The answers to the following questions can help guide you more effectively as you consider how to discipline.
- Should I require immediate obedience?
- What examples does God the Father give us for discipline?
- Does the Bible say discipline should be painful?
- Where has the Jewish community landed on the spanking issue?
- Does the way Jesus taught shed light on Proverbs?
Should I require immediate obedience?
Immediate obedience is an appealing goal, and what parent doesn’t love it when a child obeys consistently, quickly, thoroughly and cheerfully, especially in front of other parents, or Gramma and Grampa, or the pastor! “Obey all the way, right away, in a cheerful way” (or – “…with a happy heart.”) is a common way that many parents define immediate obedience, and truly – when it occurs from a sincere heart, it’s a very good thing. But many parents think that we should do whatever is needed to train our kids to do just that (or at least look like they’re doing that) every time they are given a directive.
The rationale is often based in Ephesians 6:1 – “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” It’s easy to think that it is our job to make this happen, and implement quick punishment for disobedience. There’s a big problem with this approach, however… It’s not our verse! It’s our kids’ verse. Remember – ours is Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers [or parents], do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
And scripture doesn’t seem to validate a quick punishment approach to developing a cheerfully obedient heart. Jesus taught that the son who was initially defiant but had time to reconsider and obey was the obedient son. In context, he is using the parable as a metaphor to confront the lip service (without heart obedience) of the Pharisees, and predict the subsequent opening of the gospel to the Gentiles. But the point still stands – God is looking for true love-based obedience and in the story, immediate punishment for delayed obedience would have stolen the son’s opportunity to repent of his defiance and choose obedience.
It’s also important to note that nowhere in any of these five “rod Proverbs” is there anything about immediate obedience, in fact the term “immediate obedience” is nowhere to be found in scripture. Let that sink in – this is not a biblical term, but we hear it a lot from parents as if it is their biblical responsibility to get it from their kids.
Let’s consider a practical example of the misbehavior of sibling conflict. How often do parents quickly and sharply confront or discipline children for selfish, arrogant arguing? (That scenario between irritated parents and arguing kids certainly happened in our household at times!) It’s helpful to look at how Jesus dealt with this issue with his disciples.
Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me.”
Of course Jesus knew what they had been arguing about, but he was in no hurry to deal with it until he saw the right, poignant teaching opportunity. Even then he didn’t mention the arguing, he corrected the sin with a vivid, visual teaching of the importance and the blessing of the opposite attitude and behavior – humility and service of others. Picture that scene, and imagine the disciples all watching the expression of tender affection on Jesus’ face as he drew the little child into his arms. This is a good example of responding to disobedience by growing “the wisdom of the righteous,” as John the Baptist was commissioned to do to pave the way for Jesus. (See above). But this approach takes a lot more thought and intentionality than a quick sharp rebuke or punishment that we hope stops the irritating behavior.
In our decades of extensive work with families, we have observed some inherent dangers in requiring immediate obedience as the routine response from children.
Demanding immediate obedience may result in kids who…
- …are “little moralists” and think that life is about doing the right thing. Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales, has expressed concern that the end result of all his behavior training videos was lots of little moralists who didn’t realize they needed a Savior. In all his focus on behavior, he didn’t communicate that life is about walking in a vital, forgiven relationship with Jesus. (See his kids’ book Sydney and Norman for a refreshing story that makes God’s unconditional love clear for children.)
- …have little spark or creativity. A requirement for immediate obedience leaves a child no room for creative problem-solving about how to get something done or do the right thing. A teacher friend of ours said she could spot the kids raised in homes where strong consequences were given for anything other than immediate obedience. She said, “They are perfectly behaved, never question a directive, but there’s no spark in their eyes and little creativity to think outside the box. I’d take a classroom full of lively, creative kids any day.”
- …self-destruct when given freedom as young adults. One therapist said, “Christian counseling offices are full of the adult children of controlling, punitive parents.” Kids are especially vulnerable to struggling as adults if their parents thought for them by making everything be about commands and obedience. In those families, kids don’t learn who they are, what’s important to them, how to make a wise decision or problem-solve their way through a conflict.
One formerly “obedient” young man said, “When my parents dropped me off at college, I was drunk before their tail lights disappeared on the horizon.” It took years of recovery from alcoholism for him to find his way to faith.
This self-destruction also happened to a friend of ours. While growing up she submitted to the requirement of immediate obedience, but resented that control and quickly and angrily “came off the rails” when she finally had freedom. When she no longer had parents to require obedience, she simply learned to “obey” her boyfriends, and became a single mom in the process. In tears she stated, “I have no idea who I am or how to make a wise decision.” Her difficult journey surprised her parents, because they said she was their most compliant of all their kids.
- …resent us as adults. Immediate obedience thinking can weave through the fabric of the whole relationship. We have certainly heard many adults make statements like, “I’m just not that close to my parents. They still seem to want to tell me what to do.”
