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How to Discipline Christian Children

Many parents have never learned how to discipline their children. They may think, “What's there to learn? If you're going to spank your kids, just turn them over your knee and spank them.” But spanking can be given either in a way that helps children resolve their wrongdoing and be reconciled with their parents or in a way that leaves them bitter and resentful. A great deal depends on the consistency of the discipline, but the actual way parents spank is also important. I would like to offer here a few guidelines for administering a spanking.

To begin with, spankings should usually be given immediately after the child is discovered misbehaving. This is particularly important with young children, who need to see a direct link between their behavior and the punishment. Even older children are helped by an immediate spanking, which resolves misbehavior at once rather than leaving the threat of punishment to hang over their heads for several hours.

A spanking should ordinarily be given in privacy to protect the child's dignity and self-respect. The humiliation of being disciplined in front of other people can be far more painful than the actual punishment. And unlike a spanking, this pain can damage the child's self-esteem and ability to relate to others. So if other people are present, the parent and child should go to a room where they can be alone. This is not always possible, but ordinarily the parent should try to administer discipline in privacy.

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The actual spanking should be hard enough and long enough to hurt - say ten firm whacks instead of two or three little pats. The parent should not run any risk of injuring the child, of course, but the spanking should be painful enough that the child won't want it repeated. Otherwise, the whole purpose is defeated. I know parents who were spanking their children five or ten times a day without seeing any results. It turned out that they were giving the kids a few mild taps each time. The kids thought, “That doesn't hurt. They can spank me all they want.” Many fewer spankings will be necessary if the children find them sufficiently unpleasant.

That leaves the question of what to spank with - the hand, a paddle, a wooden spoon, a belt? Some parents feel that since Scripture usually refers o the “rod” of discipline, parents should use only a rod or switch. They feel the hand should be used only for blessing and showing affection, not for spanking.

Personally, I do not think the authors of Scripture really meant to specify a particular instrument for spanking. I think the best criterion to follow in this matter is simply to find an instrument that will produce an unpleasant experience without injuring the child. A hand maybe quite effective on a toddler's bare bottom, but it is less effective for a nine-year-old. My wife and I usually use either a belt or a paddle when spanking without injury.

Some people say that they try not to show any anger when spanking their children. Certainly, parents should not let themselves be so mastered by anger that they end up frightening or hurting their children. In fact, parents with really violent, uncontrollable tempers should leave spanking to their spouses until they learn how to control their anger. But I believe that parents can ordinarily let their children see that they are angry with disobedience or misbehavior. Anger, if properly controlled, helps children understand the seriousness of doing wrong. A parent who keeps us a facade of perfect peace and calm - “Oh my! That was wrong. I'll have to discipline you now, you know” - gives his child a false impression about the whole situation. If the offense has been outrageous, show a little outrage.

After the spanking is finished, many parents make the mistake of acting sorry about it - “Oh, you poor thing. Mommy and Daddy didn't mean it.” That cancels out any lesson the spanking might have taught. All the child sees is that the parents feel guilty; naturally he wonders if he really deserved the spanking in the first place. Discipline is supposed to help children face the consequences of what they have done, and that cannot happen so long as parents try to keep their children in a lovey-dovey emotional-haze.

Rather than start sympathizing, the parent should help the child understand the purpose and justness of the spanking. Parent and child can review the misbehavior being punished and recall what the child should have done in that situation. The child should then ask forgiveness from the parent for disobeying or misbehaving or whatever. If the child has injured another person in some way - say a little boy has thrown a rock at his sister - the child should ask forgiveness of that person as well.

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When the child asks forgiveness, the parents should always say, “I forgive you. I love you.” Children need to be assured the spanking really has resolved their wrongdoing and restored a good relationship with their parents. In families where discipline is not administered and children and parents do not repent and forgive, there gets to be a whole network of unresolved hurts and resentments and guilt and insecurities. The things that happen between parents and children, between brothers and sisters, are never resolved. Physical discipline, when followed by repentance and forgiveness, brings real freedom with it. A child can walk away from a spanking with joy and peace because he knows that he has turned from doing wrong and is at peace with his parents again.

Limitations of Spanking

Punishment by itself will not always resolve a child's behavior problems. While parents should normally punish wrong behavior under any circumstances, they may also need to deal with other factors if they want the problem fully resolved. For example, small children sometimes become so over-tired that they lose the ability to control their behavior. At such times, they may need to go to bed more than they need a spanking, and the parents' rules should allow enough freedom for this to happen.

Misbehavior may also signal some frustration or anxiety in a child's life. The wrong behavior itself should be punished, but the parents must also help the child deal with the frustration at its source.

We used to live near a Christian family with a nine-year- old son, Jeffrey. Our son John played with Jeffrey a lot, and despite their age difference, the two boys got along very well. At one point, however, both sets of parents noticed that Jeffrey was teasing John and treating him badly. Since he was disobeying his parents' rules for how to treat younger children, he was spanked.

