This is the second part of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.
Cruel. Unnecessary. Ineffective.
Mention “discipline”, and these words might pop up in many people’s minds. For the word “discipline” is often associated with caning or spanking.
These days, the idea of disciplining our children is becoming more and more controversial, with corporal punishment carrying the connotation of being archaic and cruel. It’s become associated with violence inflicted upon a helpless child; some would even label it as physical abuse.
Many modern psychologists and educators argue that corporal punishment serves no purpose except to damage a child’s self-esteem, and should be done away with completely.
But while there can be wrong ways to carry out discipline, such as being overly harsh that it backfires, it doesn’t negate the fact that God’s Word commands parents to “discipline” their children.
So what does “discipline” actually mean, according to Scripture? And how should we go about disciplining our children in a way that is biblical and honouring to God?
The Rod and Reprimand: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Help! How Do I Discipline My Kid?
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The Bible tells us that our children are sinners (regardless of how chubby their cheeks are or how innocent they may seem!). Because of this, our ultimate goal as parents is to lead our children to know and fear God, and to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
In the book of Proverbs, the original Hebrew word for discipline means to educate, train, and give guidance. The purpose of discipline is thus to teach a child with his well-being in mind, so that he will come to know and fear God as he grows up.
Proverbs 19:18 (NASB) instructs parents to “discipline your son while there is hope, and do not desire his death.” We are to discipline our children before they grow older and become less amenable to our counsel, which will, hopefully, guide them towards God’s life-giving ways.
The purpose of discipline is to teach a child with his well-being in mind, so that he will come to know and fear God as he grows up.
While the Hebrew word for discipline doesn’t exclusively refer to punishment per se, it does involve punishment, which is meted out with the child’s well-being as the end goal.
Proverbs 29:15 (emphasis added) defines discipline as such:
A rod and a reprimand impart wisdom,
but a child left undisciplined disgraces its mother.
While some believe that both the rod and reprimand refer to the same thing, I believe that they refer to two sides of the same coin of discipline: verbal correction and corporal punishment.
Reprimanding Our Children
A reprimand simply means verbal correction, something which God himself gives His children. Proverbs 3:11–12 (emphasis added) tells us not to “despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”
We are to discipline our children by reprimanding or rebuking them in love when they do wrong. This doesn’t just mean we scold them—it also means that we tell them what they have done wrong, and lead them to repentance before God.
Of course, the whole process of reprimanding takes time, patience, and consistency. It can be a hassle to confront our children when they do wrong—which is why some parents choose the easy way out by closing one eye and letting the issue go.
Disciplining them doesn’t just mean we scold them—it also means that we tell them what they have done wrong, and lead them to repentance before God.
Fellow parents, while it can be tiring to reprimand our children, let us remember that discipline will, over time, impart wisdom to our children (Proverbs 29:15).
Using the Rod—Literal or Not?
While reprimanding children is more or less acceptable as a disciplinary method in most Christian circles, using the rod can be much more controversial. Proverbs 23:13–14 instructs parents this way:
Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.
Punish them with the rod
and save them from death.
Some interpret this as a symbolic rod, and so mete out non-physical punishments such as timeouts or no screen time. My personal conviction is that this refers to a literal rod. The Hebrew word used in this context refers to a literal stick or club—in other words, I believe that the rod is some form of physical penalty that results in pain. In my family, we might use a rattan cane or spatula.
However, although the Bible sanctions the use of the rod in child discipline, I think parents have to use their discretion when and where to use it. They have to decide which infractions require the rod and which don’t.
When my son was five, he told a half-lie to get a reward from my wife. When my wife found out, she was upset and disappointed that he had resorted to falsehood to get what he wanted.
At the time, we were living in a spartan home in the US. We didn’t own a television, and social media was non-existent back then. So, we knew that his lying wasn’t influenced by worldly culture—it was his natural propensity that came from his sinful nature.
Now, my wife could have lashed out at our son. Instead, she sat him down and calmly explained to him what he had done wrong, and that she had to punish him with one stroke of the cane for his wrongdoing. She also told him that God was displeased by his lie (Proverbs 12:22). He accepted his punishment, repented before God, and learnt a painful but necessary lesson.
