There are some words that make us cringe. “Discipline” is one of them.
When I was in college I worked part time as a tutor. One of my students was a kindergarten boy. I was shocked at certain words that were altogether missing from his vocabulary – words like obey, sin, and discipline. He had never heard them before. He was a bright boy, but he was not raised in a Christian home. The world has no time for such words. Sometimes, unfortunately, neither do Christian parents.
We associate discipline with anger, pain, and guilt. But the Bible paints a very different picture. We see that the heart of discipline is love. Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one He loves.” Proverbs 13:24 says, “The one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”
Discipline means: Protection (Psalm 23:4). Peace (Heb. 12:11). Wisdom (Proverbs 29:15). Joy (Proverbs 29:17).
When we strip away the negative connotations we see that discipline is a gift reserved for God’s own precious children. What could be more beautiful than being treated as a child of God?
We want our kids to know that belonging to us means something special, too. It means protection in the form of boundaries and consequences.
To withhold discipline is to withhold love.
But why do our kids need discipline at all? This is where some might want to stop reading. Discipline is fundamentally rooted in how we view our children. We believe our children are born into this world with a deadly problem: sin. Sin comes from within (Matthew 15:19). If you don’t believe in the fundamental wickedness of mankind then the rest of this article is irrelevant.
But if you do believe it, you have a serious job to do.
We were on vacation at the coast a few years ago. We sat at a coffee shop perched on a rocky mountainside overlooking the ocean and nervously watched our toddler explore his new surroundings. A family sitting nearby had a little girl a few months older than our son. She flitted around the rocky cliffs and her parents smiled and told us, “She is such a free spirit! We never interfere with her independence.” The people sitting around us smiled. There seemed to be an unspoken respect for these freedom-loving parents.
Until the little girl bolted across the busy street.
Her parents didn’t even notice she was gone until a customer at the coffee shop looked up and screamed. I’m happy to say she was not injured. Her parents, white with horror, gathered her up and quickly left the shop amid head shakes and disapproving frowns.
An undisciplined child is not a child with more freedom. It is a child in exceedingly more danger – not just physically, but spiritually.
“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child (Proverbs 22:15).” If that verse doesn’t give you the chills read it again. That’s scary. If you’ve read the book of Proverbs you know that foolishness leads to great harm. Our children are utterly incapable of freeing themselves from their own foolishness. While it is not our job to save our children (only God can do that), God has sovereignly placed us in their lives to help drive the foolishness out. That can only happen with loving discipline.
So what is discipline? It’s everything you do that lovingly conveys your God-given authority. It might be as simple as a look or a word, but it still sends the message: “Your job is to obey me just as my job is to obey God. It is not an option. It might be difficult, but I am here to help you.”
It’s helpful to look at what discipline is NOT. Discipline is not:
– A list of creative punishments.
– A response to being inconvenienced.
– An outlet for frustration.
– “Embarrassment insurance” for when your kids are in front of your friends.
Ultimately, discipline is not something we do to our kids, but it’s something we do for them. It is a lifestyle. It doesn’t need it’s own category; it’s woven all throughout family life.
But it doesn’t happen by accident. A friend recently brushed off discipline casually and said, “Of course we will discipline for really bad stuff, but our kids don’t really need it right now.”
Moms, discipline is not a, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” scenario. If you have kids you’re already at the bridge. You arrived the day they were born. You need a game plan.
So how do you start? There are five practical ways to implement discipline in the early years. These tips are geared toward little ones, but evaluate whether or not they are enforced with your older kids. It’s never too late to start.
1. No Means No (And Kids Aren’t Allowed to Say It).
My sweet nine-month-old boy is an explorer. Electrical outlets, cell-phones, and various choking hazards draw his attention the most. When he reaches for something dangerous I look him in the eye and say, “No.” If he continues to reach for it he is met with a swift consequence and again the word, “No.” At nine months old he already stops mid-reach when he hears that word. If there were no consequences and no consistent follow-through, “No” would not mean anything. It carries weight. It’s a special word that requires immediate compliance on his part.
