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The Goal and Method of Parental Discipline

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I’m teaching a marriage class at church and I opened the floor for participants to ask me any of their marriage and family related questions. And, they submitted some excellent questions. This week’s question has to do with raising kids:

How can you discipline your children in a godly way?

This is a fantastic question because one of the main purposes of parenting is to guide the next generation in the right direction. If you’ve been a parent more than a couple of years, you realize that a big part of that responsibility comes down to being an effective disciplinarian. If you’re anything like me, however, you’ve probably struggled to find wisdom and wrestled with your own strengths and weaknesses in this area.

Let’s talk about the goals and methods of parental discipline.

The goal of parental discipline

To observe a lot of parents and to read a lot of the experts, you get the sense that the primary goal of parental discipline is to produce children who are compliant and controlled, whose outward behavior is civilized and appropriate.

If we’re being honest, isn’t perception management the bottom line for most parental discipline? We want people to think highly of us. And, nothing says, “This couple has their act together!” quite like having well-behaved kids. Right? Think about your own efforts to discipline your kids. Aren’t many of the corrective actions you take primarily driven by your desire to avoid social embarrassment on one extreme or to solidify your reputation as an all-star parent on the other extreme?

Let’s take it a step further. If you’re a Christian parent, this will be especially relevant for you.

Most discipline is focused on external compliance but is woefully inadequate at reaching the heart. A parent can make his child sit up straight, be polite, speak when spoken to, and do the right things. But, discipline aimed at external conformity, in reality, only teaches kids to be hypocrites. It teaches them to be good on the outside but leaves their hearts untouched.

So, back to the question. What is the goal of parental discipline? If we’re going to understand the goal of parental discipline, it makes sense to look to our heavenly Father:

“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,” (Hebrews 12:9-11).

The goal of discipline is hidden right there in the word itself: disciple. When our heavenly Father disciplines us it’s for our good. It is always to help us share in his holiness. It produces a harvest of right living. It is transformative.

Transformation is the goal of God’s discipline in our lives. That should be the goal of parental discipline as well.

As parents, we don’t want to produce little hypocrites, people who behave well on the outside in spite of their poor inner character. We want to partner with God in the process of making disciples, young men and women who behave well externally because they’re being transformed internally.

The method of parental discipline

If it’s our goal to partner with God to raise little people who have his heart, how do we do it? There are hundreds of parenting philosophies and self-proclaimed experts out there who, for the price of a book, can teach you all about how to get compliant kids. There is some decent stuff out there—and some really bad stuff, too—but we know that. There are relatively few that will equip and inspire you to partner with God in transforming your kids hearts. But, before recommending resources, it’s important to look back to God for our cues.

It’s difficult to pick out one chapter and verse that prescribes God’s way of disciplining us, his children. That’s OK. To understand how God disciplines us, you have to look at the whole arch of Scripture:

  • God disciplines in the context of his loving, unbreakable relationship with us. Without a loving relationship with our kids, discipline can only be punitive and can never reach the heart.
  • God’s disciplinary acts are firm, never abusive; fair and just, never arbitrary; merciful, never spiteful; patient, never impulsive; and redemptive and restorative, never reactive or manipulative. We must aim to emulate his kind, steady, and loving approach toward our kids.
  • God disciplines with the long-term goal in mind. He patiently, repeatedly, and persistently forgives, extends grace, and embraces us. We must parent for the long haul, always willing to extend the same kind of grace we have received from him.
  • God sacrifices himself—even to the extreme—for the sake of his children. We must stop parenting for ourselves and remember that partnering with God to help transform our kids’ hearts will require great work and sacrifice on our part. But, it’s worth it.

The best parenting method and resource is the whole of the Bible narrative. A thorough knowledge and experience of God’s grace is essential if we intend to raise our kids well. All of the other best resources I know are based upon the Bible. Therefore, they contain some really helpful wisdom for parents.

This post was fairly theoretical, I know. If you were looking for practical stuff, I’m sorry to disappoint. However, before we move on, it’s so important to establish the foundation. Come back next week and I’ll share four tips for parental discipline.

Discussion questions

  1. As a parent, how has your discipline focused on outward compliance while neglecting inner transformation?
  2. Reflect upon Hebrews 12:9-11. What are some of the ways God has disciplined you throughout your life? What has his discipline produced in you?
  3. What are two or three practical ways you can give grace to your kids?

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