- …struggle to feel close to God. A common defense of requiring immediate obedience is, “I make sure my kids obey me quickly, so they will also learn to obey God.” These parents have great intentions, but it appears that the opposite may be true. A report titled Attachment to God and Parents reveals that “Respondents from overprotective, rigid, or authoritarian homes tended to report both greater God Anxiety and Avoidance. …it appears that authoritarian parents produce children with concerns about their personal worth and God’s love…”
Do these concerns mean that we shouldn’t train our kids to obey us? Of course not, obedience to parents is a really good thing, but it’s the how of our training that is important. Here are a few thoughts:
- Put your first and foremost focus on modeling (and talking about) your own obedience to God, respect for authority, and mutual submission to others – “At the office today, God convicted me of my critical statement to a coworker, and I obeyed right away and went to apologize and make it right. That felt so good!” Also model quick respect of other peoples’ requests of you. “When your mom asks me to take the trash out, I do it right away so I don’t forget. Then she feels honored, and I like that.” You could even invite your child to give you a high five when you do! Model respect of your own parents, even if you need to set some boundaries around unhealthy interactions with them.
- All this modeling gives you credibility to gently encourage kids (when all is well) in God’s promises when children obey and honor parents. Watch for times when kids do obey quickly and put your focus on specific ways that is a blessing to everyone.
- Let kids know you’ll usually work with them to build wisdom and problem-solve family challenges together, but occasionally you’ll require immediate obedience. Explain that wisdom, problem-solving and honoring authorities are all really important skills to learn in life. This helps kids understand that you are for them, not against them. We’ve developed a diagram to help parents and kids visualize this, with some examples of the kind of things that parents can do to set boundaries without demanding exact behavior all the time:
The ideas in this diagram are not arbitrary “the only right way” ideas. Based on your unique family, what would you use to set the boundary “fences” so kids receive the guidance and limits they need but still have the ability to grow in values and wisdom, and learn from their mistakes?
- Save the requirement for immediate obedience from your kids for important or urgent issues. One coaching couple said, “I think we’re using up all our ‘immediate obedience’ on Legos.” When your children don’t feel ordered around all the time, they will be much more likely to obey when you say, “Ok, kids. We’ve got to get to the doctor appointment quickly. This is a time for immediate obedience so we don’t miss our appointment.”
Essentially this approach imitates our heavenly Father, who uses the right teaching moments to gently help us learn deeper love-based obedience throughout our lives. Sometimes there are hard consequences when we are defiant or delay obedience, but I’m glad I don’t get quickly punished every time I don’t immediately obey. How about you?
What examples does God the Father give us for discipline?
Every discipline situation is unique and each child has their own personality traits and responds differently to different types of discipline. The model for discipline demonstrated in the Father’s responses to Old Testament saints and patriarchs is not habitual, prescriptive, or a one-size fits all punishment, but it is varied, creative and uniquely adapted to fit the immediate situation and the state of the heart. (God used physical punishment for the Israelites as a whole after they ignored His kindness, repeatedly defied His teaching, worshipped idols, and then rejected numerous confrontations by the prophets. Physical consequences were rarely used, however, for individuals who had a relationship with him.)
The scriptures hold numerous examples of different kinds of uniquely tailored discipline from God the Father and Jesus. Here are some examples:
- Natural Impact discipline is when the discipliner allows life to give the consequences that are inevitable for the behavior. Scriptural examples:
- “A man’s own folly ruins his life.” See also Romans 1.
- Esau chose the physical blessing of food from his brother Jacob in exchange for his birthright. This was a binding agreement and despite his pleading, Esau permanently lost the firstborn blessing from his father.
- Genesis 25 and 27: Jacob was a deceiver, and his “natural impact discipline” was his fugitive life, fleeing from those he had wounded. In turn, Jacob himself is deceived by Laban and his own sons in Genesis 29 and 37.
- Lose a Privilege discipline means a privilege related to the misbehavior is no longer available to the disciplined. Scriptural examples:
- Adam and Eve disobeyed and misused their privileges in the Garden of Eden and therefore lost all the privileges of living in the garden, intimacy with God, a painless life, and immortality.
- God gave Moses specific instructions to provide water to His people, but Moses responded in anger and chose his own method, dishonoring God in front of the Israelites. He therefore lost his privilege to lead the people out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
- Make-It-Right/Do-over discipline provides an opportunity for the disciplined person to take time to consider their actions and then revisit the misbehavior and make it right. Scriptural examples:
- When Jonah refused to go to Nineveh, God basically put him in a “time-out” to consider his actions, and then gave Jonah a second opportunity to go to Nineveh and bring the message of repentance and grace God had originally given him.
- Peter boldly proclaimed his undying loyalty, but then denied his association with Jesus three times in public. After Peter had time to lament his behavior, Jesus drew Peter to Himself in conversation and paralleled Peter’s triple denial by asking three times, “Do you love me? Feed My sheep.” In doing this he gave Peter a second chance to proclaim his commitment to Christ in front of the same disciples that had heard his thoughtless boast, knowing this time Peter would follow through.
- Meet the Misbehaving Child’s Needs – Sometimes God simply looked below the surface and met the needs of the disobedient, anxious or exhausted child.
- Moses’ initial defiant refusal to confront Pharaoh and lead God’s people out of Egypt was rooted in fear. This blogpost describes how, despite God’s anger, he provided the reassurance and support Moses needed to choose to obey.