After the spanking, however, Jeffrey's parents noticed that he seemed to be feeling some kind of frustration. A little probing revealed that he was having problems in school; his frustration there had provoked the mistreatment of John. This didn't excuse Jeffrey, but it did show his parents how to get to the root of his bad behavior. They talked to their son and his teacher to help clear up the school situation, and then John and Jeffrey were back on good terms.

Parents whose child has a physical, emotional, or mental handicap must also take this factor into account when dealing with misbehavior. They should expect obedience and good behavior from their child, but they will need to make adjustments in their goals and means of communication according to the child’s abilities.

Today parents worry so much about children's psyches that we are sometimes paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake that might damage their self-esteem or give them some kind of complex. But children are not too fragile to survive an occasional mistake. Any parent is going to end up giving an occasional mistake. Any parent is going to end up giving an undeserved spanking or laying down a rule that proves to be unjust. In these cases, the parent should be willing to admit the mistake and ask the child's forgiveness, but they need not get excessively worried by the slip. Children will not be warped for life just because they had parents with human limitations.

Other Forms of Discipline

Spanking is the best discipline for correcting direct disobedience or violation of important family rules, Other forms of discipline may be more effective in reinforcing training or teaching.

Suppose, for example, a couple want to teach their children table manners. They usually begin by explaining what they want their children to do - “Say please when asking for the mashed potatoes” or “Don't eat spaghetti with your fingers.” Over a period of time, they continue to explain and re-explain and give reminders. But finally a point comes when the children know perfectly well what the parents want, have had plenty of reminders, and need to start doing it.

When this point comes, the parents may need to use some kind of discipline to back up their instructions. I would recommend using what I call “consequential discipline” - “If you don't do this, then this will follow.”

My wife and I experienced some challenges convincing our daughter Mary Sarah to use table manners. For almost a year, night after night, we reminded her, “if you want something, say please.” She was not responding. We finally decided to use some kind of discipline so that Mary Sarah could see we were serious about her manners. Spanking did not seem the best solution; instead, we told Mary Sarah that if she did not ask for something properly the first time, she would not get it.

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The next time Mary Sarah asked us for another glass of milk without first saying please, she did not get it. This was a big shock. She did not like the experience of not getting what she wanted. Within a week she was saying please and thank you almost every time she asked for something week of consequential discipline accomplished what a whole year of reminders had failed to do. Later on we were able to allow her more flexibility: she did not have to use the precise word please as long as she asked politely. This type of discipline is effective with many common problems in children's behavior. Many a child has learned to eat his dinner because he could not have dessert unless he did.

Consequential discipline can also effectively correct misbehavior that is not serious enough to deserve a spanking. When he was three, my son John used to spend a lot of time with his cousin, also three. They loved to play together, but they also liked to contradict one another. One would say, “We're having peanut butter for lunch,” and the other would say, “No we're not.” One would say, “I'm three years old,” and the other would answer. “No, you're not. I'm three years old.” This went on almost constantly, often until they started hitting each other or throwing toys. The problem had to be corrected, so my wife and I and my sister and her husband agreed to separate the boys for fifteen minutes whenever they started contradicting. That was real punishment, because they loved to play together and hated to be separated. We explained the new policy to the boys and began to enforce it. Soon they were spending their time together peacefully and happily, without the quarrelling that had gone on before.

Consequential discipline also serves to supplement spanking when parents are punishing misbehavior serious enough to warrant more than a spanking. One couple I know had to punish their little girl for throwing rocks at the neighbor's car. Somehow she and one of her friends had decided to put dirt on the shiny new Cadillac next door. When caught, they were merrily pelting the car with gravel.

Though the car was not damaged, the parents wanted their daughter to learn how serious her misbehavior was. So besides spanking her, they took away her tricycle - which she had been riding at the start of the incident - for three days. They explained to her that they were doing this because throwing rocks at someone's car is wrong, and they wanted her to learn to do what is right. When three days were up, the little girl got back her tricycle, but she also told her parents that she had learned her lesson and was glad for it.

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With older children, consequential discipline is especially useful. If a teenager doesn't come home from a party at the time agreed upon, she doesn't get to go the next time. If a twelve-year-old is out riding his bike when he is supposed to be mowing the lawn, his bike is taken away for several days. The older the child, the more important it is to explain the discipline clearly and give the reason for it. And the parents should be careful to see that the discipline does not become a cause of hidden resentment.

The same rules that apply to physical discipline apply to consequential discipline. The parents should agree on the punishment, they should explain it clearly to the children, and they should enforce it consistently. The discipline itself should be unpleasant enough to produce a change. A little boy will not be greatly impressed if he is told that he cannot brush his teeth unless he makes his bed. The discipline has to affect something the child likes to do.

Verbal correction is another possible means of disciplining a child. Once a basic respect for the parents' authority has been established, it may only be necessary to say, “Harry, you know better than to leave your dirty clothes there,” to correct misbehavior of that nature. Verbal correction is most appropriate when dealing with an occasional lapse by a usually responsible child or when dealing with older children who have a basically good relationship with the parents. Occasionally, even stronger verbal correction, which could be described as a “bawling out,” could be in order.

