, I'd let them sit in my lap after a spanking and cry for a while. That was a great time to model for them the love behind the discipline. Then after a few minutes, I'd ask, "Are you ready to talk about this with Daddy and with God?" When I received a nod and could tell repentance and genuine sorrow had occurred, I revisited the issue and asked them, "What did you do wrong?" I wanted to help them clearly relate the discipline to the behavior, not to them as a person.

Then I would ask, "With whom do you need to make things right?" Often they would realize they needed to make things right not just with me and with God, but also to apologize to a brother or sister. Then I'd take the opportunity to coach them in how to approach God, what to say, how to confess their sin, and how to receive forgiveness. When they said something like, "I'm sorry, God, for ________. Please forgive me," I would tell them how special they were, both to me and to God, and that they'd been disciplined to correct mis­behavior, not because they were a bad person.

Those dialogues trained them for a life of relating to God humbly and honestly as no other experience could. And in later years my children told me that some of the times they'd felt closest to me were during those periods of forgiveness and reconciliation.

7. Unconditional love. For my part, some of the most intimate, touching moments I ever had with my kids were right after exer­cising discipline. So after disciplining your child, let me encour­age you to take him in your arms and pray, "Thank you, Lord, for my precious boy, for the wonderful way You've made him, for the amazing guy he is, and for all the gifts You've given him. Please help him remember what's right and give him the strength to do it. Thank You that he has taken responsibility for what he did. We know You've taken a big eraser and wiped it off the board. You've forgiven him and made him absolutely clean, and I forgive him too." Then give him a big hug and go do something fun. He'll know he's still accepted and that there's absolutely no barrier between the two of you.

The picture and the process I've just described don't fit the portrayal of spanking that our culture tries to give us, do they? A parent who disciplines his child this way is not an angry, insensitive person with a big club and a vicious agenda. Instead, this is a picture of using the rod God's way to bring about actions that will keep a child from destruction. That's about as loving and compassionate as a parent can get.

Many people have bought into a bad, stereotypical model of spanking, where out-of-control parents and religious fanatics beat children instead of disciplining them. Not surprisingly, they have rejected it entirely, assuming that since they don't know how to do it right, it shouldn't be done at all. "Extreme spanking" has domi­nated the discussion at the expense of more moderate practices of physical discipline. As a result, a huge segment of the population believes spanking is barbaric, basing that opinion on the abuses rather than the biblical model. But many parents who believe this are having enormous problems at home — constant conflict, high tension, complete loss of control, and no tools to deal with any of it.

If you're consistent with the actions of discipline for a few weeks, you'll find that your children have clear boundaries, and they're likely to have a clearer conscience and changed behavior. You'll probably sense much less destructive stress in your home environ­ment as well. Your children will feel a lot more loved, and they'll have the privilege and blessing of being in a home that's at peace.

Putting It into Practice

If you are uncomfortable using biblical spanking as a form of disci­pline, identify the reasons why. (Check all that apply.)

___ Lack of belief in spanking

___ Unable to manage frustration/anger and portray love/gentleness while spanking

___ Too softhearted to inflict pain on my child

___ Too difficult to spank consistently

___ Other__________________________________________________

What are some instances when you would consider using spanking as a form of discipline? For example: "When my child deliberately defies me," "When Jeffrey talks back disrespectfully and intentionally," "Only when I have given clear warning first."

In contrast, what are some examples of situations in which you would use other forms of correction? For example: "For minor infractions"; "When Jeffrey forgets to answer properly, I will correct him verbally"; "When another consequence is more logical" such as taking away a privilege to correct misuse of that privilege.


Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources on effective child discipline

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