Discipline and Punishment. What do I do when Boundaries are crossed?
When I launched this blog, I was not entirely sure the direction that it would take. I knew that I wanted my focus to be on general areas of responsibility that we have as parents. I have spent too much time as a parent making the important decisions without intention, without questioning the cultural influence that we take for granted. I wanted to inspire others to join me in inspecting and challenging everything related to parenting that is taken for granted, to be intentional and to truly make decisions. (Romans 12:2)
The one thing that I specifically wanted to avoid was the subject of spanking. It’s a topic that everyone seems to have a strong opinion on. While I firmly knew where I stood, I did not think that I wanted to risk alienating everybody on the opposite side of this sensitive issue. But as I dug into the Bible, read piles of parenting books, and started writing on the subject, I came to the conclusion that this issue is not only unavoidable, but paramount. Everything else is strongly affected by a parent’s approach to discipline. It is even bigger than spanking itself, so technically from here on I’ll be “avoiding” spanking and talking instead about punishment in general.
Unfortunately, this subject is routinely approached like so many other aspects of parenting, not at all. Most parents assume that what they know, what they were raised with is correct. For many years I did as well, and through that experience I have learned how important it is make decisions on these subjects rather than going with the flow. (Colossians 2:8)
For several months I have been spending a significant amount of time on the subject of boundaries. I have found the proper approach to boundaries the most difficult thing to figure out for my 5 children, especially the 2 strong-willed world changers. I have been through several books, including “Boundaries with Kids”, searching for the right approach to boundaries that aligns with what God’s Word instructs. The most biblically balanced approach(James 3:17) that I have found is what L.R. Knost recommends (link at the bottom). It is what we have been implementing that is bringing much-needed peace and cooperation to our home without dampening the strong wills that God has given our kids. Creating boundaries is not rocket science. Knowing what to do when boundaries are crossed is the difficult part, which brings us back to discipline.
The key to discipline is understanding that discipline and punishment are two entirely different things. The definition of discipline, as it is used Biblically, aligns with the root word from which it came, “disciple”. Discipline is discipling, mentoring, teaching, instructing, guiding, nurturing, and encouraging. The Hebrew, Greek, and even the old English word originally translated do not automatically infer punishment, as our modern English word does in its evolved state. Discipline does not involve punishment.
Children need and want to be disciplined, but they definitely do not want or need punishment. They need boundaries that they are discipled on how to handle. All behavior is communication. Behavior itself is a symptom of an underlying emotional, physiological, or psychological need. This is where the distinction between discipline and punishment is of utmost importance. Punishment treats the symptom, while discipline treats the need causing the symptom.
Even though punishment is often effective at changing behavior, this argument for punishment is rooted in a very short-sighted perspective. It can be an efficient treatment for a symptom. The problem is that it is almost always a misdiagnosis that is often mistreating the problem behind the symptom. It’s like constantly taking painkillers for a headache problem that is being caused by dehydration. While it will often help with the symptom, it just as frequently exacerbates the underlying need. If feelings are repressed and disallowed they fester and sour. If emotional needs are ignored in favor of treating the behavior, then false beliefs are often formed about love, respect, self-worth, boundaries, etc. The compliance gained through punitive methods is rooted in fear. It is detrimental to emotional health. The biggest misconception about punishment is that the alternative is permissive parenting which yields spoiled rotten brats. The truth is that both are on opposite extremes of the spectrum and in the middle is discipline.
Discipline views the symptom as a symptom and seeks to identify the true problem through connection, communication, and cooperation. Discipline sees beyond the situation that is frustrating to me as a parent, and seeks to respond in a way that is best for my child’s eternal destiny. (Romans 2:4) Discipline acknowledges that a boundary has been crossed, disallows that action, and trains the child how to handle that boundary in the future. It does not attempt to change anything about the unique personality of the child, but teaches the child how to channel his God-given attributes to walk in the way he should go. (Prov. 22:6)
The reward of choosing discipline without and instead of punishment is that when you treat the need, the symptom is treated as well. This approach is usually more difficult for the parent, but it is far more effective and it preserves the most valuable aspect of the parent-child relationship, the trust of the child. Punishment betrays trust and creates fear which affects the ability to love. (I John 4:18) Discipline builds a secure relationship through trust and yields a willing compliance out of true respect and love.
As parents, God calls us to discipline. He also instructs us not to punish. There are several scriptures that speak very clearly to this.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you,for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Kind and compassionate is discipline, not punishment. Forgiving is discipline, not punishment. Imitating God’s example is discipline, not punishment. Walking in love as Christ loved us is discipline, not punishment.
The real beauty in this passage is in the first part of verse 1, where the analogy used for imitating God is “as dearly loved children”. Dearly loved children imitate their parents because they trust and respect them. In verse 2, we even have a clear description of the behavior that we want imitated, giving ourselves up for the good of others. This is a covenant relationship that prioritizes the needs behind the symptoms at the expense of our frustration with the symptoms.
I’m not very far down this road of eschewing punishment altogether, but it is already making a big difference for our family, especially for the strong-willed kids in the house. As a parent, it is a lot of work to connect, communicate, and cooperate with my children when their behavior is bothering me, but it is building a peaceful home of emotionally healthy people who are learning to trust each other.
“Either grace is sufficient for all or it is sufficient for none. There is no in-between. You are your children’s first taste of God, their first understanding of love, their first vision of grace. How you treat them in that capacity will inevitably affect their relationship with Christ. Choose love, because he is love in the flesh. Choose gentleness, because he is the gentle Shepherd. Choose grace, because He died so that you could. Grace has a face… It’s yours.” L.R.Knost
If you interpret all of scripture literally in its English translation then contradictions abound, but when studied in context, these “discrepancies” tend to not only work themselves out, but work together to complement each other. The simple overview is that the context of Proverbs is full of figurative language that cannot be taken literally (Prov 26:4-5), while the context of most of the NT verses mentioned above are clear directives from Christ or Paul. I choose to take directives literally and interpret figurative language figuratively.