Today, we have a question about disciplining children. Assumed here is a parent’s biblical conviction for using physical discipline in the first place. It’s a question from Timothy, who has that conviction in place. He asks, “Pastor John, as a husband, father, and the leader of my household, I feel as though it is primarily my responsibility to discipline the children. Is this biblically accurate? And what role should my wife play in the discipline process?”
I like this question because we have raised five kids now. Talitha is still at home. She is eighteen. She is her own person. There is not a lot of spanking going on here in the Piper household anymore, but once upon a time there was — we had four sons — and so I think discipline is very positive and often laden with grace and with words, and it is also a time that is painful and negative and a swat on the behind. We used to joke as a family that the Lord made our boys really chubby so that they wouldn’t be damaged. And they never were damaged. If you damage, you are not disciplining, you are abusing. And there is a huge difference between that and a sweet, warm, loving punishment from a father or a mom.
So anyway, all that to say, we have done this, and I went downstairs when I read the question last night to talk to Noël and to Talitha about this. And I will go ahead and say what I am going to say, and then I will tell you what Noël said if I can remember, because she had a thing or two to add.
Here is my principle. The rule we followed in all of our upbringing — I am going to say what it is, and then I am going to try to give a reason why I think it is biblical — is that in general, the parent whose word is most immediately disobeyed does the discipline, whether verbal or physical, except when both parents are present, then the father steps in and does it. That was our rule. So you disobey mommy, mommy is going to call you to account. You disobey daddy, daddy is going to call you to account. If you disobey mommy or daddy when daddy is around, daddy is going to call you to account.
“The husband bears responsibility especially to step in, because the Bible presents him as a supporter and nurturer of mom.”
So, for example, if we are in the living room and the little child is there playing on the floor and Noël says, “It is time to get ready for bed now. Run along. Get your pajamas on and come down and we will have devotions.” And daddy is sitting there, and she is sitting there, and this little child clearly heard the message and did not move. At that point, dad steps up to the plate and says, “Your mother said you are supposed to go get your pajamas on. Did you hear that?” And you make the call as to whether something needs to be done more than that. But dad is not passive at this point.
So that is the principle that we have worked on, and that is a qualification before I give you the biblical foundation for it. Noël gave me this qualification last night: “You know, there are situations, you remember, when we talked it over with our kid who had given me a hard time at the store, taking advantage of me at the store, not obeying me, because they know in public they can’t have the same consequences as at home, and we talked with them together and you said, ‘Look, if you do this again — if mommy tells me that you are giving her a hard time — you are going to reckon with me.’”
I don’t think it is good to make dad the bogie man all the time, saying daddy is going to deal with this or that. But there are times when some special instances mean that dad is the one whom mommy points to when things have gotten out of hand.
Why Dads Take the Lead
So why do we have that principle — that both discipline when they are alone and dad disciplines when they are together? The reason it is good to discipline — that mom has the right to discipline — is because the Bible says she does in Deuteronomy 21:18, “Though they discipline him” — referring to mom and dad. But the big issue, probably, for most dads is why I say, “Come on, dad, step up to the plate. Become the point man when mom and dad are together.” And here are the reasons.
1. The husband leads the family.
The Bible pictures the husband as the head, the leader, and the normal initiative taker, which would include the vision caster for the moral life of the family. So together with his wife, he is thinking through and developing a vision for the moral and spiritual life of the family, and he is leading the family in living this out by example and by explanation. He is taking the initiative to see that that happens. And that means that the most natural person for taking the initiative in discipline is the leader of the family. He leads. He goes ahead. He steps up. He is not passive. He is not waiting to see if mom acts. He moves. The child learns the valuable lesson that men are not passive. They are not waiting around for mom to deal with things. They take initiative for the good of the family. They follow through with what they taught the family believes and the family does.
“Discipline is mainly protection — protection from a kid’s own selfishness, and protection from future tragedies and lawlessness.”
There is no thought here that momma is a pushover. I don’t mean at all to imply that. She is not a pushover. He knows that. These kids know that good and well. They are with her most of the time, and she is no pushover. But we wanted them to learn that they don’t tangle not only with either of us, they don’t tangle with mom while dad is present especially, because a special respect is being shown there to mom by dad, by his stepping in.
So that is reason number one. He is the head, leader, and initiative taker.
2. The husband protects his family.
The second reason is that the husband bears this special responsibility because the Bible presents him as protector. Ephesians 5 shows that Christ is rescuing his bride. He is saving his bride from destruction and that is what husbands are to do, like Christ and, by implication, they are rescuing the children.
And that is what discipline is. Discipline is mainly protection — protection from a kid’s own selfishness, and protection from future tragedies and lawlessness that is going to get the kid in trouble if he lives a life of insubordination and selfishness. And the father bears a special responsibility of protecting the kids. This is what it means to be a man. I protect my family. And he protects them from the future miseries of disobedience to mom.
3. The husband supports and nurtures mom.
Third, the husband bears responsibility especially to step in, because the Bible presents him as a supporter and nurturer of mom. Ephesians describes his tender nurture of the bride, Christ’s nurture of the bride. And so a husband is a nurturer and a caregiver. He steps in to lift this burden from mom. This mom in many households, anyway, has been with these kids hours on end carrying the burden of discipline. So when dad is around, he should pick it up, you know? Lift that burden from mom and give her some relief so that she doesn’t have to follow through with everything she tells these kids to do. These kids know that when dad is present, dad is a buck stopper.
4. The husband most immediately images the Father.
And the last reason I would give for why the dads bear this special responsibility is that he is most immediately the image the child has of his heavenly Father. The wife has a crucial role to play to fill this out. God is not male. And so women and men together are displaying things about God the kids need to know. But God is revealed in the Bible mainly as a father, not a mother.
This means that a father’s role is centrally important in giving a child a sense of what good fatherhood is like. And that includes fatherly discipline, because Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” So God is treating you as sons.
So the principle is this: Both parents discipline kids — the mother when she is alone with the children, the father when he is alone with the children, and as a normal rule — these aren’t absolutes for every single imaginable situation — dad steps up when both parents are present.