Sometimes, in spite of parents’ most graceful efforts to stay calm, connect well, and parent with grace, their kids still misbehave. They are “beloved sinners” (just like us) and need corrective guidance (just like we do), with the goal of helping them learn the powerful message, “You are responsible for your life, your relationships, and your decisions.”
Two Biblical principles can help parents communicate this message to their children: natural impacts and imposed consequences.
Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” This simply means that if you do bad things, bad stuff naturally happens. But if you do good things, you will reap a harvest if you don’t give up. Natural impacts are the built-in “harvest” that comes based on the actions we choose. For example, when one child hits another, he feels “icky” inside; the other child gets hurt and feels upset also. When a child lies, her friends may not trust her anymore. These are not imposed consequences. They are natural impacts.
Parents tend to miss the opportunity for teaching about natural impacts by quickly imposing other consequences or punishment. But this punishment does little, if anything, to help kids learn to notice and respect natural impacts on their own. While punishment may “work” to temporarily modify behavior, the natural impacts of our child’s behavior will be their best life-long teacher, if they are taught to pay attention.
To help children learn sometimes means we have to get out of the way and let the mess unfold, without imposing extra punishment or protecting your children from the natural impact of their actions. Once this happens, talk gently with your kids to help them understand the cause-and-effect relationship between their behavior and its impact on everyone involved.
When our son Noah went through a phase of struggling with lying, we initially dealt with it by firm confrontation or consequences. We got nowhere. It was almost like “Game On” to see if he could sneak one by us. Then we changed our approach and did three things that really encouraged him toward honesty.
- When he told the truth, even for little things, we focused on the value of his honesty for protecting our trust and connection (the natural impact of honesty).
- We taught him to pay attention to that little feeling in his stomach that would come with a lie (one of the natural impacts of dishonesty). It was God’s gift to him to protect the trust and connection between us.
- We helped him understand the other natural impacts of lying – the mistrust, the broken relationships, the hardened heart that comes from ignoring that icky feeling in our stomachs.
Soon we shifted our approach and he was coming back to us to confess if he had lied. It was not that long until the lying was pretty much done. Through his teen years and as a young adult, Noah has been strongly committed to honesty.
Sometimes, natural impacts are not powerful or immediate enough to motivate children to make wise choices. So it can be helpful for parents to help their kids learn to take responsibility by imposing consequences, administered with a desire to nurture deeper faith. Our ultimate discipline goal should be heart change, not instant “justice”. Toward that end, here are some examples of imposed consequences from the Scriptures:
- “Do Overs” / Practice a right response: When Jonah refused to go to Ninevah, he got a little transportation help and a second chance to do as he was told — a “do over”, if you will. It was a solution, not a punishment, that helped Jonah get back on the intended track. A whiny child may be asked to practice asking respectfully two or three times to help them remember to ask respectfully in the future.
- Restitution / Reconciliation: Matthew 18 requires three attempts to reconcile, with gradually increasing assistance in the process, before church discipline is utilized for a defiant offender. Practically speaking, when kids offend or hurt others, they can be held accountable to make restitution – when they’re ready to do it sincerely. Whether it’s doing something kind for your brother after you hit him, or truly apologizing and reconciling after a verbal argument, reconciliation is an important and oft-overlooked alternative to punitive discipline.
- Lose the privilege: When Adam and Eve disobeyed, they lost the privilege of living in the garden. When children misuse a privilege it is fitting to remove that privilege so they learn to value it. (This is not the same as taking away their favorite item whenever they misbehave.) Whether it’s a Matchbox car or the family car, if it’s not used according to clearly stated expectations, it is reasonable to take away the car until restitution is made.
These examples are all about getting hearts right with God and working to get back on track when we’ve gone astray. It’s much more about solving problems than it is about punishing them.
What about when…?
At this point you might be thinking, Yes, but what about THIS situation? What about THIS consequence? But remember, the most important thing is not the methods — it’s the messages you send your child when you discipline.
Are you letting your kids know, “You’re safe with me! You’re loved! You’re God’s workmanship!” and “You’re responsible!” – even when they misbehave? If so, your kids are likely well on their way to valuing God’s grace and truth in their lives. If it’s still a challenge for you, keep coming back to these ideas. Get the whole book, or dig into others that will help you cement new habits for graceful parenting. And above all, keep praying and looking to God for eyes of discernment about what is reaching your child’s heart.
Apply it Now:
- Which of these consequences is least a part of your discipline?
- How might you apply it to a common misbehavior in your family?
- Download our 14 page ebook Consequences that Actually Work: Three type of consequences that parents can use to teach rather than simply punish.