In Texas this month a woman was sentenced to five years’ probation, a fine and mandatory parenting classes for spanking her daughter. She avoided jail time but was given probation instead. Of course, for many parents this raises a big issue:
How should children receive discipline?
Interestingly, the law in Texas allows parents and those acting as parents to use force in disciplining their children where such force is not actually deadly. Here is a quote from the Texas Attorney General’s Office:
“Texas law allows the use of force, but not deadly force, against a child by the child’s parent, guardian, or other person who is acting in loco parentis.”
Wow. While I personally think there is a lot of room in such a definition for what should be genuinely classified as abuse, I am also amazed the judge in this case decided this woman was guilty for doing something which the law actually allows.
Can I just mention some of the dangerous room in this definition? If I intentionally broke my son’s arm as a form of punishment I would be guilty of child abuse. Quite terrible child abuse as well. However, I would not have been using deadly force. So I think the definition could be a bit flawed.
The Purpose of Discipline
There is a fantastic bit of the Bible which speaks directly to this issue. It is not “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” While spoiling children is definitely a problem, there is a far more relevant verse in the Bible.
Hebrews 12:11 says, “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.”
While this verse talks about how God treats people as His children and brings discipline into their lives, the principle is totally germane to how people should discipline their children. There are three things in this verse worth taking note of: the method, the effect and the goal.
The method is some kind of discipline. While I personally believe in the value of corporal punishment, I think spanking children should only be done in certain circumstances and only as part of an overall scheme of discipline.
For example, I have a son who is currently four years old. Like lots of children who are this age, he does things which are irresponsible, dangerous or simply foolish. In all of these things, he is acting like a child. I think it is not wise to discipline a child for acting like a child. However, sometimes he decides to do things which are acts of defiant rebellion. He decides to try to act like an adult and set his own boundaries or challenge the rules which have been set for him. So I might tell him to do something and he might say, “No.” In these moments I have to exercise some wisdom and be sure he understands my role as his parent. I set the boundaries and make the rules and he obeys them. Sometimes he will challenge my authority but will back down after a stern word or a harsh look. Sometimes a few minutes spent in time-out will remind him of our roles. And then there are the times when he goes into full-blown rebellion and declares war against my authority. In these moments a combination of corporal punishment and other forms of discipline such as time-out, reward charts and just plain distraction bring peace and victory.
The method is always going to be discipline because people do not develop self-control on their own. Self-control is taught and produced in us by someone else. Our parents produce self-control in us through their use of discipline. The Holy Spirit produces the fruit of self-control in our lives.
Whether a parent chooses to spank a child, relies on the naughty step or uses some kind of reward chart is not the most crucial issue. The most crucial issue is the use of some kiknd of discipline as a method for producing good things later.
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time…” Yeah, the Bible is right. Children do not enjoy discipline and rightly so. Sometimes I think if my chosen method of discipline does not produce adequate tears and sadness then I should try something else! Discipline is not meant to be pleasant!!
However, let me insert a little disclaimer here:
Unpleasant and abusive are two totally different things.
When I do something to my children as a form of discipline which is unpleasant for them then I am creating a deterrent which should positively restrict their behaviour in the future in a constructive way. If I were to abuse my children then I would not create a positive deterrent which would lead to constructive change. I would create a wound which would need to healed before it caused lasting damage.
So, as parents and as a society, we need to be wary of the idea which insists children should not experience unpleasant things. Children should be disciplined and discipline is not pleasant.
The goal of discipline is always the harvest of righteousness which will come later. Sometimes much later.
For example, I teach my son to put his toys away before we eat each evening. Why? Because I want to produce in him the virtues of tidiness and care for his belongings. I also want him to grow up with a respect for other people’s space. Littering in public and untidiness at home are connected in my brain! I also teach my son to apologise when he does something wrong. Why? Because I want to produce in him the virtue of humility and I want him to be able to admit when he is wrong.
When my son was three years old, my wife and I made the decision to withdraw him from his nursery. We did this in part because their system of discipline was different from our system. I wanted to teach my son very clearly about the authority of other adults so he learns to respect his teachers, his church leaders, the police and all of the other people who will be authority figures for the rest of his life. The nursery’s system of discipline would not have allowed me to do this (This was not their fault, by the way. I think highly of the nursery still. The difficulty was in the differences between our rules and consequences at home and their rules and consequences. Having two totally different systems seemed to confuse my son and make his behaviour worse.).
So the goal of discipline is what will be produced in the child later on. There is a day which should come when the child will thank the parent for spending so much time and effort teaching them these things.
What do you think? How should parents discipline their children? I would love to hear about your experiences with your children and how you are teaching them. You could even tell me what your parents did to you!