By Dr. Josh Mulvihill
Jeff and Jessica sat in my office, clearly distraught. “Our four-year-old runs our home,” Jeff said, “and we don’t know what to do. We’ve tried everything: positive reinforcement, ignoring bad behavior, rewards, threats, timeouts, and lots of love. Nothing seems to work.”
Tears welled up in Jessica’s eyes as she recalled an incident that had become routine in their home. “It started as a simple trip to the store to get milk and eggs but ended as another parenting battle. I told Ethan to shut off the television and get his shoes on. Ethan was watching one of his favorite cartoons and ignored me.” Jessica cracked a smile, “Sometimes, I wonder if he has a hearing problem, but I had a few things to get ready before leaving, so I didn’t press the issue.”
Jessica continued, “After a few minutes, I poked my head into the living room and said, ‘Come on, Ethan. It’s time to go.’ Ethan half-heartedly responded and told me, ‘Not yet mom. The show isn’t over.’ I could feel the frustration growing, and this time, my voice grew louder as well. ‘Ethan, let’s go!’”
“I waited a few moments to see if Ethan would respond, but it became obvious he had no intention of getting up. At this point,” Jessica admitted, “I snapped. ‘ETHAN!’ That got his attention, and he got up slowly, inched his way to the television, and took in every last second he could. When he reached the television, the pleading began.”
“Ethan begged, ‘But mom, can’t we wait until the show is over? It won’t take long. Please, mom.’ I was so frustrated and told Ethan, ‘No! We have to pick up milk and eggs so we can make your sister a birthday cake before she gets home from school today.’ Ethan just kept pushing, ‘But mom. Please, mom.’ At this, I yelled, ‘ETHAN! I TOLD YOU TO GET YOUR SHOES ON! SHUT THE TV OFF!’”
“Ethan knew I meant it this time, but his pleading turned to defiance. He shut off the television and complained all the way to the back door. With his shoes in hand, he started to cry. It wasn’t a sad cry. It was a mad cry. It was an ear-piercing, neighbors-can-hear-it-through-the-wall cry. And it turned into a full-blown temper tantrum complete with kicking and screaming as Ethan thrashed on the floor.”
When it comes to discipline, there are many parents like Jeff and Jessica, who are frustrated and confused, lost in a sea of opinions, and unclear how to correct a child. Jeff and Jessica want to be good parents, but they don’t understand the biblical principles of discipline or how to apply them to parenting.
Biblically, it is helpful to understand that discipline is a key component of discipleship. Discipline is the problem-solving side of parenting that recognizes something is wrong in the heart of the child. Hebrews 12:10 tells us the goal of discipline is holiness that yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:10-11).
God commands parents to discipline children (Prov 19:18; Heb 12:9-10; Eph 6:4). God didn’t call parents to the task of discipline without telling us how to accomplish it. With that in mind, let’s explore five characteristics of biblical discipline.
1. Biblical discipline begins by establishing parental authority.
God has given parents authority over children. You are in charge, not because you are bigger or smarter, but because God has placed you in authority to act on His behalf. If you are unclear about your authority as a parent, you will not provide the spiritual leadership your child needs. There will be a lack of consistency, boundaries will regularly change, passivity will permeate the home, and a child will lose respect for you. If you abdicate or share authority with a child, you can expect problems just like Jeff and Jessica had.
Our culture swings between two faulty forms of authority: harsh control and permissive freedom. God instructs parents to exercise authority, not to make children do what we want, but to train children to live obediently under God’s authority. As a parent, you must exercise authority because your child is required by God to honor and obey you. When a child disobeys a parent, it is ultimately God who is being disobeyed because the child is rebelling against the authority God has placed in the child’s life.
Parental authority is often compromised when children are young. Your goal is to establish your authority as early as possible. The earliest battlegrounds seem minor, but they set the pattern for all other areas. Bedtime, mealtime, and what children wear need to be under parental control. Children should not be given the freedom to decide when they go to bed or whether they will attend church as children quickly learn that parents are sharing authority. As children age, a precedent is established that is repeated in other areas of life and results in a painful battle for authority between parent and child.
