How to Discipline Children Without Crushing Their Spirit

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This is the second installment in my series, What the Bible says about children.  If you missed the first post, Your Children are a Gift from God, Now What?  you can check it out here.  In this post, I will focus on the fun part of parenting….discipline and instruction.  Hope you caught that note of sarcasm there.  This post is really about the WORK of parenting.  The day in and day out training ground that our homes become as we raise children.  Today were going to talk about how to discipline children without crushing their spirit.

how to discipline children

I love my children, but I have had a difficult time knowing how to discipline children well.  It seems like there is a lot of information out there about raising children, but because each child is so different and each situation happens in real time. In real life it is difficult to put all these great parenting theories into practice consistently.

As a consequence of my inconsistency, sometimes I worry that I am somehow “ruining” my children, crushing their spirit, or leading them toward bitterness.  At the very least, I can become confused about how to discipline children!

A little blurb about me…

I was a bratty teenager.  I gave my parents FITS, arguing and pushing the envelope at every turn, making our home chaos!  My parents tried but I fought them every step of the way until God got a hold of my heart when I was 15.  One of the verses, I loved to quote to my dad (especially in the heat of the argument) was

Ephesians 6:4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Of course, I only quoted the first half, paying no attention to the second half of that verse.  Zing! Take that dad! I thought I was big time smart for finding such a useful Bible verse! From my perspective, my parents’ attempts to hold me accountable for my behavior were provoking me and therefore they should stop.  Of course, I should get to keep doing what I want, right?!?

I was (still am) the dreaded strong willed child.  And I don’t think my parents ever really knew what to do with me.  Guess what? Now I am a parent and I have a strong willed child just like me.  You would think that all my experience of being a strong willed child would better prepare me for parenting one, but in all honesty it just makes me want to fight with this child more.  We both have a lot of fight in us….so what to do?

I have two other children—not quite as strong willed as the oldest one, but parenting them is full of just as many twists and turns, and bumps and emotional roller coasters.  It’s enough to leave me wondering if all my efforts are making a dent in training these children in righteousness.

But rather than being discouraged by my imperfection as a parent, the Bible calls me to go all in. To take my role as disciplinarian (for the purpose of instruction) seriously.  Just because things don’t seem to be working in the short term is not a reason to pull back.  Just check out these verses that speak to how to discipline children.

How to discipline children without crushing their spirit:

Discipline for the Right Reasons and Do it Well!

Having a low tolerance for sinful behavior and holding our children accountable for obedience does not have to be done in anger (though children can make us act like crazy people).  We are to ENGAGE fully in our role as disciplinarian, not out of a desire to control our children’s behavior, but out of a desire to train them for righteousness.

Discipline is tricky and parents can use their position of authority to tear down their children—even when our intentions are good.  We can be the cause of bitterness in our children.  When we focus on controlling our children’s behavior or on outward signs of obedience rather than the heart, we risk crushing our children’s spirit.

There are lots of ways to correct and discipline children, but as parents we need to be sure that whatever form of discipline we use to train our children that we do it WELL!  We are accountable to God for the discipline of our children.

Proverbs 13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.

Proverbs 23:13-14 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.

Proverbs 29:15  The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother

Proverbs 29:17 Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart.

Culturally, those verses from Proverbs make us uncomfortable because they seem to clearly promote corporal punishment and our culture is pushing an agenda that all spanking is child abuse.  But let’s step back for a moment and realize that spanking or not spanking is really not the core issue here.  The core issue is the DISCIPLINE and CORRECTION our children need from us.

The meaning of these verses deserves more explanation so that we understand how to discipline children  Even if you do use spanking as a form of discipline, it is only an effective strategy for a short time.  Since children outgrow spanking long before our job of parenting is done, these verses have to mean more… For a great Biblical explanation, check out this article: Spare the Rod: The Heart of the Matter.

We may need to learn to parent smarter, not harder (and I’m not talking about spanking harder). We can engage fully in the discipline of our children without engaging in power struggles.  Learning to avoid power struggles is the most powerful way to change how discipline goes down in your house!

One book I read about how to discipline children is Parenting: A House United by Nicholeen Peck.  She tends to be more legalistic than I would be, and I don’t agree with everything in her book but her system for teaching kids to accept no answers, follow instructions, receive criticism, and disagree appropriately is sheer genius!  I am not even all that great at doing it all the time, but my kids have all learned that if they really want me to listen to them, they can say, “May I disagree appropriately?”  The book is written from a Mormon perspective, not an evangelical Christian perspective, but the parenting advice is great!  I really wish I would have had this book with my oldest was a toddler (remember, he is the strong-willed one who LOVES to suck me into arguments and power struggles!)