- After confronting the prophets of Baal, Elijah fled Jezebel’s murderous threat in terror and announced he was quitting God’s calling. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life…” His defiant statement was never even addressed. God simply sent an angel to provide fresh baked bread and a jar of water after he rested.
- God responded to a “brute beast” belligerent psalmist with patient reassurance and guidance.
Does the Bible say discipline should be painful?
Some parents refer to Hebrews 12:11 to support that discipline should be painful – “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” NIV. The KJV translates it no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous…” NASB – “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful…” and the majority of translations of this verse use some variation of sorrow/grief instead of pain. In addition, nearly all other uses of that particular Greek word (lupēs) throughout scripture is related to sorrow and grief, not physical pain. Learning to truly face the impact of our sin on our own hearts and the hearts of others does bring sorrow from which we can reap a harvest of righteousness and peace.
The word discipline comes from discipulus, the Latin word for pupil and implies the discipling and learning that happens with a mentor or guide. So whatever the chosen method of discipline, we advise fervent commitment to discipline methods that maximize learning true wisdom.
Where has the Jewish community landed on the spanking issue?
Since the Proverbs were written in the ancient Hebrew context, we found it enlightening to look into Jewish perspectives. We read from Jewish Values Online that Orthodox, Reformed and Conservative rabbis agree that mandated spanking is not the correct interpretation of Proverbs that referred to the rod. Their perspective is well-represented by the Orthodox rabbi who wrote this comment,
“Jewish law takes a very clear stance against the physical and emotional abuse of children, and thus hitting one’s children (beyond constraining them if they are acting wildly) stands outside normative Jewish practice. In addition, ‘rod’ need not be taken literally, but as a metaphor to ‘tough love’ and discipline – i.e. that parents have to teach their children appropriate behavior, and mustn’t let them run wild, as a lack of involvement leads to various negative consequences.” (Rabbi Maury Kelman, 2014).
This is not just the isolated opinion of one Jewish rabbi. “In 2000, Israel decided to protect children by legal means from child corporal-punishment, including spanking.” Research on commonalities of rescuers in the Holocaust was very significant in changing Israel’s policy. In Childhood Discipline and the Development of Moral Courage, researcher Seth Izen states, “Significant positive correlations were found between childhood experiences of inductive [reasoning-based] discipline and moral courage. No significant relationship was found between childhood experiences of corporal punishment and moral courage.” This general finding is discussed more thoroughly in the book, The Holocaust Lessons on Compassionate Parenting and Child Corporal Punishment.
How does the way Jesus taught shed light on Proverbs?
For further insight into how literal to take “the rod” in Proverbs, it’s also helpful to consider how Jesus communicated truth. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and presumably has not dramatically changed his communication style between Old and New Testaments. Did Jesus tend to be concretely literal or more metaphorical when he spoke? In the gospel of John Jesus frequently opposed the Pharisees for their legalistic, concrete understanding of what he intended as rich metaphor or symbolism. We’ll cover three statements by Jesus and the Pharisees’ literal response. (See the very end of the document extras for more references related to this concept.)
- “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
- “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus [a Pharisee] asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
- “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.”
In these examples, when Jesus communicated beautiful, vital truth about his death and resurrection, and about how to receive eternal life He used metaphor that was rich in imagery and meaning. Unfortunately, those who were anchored to a concrete, literal interpretation of his words missed the valuable truth he wanted to impart.
Extra verses re: Jesus’ literal vs. metaphorical interpretation of Scripture
- bread of life
- bread of heaven
- where I am you cannot come
- truth sets you free
- those who keep my word will never see death
- When Jesus refused to succumb to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness (to turn stones to bread, to worship him) Satan tried to tempt him to take literally what is meant as a metaphor about God’s protection of his saints. “The devil led him to…the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
It is interesting to note that when we informally surveyed adults, there were numerous people who had been traumatized by spanking – “I still silence the buckle when I take my belt off,” stated one parent. The ones who said they thought spanking was helpful were most often males who knew they deserved it, and experienced it as a one time or very infrequent punishment, often when they were a little older. For example, a ten-year-old boy we knew was spanked once (for lying) and experienced true remorse and repentance. He agreed that for him spanking “worked” to strongly emphasis the importance of the issue of lying vs. honesty. So based on our experience, spanking appears to be potentially helpful in infrequent, unique situations, administered with great care.
What we stand for is thoughtful discipline that fleshes out Luke 1:17, and keeps parents’ hearts connected to their kids while they build wisdom. That’s why we developed a book and online course titled Discipline That Connects With Your Child’s Heart, to teach parents how to communicate to their misbehaving child four key messages – “You are safe with me, you are loved no matter what, you are called and capable, and you are responsible for your actions” (…to make right what you’ve made wrong.)
We are passionate about these ideas and tools, because we have seen too many parents in tears over the impact of their well-intended spanking discipline as they try to rebuild relationships with angry, disenfranchised teens or young adults; and so many grateful parents who have shifted away from routine spanking to thoughtful discipline that truly connects with their children’s hearts.