If you are a new parent and you wonder where to begin, start by establishing your parental authority in love. Obedience is the foundation upon which all other teaching is built. Without obedience, parents cannot begin focusing on character development or spiritual growth. The Bible states that obedience is the first commandment with a promise (Eph 6:1-3). It will not go well in your home if children do not learn to respect your authority.
2. Biblical discipline is an expression of love.
Discipline is the tool God has given parents to deal with a child’s sin and save a child’s soul (Prov 23:13-14). Discipline helps our children move in this direction and deters them from destruction. From a biblical perspective, discipline is an expression of love (Heb 12:6-7). Love is what makes discipline beneficial. The Bible teaches that the absence of discipline is unloving (Heb 12:8). Correction without love, done in anger, is what makes discipline abusive. The parent who exercises authority in gentleness and kindness will generally find that a child does not resist or run.
3. Biblical discipline focuses on the gospel.
Your primary parenting problem is that your child is a sinner (Ps 51:5; Gen 8:21). The author of Hebrews helps us diagnose a child’s behavior as a “struggle against sin” (Heb 12:4). Disobedience, at its heart, is rebellion against God, not to be excused as brain development or misdiagnosed as a disorder. Discipline, done correctly, points children to the cross where they see the depravity of their heart, understand the need for a Savior, and want to live in a way that is pleasing to God.
Parents must understand their child’s behavior in terms of heart motivation (Mark 7:21; Luke 6:45) and believe that change is the result of a child internalizing the gospel and seeking to live in obedience to God. When discipline methodology does not deal with the heart, it strays from a biblical form of discipline. Be wary of anyone, including Christians, who present models or methods for discipline that are not focused on the gospel.
The gospel should be at the heart of all discipline. We must seek to understand the attitudes, actions, and motives of a child’s heart and hold out the beauty of the gospel for a child to embrace. A child’s sin will only wither when the gospel is brought to bear on it, and Jesus is savored as more beautiful and satisfying than the sin.
4. Biblical discipline leads to repentance.
Biblical discipline is a rescue mission that calls the sinner to repentance. True behavior change begins with conviction. Children will not change if conviction has not occurred. We must pray that God will convict our children of sin and that the child will understand more fully the reality of his or her actions. Discipline should help a child confess to God and the person they wronged. When this occurs, true heart repentance has happened. Jeremiah 34:15 states, “Recently you repented and did what was right in my sight.”
Repentance combines two things: a recognition of wrong and a desire to do what is right in God’s eyes. We should help our children recognize the difference between worldly sorrow (I’m confessing because I was caught) and godly sorrow (I’m confessing because I’m grieved I sinned against God).
5. Biblical discipline applies God’s methods in Scripture. 2 Timothy 3:15-17 is one of the most helpful passages on discipline. Paul tells us that God has given us the Bible for teaching, reproof (conviction), correction, and training in righteousness; it is to be used for these purposes. All four of these items are critical in the discipline and instruction of children, but for the sake of space, I will simply provide a few comments on correction.
One reason God has given parents the Bible is for the purpose of correcting a child. In other words, the Bible has the power to correct. The word “correct” literally means to straighten up what is wrong and reform. Parents are to use the Bible to treat spiritual problems. God has given us, in the Bible, all the tools to address attitudes, actions, thoughts, and motives that do not align with the character of Christ. Anxiety, anger, complaining, a child who will not submit—all these parenting issues and more are dealt with in Scripture. The Bible is given to us as the means to bring about repentance, confession, and righteousness. Of course, the Bible itself does not do these things, but it is in the pages of Scripture that we come into contact with Jesus.
For far too long, the church has tried to integrate non-biblical sources with Scripture to address the topic of discipline. The resulting marriage has produced bitter fruit. The Bible is robust enough to provide us with all the categories and concepts we need to correct children. Let us use it for that purpose.
Dr. Josh Mulvihill is the Executive Director of Church and Family Ministry at Renewanation. He served as a pastor for nearly 20 years and helped launch The Legacy Coalition, a ministry that equips grandparents to pass faith on to future generations. He holds a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Biblical Grandparenting and Preparing Children for Marriage. Josh is married to Jen, and they have five children. Connect with Josh on Twitter at @DrJoshMulvihill.