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Punishment Versus Discipline

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

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.

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 punish≠ment 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 fellow≠ship 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.”


Parental influence is strongest during the early stages of their children’s lives, up to the age of 13, during which time children are facing relentless cultural influences and competing worldviews. Your gift helps Focus on the Family help families thrive.


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