Discipline Is Not Punishment

There is a lot of confusion in today’s society … as well as a lot of fear … around the topic of disciplining your children. News headlines routinely horrify us with stories of flagrant child abuse and justify aggressive intervention by the government to take these children away from their parents in order to protect them from further harm. Child psychologists spew a litany of conflicting ideas and opinions about how to raise our kids while offering up an assortment of “new” strategies that promise us “emotionally healthy” children if we just focus on pumping up their self-esteem, ignoring tantrums and remaining calm and detached when dealing with conflict.

The whole concept of disciplining our kids is something that most parents … if they are honest … are just a little afraid of.

Do I “spank” my kids?  Or do I give them a “time out”?  Do I negotiate with them, giving them options while trying to “reason” with them? Or do I resort to the “because I said so” philosophy of exerting my authority. If I spank them, what do I use? Should I use my hand? Should I use a paddle?  Will my friends think that I am “abusing” my children and turn me in to the police?  What will my neighbors think? Will my children end up hating me?

These and a very long list of other “what if” and “how to” questions can literally overwhelm any parent when they come to the question of disciplining their children.  But it doesn’t have to be as complicated or as confusing as some people try to make it.

There are a number of extremely well-written books and articles on the topic of disciplining your children and I don’t intend to repeat that information here.  But I did want to say a couple of things that, I hope, will encourage you and equip you when dealing with this issue in your parenting.

The phrase that popped into my head when I first thought about writing about this was: “Discipline is not punishment.”  I say this because I think that a lot of us get these two ideas mixed up in our thinking. One is about training for the purpose of helping a child to learn and grow in wisdom and maturity; the other is about inflicting pain (physical or emotional) as a penalty or “payment” for some offense or transgression.

Discipline should never be confused with punishment.

The word “discipline” is very closely related to the word “disciple.”  When our children were growing up, our purpose as Christian parents was to “disciple” them.  We wanted to raise them to become disciples of Christ. We wanted them know and love the Lord and to experience His love and guidance in their own lives.

We also wanted to raise them to be loving and responsible people and to equip them to be successful in every area of their lives.  One of the primary reasons behind our decision to homeschool was because it would give us a greater opportunity to focus on developing their “character.”  While academics were important, our greater concern was what kind of people they would grow up to be.

Which brings me back to the difference between discipline and punishment …

It is absolutely necessary to discipline your children.  They need guidance. They need boundaries. They need to learn what kinds of behaviors (and attitudes) are acceptable and which are not. They need to grow in wisdom.

Children NEED discipline.

They do not, however, necessarily need to be “punished” when they disobey or do something outside the boundaries you’ve set as acceptable behavior. (Not turning off the television immediately after you tell them to or having a bad attitude afterward, for example.)

I know it may sound like I’m splitting hairs or simply playing around with semantics and definitions, but the difference between “discipline” and “punishment” is important.

One concern I have with having an attitude of punishment instead of discipline is that it can allow our actions as parents to become an expression of frustration and anger rather than an attempt to change and guide the direction of our child’s heart.

Discipline should never be done in anger.

Punishment focuses on shame and condemnation. Discipline points in the opposite direction toward wisdom as a better path to follow.

Punishment can change behaviors (at least temporarily), but it can rarely change a heart. Discipline, on the other hand, is focused on changing both the behavior and the heart.

That’s not to say that there is no “pain” in discipline.  As we explained to our kids when we disciplined them, spanking is “supposed to hurt.” But while discipline often includes “pain” in the process, there is a bigger purpose at play beyond just changing behavior.

I know I said it before, but it bears repeating … You should never discipline your child as a way of venting your anger or frustration.

For us, disciplining our children involved a “process.”

I realize this may sound a bit mechanical, but our “process” generally followed this pattern:

1. Stop

2. Inform

3. Discipline

4. Review and Pray

This process may seem a little laborious at first, but it provided us with both structure and freedom when put into practice.  Every situation is unique of course, but this pattern helped both us and our children when it became necessary to go through the discipline process.

The first step of the discipline process is simply to stop what you’re doing and give your full attention to your child.  This is important. Discipline is a process that requires your and your child’s complete focus. It’s not something that you should do while you’re engaged in other activities.  Many times, if not most of the time, you will have to “delay” the discipline process a little so that you CAN give it the time and focus it needs.  You should, of course, do this as quickly and as close to the behavior being addressed as possible. But you may need to wait a short time before engaging in the discipline process.

For example, if you’re on the phone and your oldest child pushes his baby sister and takes her toy away from her, (which I assume is unacceptable in your house as it was in ours), you may need to deal with the immediate situation, but the “discipline” for this behavior should be a completely separate encounter.  You may decide to do this immediately by telling the person you were talking to that you need to hang up and deal with the situation.  Or you may decide to address it after you finish your conversation.  Either way, you will need to give your full attention to your child when you discipline them.