As with all types of discipline, verbal correction is intended to change behavior. When children do not respond to it, the parents should not let themselves fall into mere nagging. They should consider other forms of discipline - possibly returning to spanking or finding an appropriate means of consequential discipline.

There is one other subject I want to mention briefly here, even though it is not actually a form of discipline. That is the use of rewards. Some authorities tell parents to reward their children for good behavior rather than punish them for bad behavior. I believe that children should learn to obey not because of the reward they will get, but because it is the right thing to do. Yet I also see a place for rewards in reinforcing certain kinds of training.

When parents are trying to teach their children some basic skill - how to tie shoes, for example - rewards can give the children a little more incentive to learn. If a child knows that he is going to get some special outing with his parents once he learns to tie his shoes, he will be much more eager to learn to tie them. In such situations, the added incentive of a reward can be very helpful.

What Age Child Should Be Disciplined?

A lot of parents have reservations on disciplining either a very small child or teenager son/daughter. They think that the one is very young to comprehend correction and the other too old for physical discipline. I myself would not necessarily recommend spanking infants or sixteen-year-olds, but neither would I set an arbitrary cut-off date for any type of discipline.

In general, I believe that some form of discipline should start at an early age. The proverb, “Discipline your son while there is hope” (Prov. 19:18), speaks of a critical formation period in children's lives that parents must take advantage of. The smallest infant is already learning how to respond to parents, to other children, to the world outside. As soon as a child is able to understand what the parents want, the need for discipline appear.

What age might this be? Nine months, a year, thirteen months, fourteen? The actual age varies with each child, but somewhere around that age children can understand that their parents don't want them to throw food on the floor or pull over the lamp. Once the child can understand that, the parents' authority is on trial.

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“Susie, don't throw your food on the floor.” Susie throws her food down, and nothing happens except that mom or dad picks it up. Susie tries again, and again nothing happens. At this point Susie decides that mom and dad don't really mean what they say. If she wants to throw her food around, she can do it.

From a very early age, then, children are learning whether they really have to obey their parents. The discipline, or lack of discipline, they get is what teaches them.

This is not to say that a nine-month-old girl should get a full-fledged spanking every time she throws her food around: often a slap on the hand or some type of consequential discipline, like taking the food away, is very effective. Nor should parents expect children of this age to obey automatically even after they are corrected. If little Jonathan starts to pull the lamp over, he may need to have his hand slapped, but he should also be removed from the lamp.

I would certainly not want to rule out spanking for younger children. I know one woman who spanked her seven-month-old daughter for crying and fighting when her diaper was changed. First, the mother checked to make sure that she was not hurting the baby in any way. Once she was sure the crying was unnecessary, she spent several days communicating that she wanted this behavior to stop by gently restraining her squirming daughter and saying no. When she was sure her daughter understood what she wanted, she began to spank her - giving her a few slaps on the bottom - whenever she fought. Within a couple of weeks, the problem was gone.

As a child grows older, the need for physical discipline usually diminishes. If parents have administered discipline while the children are young, their authority will be well established. Children will continue to need discipline as they go through adolescence, but if they already have a good basic relationship with their parents' authority, they will usually need only some type of consequential discipline rather than a spanking. As children grow up, the parents will finally stop using physical discipline completely.

Yet parents should not attempt to set an arbitrary age limit for physical discipline. There are no hard and fast rules for when children become too old to be spanked. Some children reach a point where they no longer need much physical discipline when they are as young as nine or ten. Others don't reach that point until much later. The parents need to judge carefully what discipline is right for each child.

Parents who have not been disciplining their children as they grow up should be especially cautious about suddenly introducing physical discipline when the children are older. This is a very difficult situation in which the parents need special discernment and sensitivity to decide on a discipline that helps their children obey.

Before he left his disciples to return to the Father, Jesus promised that he would not leave them orphans. That is a promise which parents should remember whenever they feel unable to face the challenges of raising children. The Lord does not leave us when the children arrive; he is there to help us. When we face a difficult situation with the children, we must be able to turn to the Lord and ask him for understanding and guidance. But besides his own counsel and guidance, Jesus left us with each other. We are not orphans because we have a whole family of Christian brothers and sisters to support us. As Christian parents, we need to drop our defensiveness about our families and learn to accept help from other mature Christians. Parents always seem to have at least one serious blind spot when it comes to understanding their own children and they need the insight of other Christians to guide them. My wife and I have worked very hard to understand our children and raise them properly, but some of the most important insights we have received for them have come from mature single people who knew our family well or from other parents who had already learned a lesson we needed. They were able to see things the Holy Spirit wanted to do with our children when we could not.

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Christian parents should be looking for ways to draw together with their brothers and sisters to find counsel and support. Just having a few other Christian families to talk to and share experiences with is a great help. The Lord does not want each family to have to bear its burdens alone; he wants to give them brothers and sisters who can share those burdens.

The Lord has made each married couple the pastor of their family, with a serious responsibility to the children he has entrusted to them. He has given us the promise of his help. He has given us his word and counsel in Scripture. He offers us the support of other Christians. Parents need to accept all these supports, and then diligently apply themselves to loving and guiding their children.

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