However, it is also a special word that is reserved only for Mommy and Daddy. A child who is allowed to tell his or her parents “no” is running the show. Don’t forget that by not enforcing your authority you are entrusting the physical and spiritual well-being of your precious child to – a child. Step in. Your discipline says, “I will not stand by and watch you bring harm to yourself by rejecting my protection and guidance.”
As your children get older there are other ways they can express their negative feelings to you. Teach them to politely ask for other options. Show them how a respectful tone sounds. When my two-year-old wants to put on his own shoes and screams, “No!” I teach him to say instead, “Can I please do it, Mommy?” Kids need an outlet for communication, but “no” carries authority. It is only for Mommy and Daddy.
2. Stop Chasing Your Child Around
We were visiting with friends not too long ago and the mother told her two-year-old son, “Come here so I can put your jacket on.” The little boy looked her right in the eye, spun on his heels and ran in the other direction. She proceeded to chase him around the room and tackle him playfully to get him to put his jacket on. Moms, stand your ground. Stay in your seat. Teach your child to come to you.
Do I always do this? No. Sometimes I am that mom chasing her child with the jacket. It is a work in progress.
When the kids are toddlers we say, “Come to Mommy,” while leading them by the hand to show them what we mean. Little by little we say it without physically leading them. If they run the other direction they receive a consequence and we start over. I take the child back to the spot they were standing and I go back to my spot. I say, “Let’s try that again. Come to Mommy!” I hold my arms open wide so they know what to do. Usually then they come running into my arms laughing.
3. Obey the First Time.
Second chances, third chances. Counting up to five, counting down from ten. Bargaining. Bribing. These strategies might appear to be a form of discipline, but they really tell your child you do not mean what you say. Your voice is just another noise.
Your kids need to know that your voice is the most important sound in their world right now. Your voice can make the difference in a life and death situation. Our friend’s three-year-old son climbed a ladder onto their roof. He was rambunctious, but he had been taught to obey his mother’s voice the first time. When she saw him the first thing she said was, “Sit down.” He sat down until she climbed the ladder to rescue him. Can you imagine what would have happened if he had given her a playful grin and run in the opposite direction?
Slow obedience equals no obedience. Obey first, questions later. Say these to your kids until they become family slogans.
4. Don’t Obey For Your Child.
This one is so easy to fall into, especially when our kids are little. Our kids don’t do what we say so we work around it.
I was at a friend’s house recently. When it was time to leave I told my son, “Clean up the crayons, please.” He ignored me and kept coloring. In my distraction and my rush I finally cleaned up all the crayons myself and dragged a wailing child out the door.
Something went wrong. Sometimes we don’t enforce obedience because it takes too long. In that situation I didn’t have time to discipline, so I shouldn’t have given a direct order. I could have said, “Time to go!” and cleaned up the crayons myself. But once I give an order, I have committed myself to following through with discipline for disobedience. It’s worth being late. It’s worth being embarrassed.
I’ve been in situations where what I actually wanted my child to do was irrelevant because the moment had passed, but I made him do it anyway. For example, my two-year-old took a toy away from his cousin. I told him to give it back. By the time he toddled over to her she had forgotten about it and was playing with something else. I could see the wheels turning. He really wanted to keep it. But because I told him to give it back, I required him to follow through. It wasn’t about who wanted to the toy. It was about obeying Mommy.
Right now it’s cleaning up their crayons when you told them to do it. Later it will be paying their speeding tickets and making excuses for them to their high school teachers.
5. Require a Response.
“Don’t touch the lamp. Now what did Mommy just say?” Asking for immediate repetition is a great way to confirm that your child is listening. It gives them accountability. They know you know they heard you.
“Yes, Mom,” is another way to confirm they heard. Don’t let your child ignore you. Don’t let them roll their eyes or stomp off in the other direction. Require eye contact until you are done speaking.
Requiring a response reminds your child of your different roles. You are the parent, they are the child. It reminds them that you probably won’t forget what you said. You mean business.
In conclusion, I will never forget what a high school teacher told me when I was teaching third grade: “Discipline your students when they’re young. What’s cute when they’re eight is really ugly when they’re fifteen.” How about your own kids? If you think they’re disobedience is no big deal now, think about what it will cost them when they are young adults.
Our authority points our kids to God’s authority. One day it will show them that our holy God has holy standards met in Christ on our behalf.