When Not to Use the Rod
In my experience, the problem with disciplining children with the rod isn’t the rod itself or the pain that it inflicts. The problem often lies with the way parents use the rod.
Parents can use the rod wrongly, and this can result in unintended consequences. Some wrong ways include:
1. Using the rod for an accidental mistake.
Sometimes, children can be careless or make an accidental mistake that isn’t an act of rebellion or disobedience. For example, a child might get distracted and spill water on the floor, or tip his bowl of food over on the table, resulting in a mess.
Parents have to use their discretion when and where to use the rod. They have to decide which infractions require the rod and which don’t.
In these moments, parents should differentiate between a deliberate act of disobedience and a pure mistake. This can be hard to do in the heat of a moment when we are angry or frustrated. In these circumstances, however, it is better to show mercy to our child because this will teach him what God’s mercy looks like, too.
2. Using the rod in anger.
This is something that I’m sure all of us can relate to. There will be moments we are absolutely infuriated with our children, and are tempted to use the rod in anger. But we need to ask ourselves this: Are we really disciplining our children for their good or well-being—or because they had the audacity to disobey us or had embarrassed us publicly?
It is crucial to show restraint in our discipline and recall why we are disciplining them: to teach our children what is right and wrong, so that they will come to know and fear God as they grow up.
3. Using the rod in public.
As far as possible, discipline your child privately. Bring him to a room, close the door, and talk to your child. Tell him why you are disciplining him—even at a young age, toddlers can begin to understand us.
Do not shame your child by disciplining him in public, because in doing so, we can embitter them—which is what Paul explicitly warns fathers not to do (Colossians 3:21). Likewise, I believe that we should never hit our child’s head or slap his face, because of the humiliation it can bring to him, and the permanent scars it can leave in his heart.
4. Using the rod in a dangerous way.
Finally, we should never use the rod in a dangerous manner—such as by chasing our child around the home or using dangerous instruments such as a belt, which may have sharp edges.
Are we really disciplining our children for their good or well-being—or because they had the audacity to disobey us or had embarrassed us publicly?
When parents punish children for an accidental mistake, in anger, in public, or in a dangerous way, they are disciplining for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time, at the wrong place, or in a wrong manner—all of which can inflict irreparable damage on their children.
Model God’s Heart in Discipline
Fellow parents, let us ask the Lord for discernment and self-control as we discipline our children—whether with the rod or reprimand—so that we will do so in a way that honours and reflects God’s own heart for us and our children.
When we discipline our children, may we always seek to . . .
- Discipline in love and with correction in mind. Our goal in disciplining is not to punish for the sake of punishing, or to conform them to our rules of external behaviour, but to lead them to repentance. At the end of the day, it’s about pointing our children, whom we dearly love, to the truth that they are sinners in need of forgiveness and grace in Jesus Christ.
- Explain why we discipline them before we do so. Children have a keen sense of justice, and thus need to know that we are not disciplining them arbitrarily. We cannot assume that they know why they are being disciplined; we should always tell them the reason—because they sinned or disobeyed—before we discipline them.
- Initiate reconciliation afterwards. Whenever discipline is meted out, the relationship between a parent and child will inevitably be estranged. This means that we should always initiate reconciliation after the discipline. Hug or kiss your child, and assure him that you still love him, and that it is because you love him that you are disciplining him for his good.
There were times when my children did something wrong, and after our reprimand or use of the rod, they would go to their rooms and cry. What brought me and my wife tremendous comfort and delight was seeing how the Holy Spirit convicted their hearts in these moments, when they chose to repent before the Lord.
Fellow parents, let us discipline our children while there is hope, with the goal of leading our children to Jesus Christ. Let us pray that the Lord would grant us the grace and wisdom to know how to do so in a way that is true to His Word.
And, above all, let us turn our hearts to Him, believing and trusting in His Word more than worldly principles so that we will raise our children for His glory.