Show Love through Consistent Discipline

My husband is the Dean of Student at a small Christian college.  Inevitably whenever a student faces consequences they don’t like as a result of their actions, someone comes to my husband and says things like, “I thought Christians were supposed to show grace.” Or “Aren’t Christians not supposed to judge?” It is easy to forget that discipline is not the absence of grace.

When discipline is done well, it is actually more loving than letting someone continue in their sin.  Going back to the example about my husband.  The students who have gotten in trouble, learned from their consequences and the grace shown through the process  are the ones that come back to thank him most frequently.

True freedom lies within God’s boundaries and God expects parents to teach our children these boundaries because we LOVE them and want them to live in freedom not bondage.

Consider these words from Hebrews 12:4-11

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.

Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

And remember this little nugget, I liked to quote to my dad when I was being bratty….

Ephesians 6:4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

We protect our children’s spirit when we discipline in love.  Not just doling out consequences for their actions, but following through afterward restoring them and showing them grace by forgiving them and not holding their actions against them.

Teach Your Children What Submission Really is

The primary way our children learn about submission is from learning to obey their parents.

Without a proper view of submission, our children will never be able to follow Jesus well by letting Him be Lord of their life.  This was the lesson I needed learn as a strong-willed child.  Understanding submission changed my life!

Submission is one of those words that has been hijacked and widely misunderstood today.  Our general picture of submission is not the mutual submission described in Scripture.  Mutual submission seeks to serve one another, putting the others person’s needs above our own. Love is the motivation—not power.  We submit to God out of love and devotion to Him and because we know that He has our good in mind.  Children should be led to submit to their parents out of the same motivation.  See Ephesians 5:20-6:4.

Submission is not a lack of disagreement.  Our children are going to disagree with us.  We need to teach them how to do that well.  (Again, Nicholeen Peck’s book is a GREAT resource).  As parents, we need to learn how to listen to them well.  When we make discipline more about power than about mutual submission that comes from love, we risk crushing our children’s spirit.

Use Every Day Moments for Training and Instruction and to Know Your Children’s Hearts

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.

Genesis 18:19   For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”

Proverbs 22:6  Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

Discipline goes hand in hand with training and instruction.  Again this comes back to power.  If we think we can just will our children to obey us because we said so, we are only doing half the job.  We must also teach them to obey in a way that changes them from the inside out.

This is a PROCESS that depends on age, cognitive and emotional understanding and above all, the Holy Spirit.  Our expectations need to be in line with the abilities of our children.  We risk crushing our children’s spirit when we hold them to an impossible standard and when we take on the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

The best way to gauge what to expect from our children is to get to know our children a little bit more every day.  Observe them, talk to them, find out what’s in their heart.  Teach them little things as you do life together.  Learn from them—they have things to offer you too!

Teaching doesn’t happen during the discipline process.  It happens when you are taking a walk, or tucking them in, or sitting around the dinner table, or working together to care for your home.

These are the moments that will ultimately define us as parents.  And because of these moments our children may be able to show us grace when we “lose it” with them and mishandle discipline situations.

Hold Yourself to a High Standard of Righteousness

Finally, We protect our children’s spirit, when we live authentic lives for Christ.  They can see hypocrisy.  More IS caught than taught.  We will be held accountable, not only for how we discipline our children outwardly, but for how we lived out the Christian life in front of them.

Matthew 18:6 But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Proverbs 20:7 “The righteous who walks in his integrity—blessed are his children after him!”

We are their primary role model of faithfulness.  Throughout the Old Testament we see proof that we are never more than one generation away from being unfaithful to God.  Our children need to see living, breathing examples of people who love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.  People who have been changed by the truth of the gospel and seek to live it out in EVERY area of their lives.

Parents are a huge part of this, but the church community also plays a role in discipling the next generation. The more our children see faith lived out in real, authentic, powerful ways, the more they will know that the God of the Bible is the one true God, that He is worth following, and He is the way of salvation.

The community that happens in the church can help fill the gap in our parenting.  There are no perfect parents and no perfect churches, but our children need to live life with people outside of their immediate family and see the gospel’s transformative power lived out so that they know that God is bigger than their parents’ expectations that they obey God.

You can do this!  You can discipline children without crushing their spirit

  • Discipline your children for the right reasons, and do it well!
  • Show love through consistent discipline
  • Teach your children what submission really is
  • Use every day moments for training and instruction and to know your children’s hearts
  • Hold yourself to a high standard of righteousness

If you enjoyed this article, share it!  And check out the other articles in this series: Your Children are a Gift from God, Now What?, and Children Matter to God and Why it Matters to You (coming soon).  You can also keep in touch with Grace and Wondering on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest.

These Related Articles are worth checking out:

7 Ways Parents Unfairly Provoke Our Children

Do Not Provoke Your Children

Why Is It So Hard to Be Consistent?

Photo Attribution: By D Sharon Pruitt [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons