Before having children, I worked for years as a camp counselor and as a teacher in a large public high school. Both arenas taught me the importance of discipline in a child’s development. Without structure and rules, summer camp would have quickly devolved into some version of Lord of the Flies. Without order in the classroom, my students would never have had the opportunity to learn.
When I became a parent, I also recognized the importance of teaching my children about God’s grace. I wanted them to know that when they made mistakes, I still loved them (and so did God!). I hoped that this would encourage them to pursue what was good and right, not just because they had to but because they loved to.
At times, we may think discipline and grace are in opposition to one another. But it’s important to understand that these two concepts are actually friends, not enemies. They work together.
We see in God’s relationship with Israel a picture of good parenting. God is a Father who disciplines his children. He wants them to do what is right. Yet he also wants them to love what is right. He cares about heart attitudes and outward actions. His discipline is fueled by grace—filled with kindness and patience. We can do the same.
A few guiding principles have helped me as a counselor, teacher, and especially as a mom. While not all methods work for all children, I’ve found that these principles allow me to faithfully discipline my children while reminding them of God’s gracious love for them in Christ.
Teach Proactively, Rather than Reactively
Children need to be taught what is right just as much as they need to be corrected. God’s favor toward the Israelites preceded his giving them the law. It’s a gracious thing to show our children how to live: because we love them, we want what is best for them.
Bible stories, daily events, and children’s mistakes all provide opportunities to ask, “What would be the right thing to do?” Answering that question themselves helps children to understand more fully than just hearing the right answer from your lips.
When my kids were young, before entering a grocery store, I would playfully ask, “Are we going to act like hooligans in this store?” Of course, they’d respond, “No!” Then I’d ask, “What does a hooligan do in a store?” They’d come up with all sorts of suggestions: running around the store, not listening to Mom, standing in the cart, asking for candy, yelling loudly, and a host of other silly ideas.
Proactively reviewing grocery store expectations beforehand greatly helped their obedience. Children need loving reminders on how to be a friend, how to act in public, how to respond to unkindness, and how to apologize. If we spend all our time saying “Don’t do that” without also saying “Do this,” our kids can grow increasingly frustrated, not knowing the correct choice to make.
Give Both Consequences and Rewards
When God made his covenant with the people of Israel, he set before them blessings and curses. He clearly previewed the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. As we train our children, it’s helpful to do the same.
Some parents hesitate to give a reward because they consider it the same thing as a bribe. However, rewards and bribes are substantially different in what they communicate. Rewards encourage and praise right behavior. Bribes reward and encourage wrong behavior. The two can often look similar, so let’s consider an example.
A toddler is struggling to sit in her cart at the grocery store. A bribe would look something like this: Mother and child enter the store. Mom attempts to put the child into the cart. The child screams, throws a fit, and kicks her mom. The mother attempts again, but the same thing happens. In her frustration, she looks in her purse, finds a lollipop, and gives it to her child to get her to sit in the cart.
In contrast, a reward would look something like this: Before leaving the car, the mother looks her child in the eye and says, “I know at times going in the grocery cart can be difficult. So, if you can go in the cart nicely, then I will have a surprise for you. Do you think you can do a good job today?” The child responds “Yes,” and looks forward to the surprise.
They walk in the store, the child goes into the cart, and the mother shows her the lollipop. She promises if she can stay in the cart and do a good job, she can eat the lollipop once they are halfway through the trip.
In the first situation, the child is in control. Essentially, she’s being rewarded for yelling, kicking, and screaming. In the second situation, the mother is firmly in charge of the situation, and the child is rewarded for right behavior. Rewards help our children eventually understand the graciousness of God’s ways and his rewards for our labors.
Enforce the Rules You Give
When I began teaching, some of my students were only five years younger than I was. I realized I had to enforce my rules if I wanted to gain their respect. They had to believe my “yes” meant “yes” and my “no” meant “no” if I was ever going to maintain order in the classroom.
The same is true with our kids. If you tell your child she’ll have to leave the park if she hits another child, then leave the park when she hits someone. If you tell your son he won’t get to watch the movie if he fails to make his bed, then follow through when he disobeys. Our children need to know we’re true to our word—even when it’s difficult.
That said, only give a consequence you are willing to enforce. If you really want to take your child to see the movie or stay at the park, then find a consequence that better suits the situation.
It’s not gracious parenting to remove a consequence because it’s inconvenient for you. It takes faithfulness and consistency to lovingly correct our children day after day. Gracious parenting requires sacrificing our own desires and plans so that we can patiently follow through as we teach our children what is best.
Catch Them Doing Right
I regularly teach 4-year-olds at church. The fastest way to get all the kids sitting calmly is to say, “Everyone look! I love how Sarah is sitting so nicely with her hands in her lap, ready to listen to the story.” Immediately, 15 other children are sitting, hands in lap, ready to listen.
Praise is a powerful tool and a blessing for children. It helps them to know what’s right, and at the same time, communicates you care about them. All of us would like a boss to see the good we do and praise it, not just correct our mistakes. Similarly, our children need us to be watching them for right behavior, every bit as much as correcting wrong behavior.
This type of encouragement can be especially important for kids with behavior problems or kids going through a season of acute disobedience. Their ears perk up with the slightest praise. Catch them doing something—anything—right as often as you can.
Remember the Most Important Principle
These discipline principles have helped, but they are limited. Only God’s grace can change our children’s hearts. All the parenting wisdom in the world can’t save or transform our children. Only Jesus can.
As we seek to be wise in the parenting techniques we use, the most important thing we can do is spend time in the Word and prayer, asking God for guidance and remembering our own need of his gracious parenting. He listens, he understands, and he promises to faithfully provide all the wisdom we need. May we seek him, asking him to be at work in our children’s hearts, even as he is working in our own.