The second phase is to inform your child that their behavior or attitude is unacceptable and that they are going to be disciplined.  This was always a very deliberate step in our discipline process.  We would begin by telling our children that we loved them, but that their behavior or attitude was something that they knew was unacceptable in our family.  (This is assuming, of course, that they had been told this previously and it is not new information to them.)  We would also tell them that, as their parents, we were responsible before God to help them grow in wisdom and that disciplining them was part of this.

We would then tell them that we were going to spank them.  We would also tell them that it was going to hurt. Sometimes we would remind them about the verse in Proverbs (20:30) where it talks about how discipline “cleanses away evil” and “purifies the heart.”  One time my wife asked our then-5-year-old son if he knew the reason she was going to discipline him.  His sweet-voiced reply still brings tears to our eyes, “To drive the evil from my heart,” he whimpered softly with big tears floating in his eyes. He then added, “… and if it doesn’t hurt enough, it’s not going to drive the evil away.”

The purpose of this stage is to ensure that the child knows why he or she is being disciplined and to reinforce the reality of our love for them.  We want to make sure that they understand that not only do we love them, but in fact, the reason we are disciplining them is BECAUSE of our love for them.

We also wanted to make sure that they understood that the behavior or attitude that they were being disciplined for was not acceptable and should not be repeated.  We would often ask them to state the reason back to us. For example, our conversation might go something like this:

Me:  “Do you know why you’re getting a spanking?”

Child: “Yes.” (If their answer was “no” I would tell them the reason.)

Me: “Why?”

Child: “Because I pushed down my sister and took her toy.”

Me: “You know that you’re not allowed to do that, right?”


Me: “I want you to understand that you’re not allowed to hurt your sister … or anyone else … and you can’t just take things.  Now, you know that I love you, but I have to spank you to help you learn that you’re not allowed to behave like that.”

At this point the tears would usually start if they weren’t already flowing.  If they objected too much or too excessively, I would explain that they would receive additional discipline for THIS behavior unless they brought themselves under control and stopped it immediately. It is amazing how well even small children can control their emotions once they learn that there are consequences for indulgence.

Next is the actual “disciplining” part of the process.  From a practical standpoint, our practice was to use a wooden spoon. (Our family fondly referred to it as the “spanking spoon.”) We preferred having a separate object rather than using our hand. We never wanted them to associate our hands reaching toward them with spanking.  The “spanking spoon” (also sometimes affectionately referred to as “the rod”) had a clear, well-defined role in our family.  Just picking it up when behaviors were on the edge was often enough to motivate a quick adjustment to questionable attitudes or behaviors.

To prepare for the spanking, I would have the child being disciplined to either bend over my knee if I were sitting or to lean over a chair or the edge of the bed. (Discipline was often done in our bedroom away from other siblings or family members, both for privacy and to avoid any sense of public shaming.)

The typical spanking was three firm (appropriate to their age) swats to their bottom. The swats were intended to “sting” but never to bruise or inflict excessive pain.

The actual spanking process was over very quickly.  Immediately after it was over we would typically embrace the child to comfort them and to repeat that we loved them, but wanted them to learn that there are consequences to their actions and we wanted them to learn right from wrong.

The last phase of the process was to review with them why they had been disciplined (the behavior or attitude that was not acceptable in our family) and to reaffirm that they were loved and cherished as our son or daughter.

Finally, we would say a short prayer together (they were often required to repeat our words as we prayed out loud) asking Jesus to forgive them and to help them not to sin and to fill them with His Holy Spirit to guide them.

Before ending, I would repeat to them that they were loved, that they were forgiven and, if appropriate, directed to apologize and ask for forgiveness from their brother or sister (or anyone else involved) for their behavior.

Phew …

I know that this process may seem extremely drawn out and tedious. (Especially when it is written out like this.)  But actually putting this process into action can be very short and does not take nearly as much time or effort as it does reading it. (smile)

The most important thing I wanted to say in writing this is that “disciplining” your children is not the same thing as “punishing” them.

Deep love and a genuine desire for your children to grow in wisdom and maturity must be the driving forces behind disciplining your children.  If it’s not, then … as you can probably already see … it’s just too much work.  It’s too much of a hassle.  If you allow anything but love for them to motivate the process of disciplining your children, you’re in danger of just “punishing” them for breaking your rules and making YOUR life less comfortable or convenient.

One of my children … who is now grown and married and living much farther away from us than my wife or I would prefer … recently said to us, “Thank you for spanking me when I was little.”

We all laughed.

“Why is that?” I asked her.

“Because it showed me that you loved me,” she said.

After she said that, we cried. (smile)

It’s true.  We spanked our children because we loved them. It broke our heart to see our children cry after we disciplined them.  But we knew that it would produce the “peaceful fruit of righteousness.” (Hebrews 12:11 – RSV)

And it has.  Our children continue to be a blessing.

I apologize for the long post.  I hope that some of the information here will be helpful for parents who may be struggling with this sometimes difficult issue.

Our prayers are with you and your family.

Tim Wright, Ph.D.

Tim Wright, Ph.D.
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