Ah, this old chestnut. That dreaded topic of discipline. Not only is it often a terrible and exhausting experience for parents, but we don't know if we're doing it right or not. One look at other parents, or one look from them (not to mention every other person around when your kid throws a public tantrum) makes us feel as though we're definitely doing it wrong. There are approximately a billion different disciplinary methods out there, and learning about most of them makes us feel like failures. It is very very difficult. And sadly, I can't make it easy for you. However, there are 3 principles that help us approach this topic with biblical wisdom, and that should give us some hope and direction!
Win their heart not their behaviour
Most of the time when we're in the throes of family life, we just want our kids to behave. It would be so much easier and more simple if they just listened and obeyed, wouldn't it? But this parenting gig isn't about making our kids good on the surface, and it definitely isn't about our comfort. It is about our kids' growth. We want them to grow into a rich, full relationship with Jesus. And the hard thing is, our kids have wicked little hearts. Right after the flood, reflecting on fallen human nature, God says:
“Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
Our kids have sinful hearts. And we can aim to modify their behaviour all we like, but if their hearts remain evil, all our efforts will be in vain. We will create whitewashed tombs. Kids with the appearance of godliness, but lacking its power. Kids who will grow up thinking they can be good enough for God, or who want nothing to do with him. It is not about behaviour modification, it is about the heart. And the ultimate thing they need is a new one.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
The only way they will get a new heart is if they come to Jesus. He will take their old heart away, deal with its sin on the cross, and give them a brand spanking (all puns intended) new one. So how do we help them come to trust in Jesus? Well this is where our good friend discipline comes in. There are 2 core things we want to teach our kids through discipline that will help them run to Jesus. (1) We want to teach them the difference between good and evil, and (2) we want them to understand unconditional love and grace.
Good vs. Evil
Kids won't come to Jesus for forgiveness if they have no understanding of their need for him. We want to set our homes up with a very clear standard of what is right and wrong. God is good, and he has built our universe upon a foundation of goodness. There is right and wrong and we learn what is what in the Bible. So it's critical that our kids understand that there is a difference between good and evil, and good is the one that we like! So we will praise good behaviour and punish evil behaviour (let's not water down what it is they are doing). We will teach them that God has a standard, and his standard is good. We will help them understand that they fall short of this standard.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
We do need to take great care to do this well, for it has been done poorly many times before (probably to us once or twice when we were kids!). Stay tuned for more thoughts on how to go about this. But one key thing is to keep framing it as God's standard, not ours. God is in charge, and he sets up what is right and wrong. Incidentally, he has set up that kids listening to their parents is right, but explaining it as God's rule that matters will be supremely helpful for your kids' hearts. But it is also essential that we pair this principle with another one.
Unconditional love and grace
Praise God that he doesn't only deal with us in the sphere of right and wrong. If he did, none of us would survive. Every single one of us would be done for. But in his love, he sent his son to save sinners. Through faith, even evil, ungodly, worthless rebels - like myself - can be made right with God again. And when I say by faith, I mean that it has nothing to do with our good behaviour!
However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
God loves us so much - even while we were still sinners - that he sent his Son to willingly give up his life for us. (How incredible is God!!) Now what means is, his love is unconditional. He loves us regardless of how we behave. There is no as long as you're pretty good I'll love you clause. This is amazing. However, as Romans 4:5 says above, we can only be saved by trusting in our Saviour. So our salvation is conditioned on faith - not good works. It is a gift of God, to be received by faith.
Because of all this, it is absolutely critical that our kids understand the concept of unconditional love and grace. And as parents, we are the first representatives of God to them, so it's our job to model this to them. We are to continue to love them, regardless of their behaviour. And... we are to give them good gifts in spite of their behaviour. This way they will understand (from experience) the concepts of unconditional love and grace, and be in a position to accept these things from their heavenly Father.
Hold them together
To lead our kids' hearts to Jesus, we must hold these principles together. If we are all law (right and wrong) and no grace, we will drive them away from the mercy of Jesus. If we are all grace and have no accountability for behaviour, they won't know their need for Jesus, so why come to him? We must help them grasp their desperate need for their saviour by teaching them right from wrong, and we must show them that he is full of grace and love, by being those very things to our kids. It is a tricky tension, but if we hold both principles, we will be heading in the right direction.
Want to ask specific questions for how these principles apply? Comment below!