In Part 1, we considered 6 ways parenting methods fail and 3 reasons why. In Part 2, we considered the shortcomings of child-centered parenting and the promise of discipline and instruction. In our final Part 3, we will examine heart-focused parenting.
Should Parents Discipline Their Children?
Proverbs is a record of fatherly counsel, and therefore, a great book of the Bible for parents to become familiar with. The Proverbs use the word “discipline” includes physical correction: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (Prov 22:15). If we eliminate discipline, we “spare the rod, spoil the child” (13:24; 23:13), which doesn’t mean you have to use a literal rod to spank your kids! However, it does mean that you will love them enough to discipline them.
Spanking is out of vogue, but often it works. There was a series of studies conducted by Dr. Kenneth Dodge among Caucasian kids to see if spanking produced positive results. They showed that the more a child is spanked, the more aggressive he becomes. However, when they ran the same study among African-American kids, the spanked black kids were less aggressive and better behaved. Why the difference? Black kids responded better than white kids because they were raised in a culture of consistent spanking. For white kids, it was reserved for the last straw, when parents were angry. White kids were responding to the anger of their parents, not to the corporal punishment. This clarifies an important principle in discipline. However you discipline your children, be consistent.
However you discipline your children, try to be consistent.
When it comes to discipline, some parents act more like buddies than disciplinarians. Instead of asserting God-given authority to foster respectful obedience, buddy parents inquire: “Timmy, how did it make you feel to smash that computer?” Or they may plead with their children: “Johnny, Johnny, please don’t do that.” Buddy parents implore instead of discipline.
Fathers, don’t cop out and put it all on mom. You are charged with bringing order and discipline at home. My son knows that dad isn’t a push over, and mom can depend on me to back her up. The other day she had to tell him that he would have to deal with me when I got home. As soon as I got home he ran up to me with joy, Daaady!” And then he said: “Daddy, I was bad.”
He doesn’t cower in my presence because I take my responsibility to discipline him seriously. He runs to me with joy because he knows I love him enough to discipline him. In fact, I often tell him: “Son, because I love you, you cannot have your own way. You must be punished.” We try to get teach as we discipline.
Insisting on discipline tells our children something about Jesus, namely that he isn’t just a cuddly savior but also a strong king. He is worthy of respect and obedience. Occasionally, when our children talk back or argue we will ask them: “Who is in charge?” To which they have learned to respond: “You are, and God put you in charge.” Our authority is from God, and we tell them something about his authority in how we discipline or fail to discipline them. Of course, if all dads do is discipline, and not instruct, they will become imbalanced disciplinarians.
Insisting on discipline tells our children something about Jesus, namely that he isn’t just a cuddly savior but also a strong king.
Instructing the Heart
Interestingly, disciplinary instruction can be instructive for the heart. In Proverbs, discipline also refers to moral training. We can train them to exchange folly for obedience. Parents should care about their children’s hearts enough to both correct and instruct them.
Discipline alone does not change the heart. We must also instruct the heart. Proverbs tells us that folly is bound up in the heart and that it is exceedingly wicked. It also tells us that all the issues of life flow from the heart. The good and the bad flow from the heart, which is the seat of our precious children’s decision-making, the place of our child’s longing. Over and over again, the Bible places an emphasis on the heart, not the rear, as the central place for parenting.
The Greek word for “instruct” is frequently used to refer to contemporary biblical counseling. Parents are called to counsel their children, to counsel their hearts. We must do the hard work of peeling back the layers on their behavior to get to their motivations. This will require questions not just accusations, inquiry not just reprimand. Johnny, why are pestering your sister so much today?” Sometimes misbehavior is the result of a lack of attention or mistreatment at school. We should try to avoid jumping to disciplinary action right away when we are unsure of our child’s motivation.
This can be hard to do with young children but it is possible. One way we do it with our kids is to introduce heart terminology early on. If Owen is persistently whiny and complaining, I will ask him: “Owen are you having a whiny heart?” When I do this, I am showing him that I don’t want him merely to perform well, but to desire well. Depending on his issue, we may inquire if he has a “demanding” or “selfish” heart. You get the idea.
However, using heart language, alone, is not enough to instruct the heart. I typically follow up by asking: “Owen, do you need to ask Jesus to give you a happy/content/generous heart?” I may refer to a Bible verse that we have memorized together to help shape the beliefs of his heart around the gospel. This teaches him that he needs grace, that he needs God to change his heart to give him a desire to be content. It teaches him that what matters most is not external performance, but internal change, not self-discipline or morality, but attention to Jesus, who alone can change his heart’s desires.
What I want for Owen, is nothing less than what I want for myself—to be so drawn to the beauty, love, and grace of Jesus Christ that he can’t help but be a content, considerate, and generous child. I want him to trust Jesus more than me, to confess his need for a Savior and turn to Jesus as Lord. I want him to be so delighted in Christ that he lives differently, to see and savor the beauty and excellency of Christ. I want his heart to long for Jesus more than anything else.
Consistent discipline can tell them that Jesus is King, and loving instruction can tell them that Jesus is a gentle Savior.
A person who owns a BMW isn’t interested in a Geo Metro. Their attention is captivated by the BMW. Our task as parents is to draw our children’s attention to the superior worth and excellency of Jesus, who is much better than a BMW! To lead them, instruct them, teach them the gospel. Paul exhorts mothers and fathers: bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” The phrase “of the Lord” is used by Paul to refer to Jesus throughout Ephesians. We nurture our children, not through self-esteem, but through the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Consistent discipline can tell them that Jesus is King, and loving instruction can tell them that Jesus is a gentle Savior. In the end, our children need much more that methods or parents, they need the Lord Jesus Christ. He is a better authority and offers a better, perfect, unwavering love that can truly change their hearts.
Only Lord Jesus is strong enough and sacrificial enough to change our children.
Only Lord Jesus is strong enough and sacrificial enough to change our children. The gospel brings the strength of Jesus and the sacrifice together. It calls us to show our children the strength of Lord Jesus—discipline—and the sacrifice of Jesus—heart instruction. As parents we can avoid the way of the drunkard (wavering between disciplinarian and buddy) and walk in line with the gospel, when we make our parenting not methods-centered or child-centered but Jesus-centered. May God grant us the grace to love them well, instruct their hearts, and show them Jesus. And when we fail as parents, he remains the same sacrificial, forgiving, loving Savior for us. He is strong for our parenting successes and sufficient for our parenting failures.