Disciplining our kids is usually the most frustrating, confusing part of parenting. The stakes are high, because what kids learn when they are disciplined will last a lifetime. In our work with parents, we have seen that well-intentioned efforts often miss kids’ hearts as parents struggle to figure out, “What is ‘biblical discipline,’ and how do I do it?”
As parents tackle this issue, we have found it extremely valuable to shift our focus from a few controversial proof texts to consider a broader view of biblical instruction on this matter. We’ve found it helpful to ask two questions in particular:
How did God the Father discipline key Old Testament saints that clearly had a “father-child” relationship with him?
What do we learn from Jesus’s response to struggling sinners?
The Father’s Discipline
God’s response to sin often falls into one of three categories: natural impacts (consequences that arise without intervention), loss of privilege (withholding something desired), and reconciliation (making things right between offender and offended).
Natural Impact. God has “reap what we sow” consequences already in place to build wisdom. Esau recklessly traded his birthright for lentil stew, and experienced the natural impact: he got stew, and no birthright. And Jacob learned that swindling sends you running for your life. No additional punishment was necessary for these men — the high price they paid made them older, wiser, and eventually ready to reconcile. Similarly, wise parenting recognizes God’s predetermined natural impacts and helps kids value them. Simple questions can accelerate kids’ learning: “What’s happening here? How is that affecting everyone? What do you want to do about it?”
Loss of Privilege. The first disciplinary action in Scripture is a loss-of-privilege consequence. Adam and Eve defied God’s command about his lush garden and lost the privilege of living there. Moses struck the rock angrily in defiance and lost the privilege of leading God’s people into the Promised Land. Responsibility and privilege go hand in hand in many places in Scripture, and parents can follow this pattern with statements like, “We all work together to make the family run smoothly, and those who don’t participate lose some of the benefits that teamwork provides.”
Reconciliation. Repentance and reconciliation are at the heart of God’s response to sin. In response to the treacherous scheming and lies of Joseph’s brothers, God patiently orchestrated Joseph’s life and theirs to work toward a miraculous repentance and reconciliation. Matthew 5:23–24 and Matthew 18:15 make it clear — whether you’ve sinned against someone or they’ve sinned against you, go and seek reconciliation.
Unfortunately, as parents, our frequent response to conflict or disrespect is to simply punish the one judged to be most out of line. This ignores God’s commands and does nothing to build into our children the wisdom and skills they need to prepare them for life. And ill-equipped children will become ill-equipped adults.
Jesus’s Response to Sinners
It’s not surprising that Jesus’s response to sinners follows the Father’s discipline of his children. Jesus’s “discipline” was varied, creative, looked at the heart, and moved toward reconciliation. His goal was always changed hearts.
Jesus responded uniquely with insight, creativity, and compassion to three different adulterous women.
Jesus didn’t say an explicit word to Peter about his devastating “triple sin,” but offered a “triple opportunity” to be restored.
The contrast in Jesus’s response to swindlers is startling. To hard-hearted money-changers, he exclaims in righteous anger, “Get out of my Father’s house!” Yet to Zacchaeus, a tax collector grown wealthy from swindling, Jesus graciously says, “I will come to your house!” Immediate repentance flooded Zacchaeus’s open heart.
Dependence on his Father guided Jesus in these responses. “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). Similarly, Paul exhorts, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).
Is gentle, Spirit-led restoration just for adults? Do our children deserve less than that? If this is our Lord’s example and Scripture’s command, why have so many of us Christian parents slipped into automatic, formulaic punishment of our kids? It can make us feel vulnerable and uncertain to let go of a predetermined, “I’m-in-control” formula when kids misbehave. Whether we use time-outs, spanking, grounding, loss of screen time, or any other rote punishment, could it be a desire for ease and control that causes us to disregard God’s pattern of unique, creative, restoration-focused consequences?
Guide Kids Toward God’s Purposes
One mom heard this message and mused, “Wow, relying on the Holy Spirit to guide our discipline. What a novel concept!” Yes, it’s true, this foundational change in thinking can bring God’s grace into our messiest moments, and replace exasperation with rich, heartfelt connection with our kids.
In our home, our rambunctious kids had frequent conflicts and were extremely distractible. Our rigid, punitive discipline careened off the tracks quickly. Our oldest would often glare at us afterward, and his resentment was building. We felt an increasing desire to let God’s grace guide our parenting. We began to do lots of do-overs and taught skills and biblical values to guide kids away from misbehavior. As soon as our kids could utter full sentences, we helped them learn how to reconcile conflicts. They figured out creative ways to make it right with each other after they had hurt each other. As a result, they learned to joyfully focus their energy for God’s purposes, developed wonderful relationships in life, and have functioned as peacemakers in tense situations.
If this resonates with you, here are some questions to consider when your child misbehaves:
How might I model God’s incredible grace toward struggling sinners, knowing that I am one as well?
What is the opportunity in this situation for my child to learn lifelong skills and values?
What action on my part would facilitate an open heart and a desire to reconcile in my child?
As we have worked with parents over the years, it has given us great joy to watch the love of Christ deepen in families as parents bring thoughtful, Spirit-led responses to those emotional, vulnerable, opportunity-laden discipline situations with their children.