“When do I start discipline?” This is one of the best questions a parent can ask. It means we recognize that discipline is important, but so is timing. We want to strike the right balance to have the best, long-term impact on our kids’ hearts. Some parents lay it on too thick, too soon. Others wait too long and face an uphill battle when they finally start to discipline. Both extremes put us (and our kids) on the fast track to burn-out.
The “Discipline Growth Chart” breaks up discipline into developmental stages. This helps us use discipline strategically to meet our kids where they’re at. If you’re anxious about squeezing in as much discipline as you can, this chart might be refreshingly simple to you. If you’re the laid-back, we’ll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it type of person, this chart might inspire you to step up your game.
The four stages build on each other, but there is room for cross-over. They are all interconnected. There are no hard, black and white lines here – rather, a guide to help remove that frustrating cloud of mystery surrounding discipline.
So let’s clear the clutter and confusion about discipline out of our brains and simplify. We’re building slow and steady, making way for the gospel.
Stage 1: Authority (6mo-2yr)
Last week a mom said to me, “Right now all I tell my toddler is, ‘Don’t touch, don’t fuss, say yes to Mommy and Daddy.’ How can I make my discipline more spiritual?” What this conscientious mom didn’t realize was that her discipline was already spiritual. These simple commands lay the first essential building blocks in gospel-centered discipline: Authority. This is where it all begins. All our kids need to know at this point is that someone is in charge – and it’s not them. Keep your commands simple, repetitive, and consistent. Don’t feel pressured to preach a mini-sermon to your toddlers. They don’t need it yet. They simply need to know who is in charge. On the other hand, if we don’t make our authority clear in this stage, our foundation will be weak and wobbly and it will be difficult to build on later.
Why 6 months? I always start discipline when my kids are old enough to roll themselves off the changing table. Authority starts with boundaries that keep our kids safe. When my 18-month-old reaches for an electrical outlet when I told him not to, he needs discipline. When he hits me because I took a nerf bullet out of his mouth, he needs discipline. He might not understand the heart connection yet, but that’s okay. He does understand that Mom is in charge and that there are boundaries.
It’s appropriate to use redirection in this stage (“Let’s play with this ball instead of Mommy’s scissors”) – but we want to make sure we’re not simply postponing our responsibility to teach about authority. Before I redirect my toddler to an appropriate activity, I make eye contact and say, “No. That is not okay.” Then I help remove temptation and address it again when it comes up.
Gospel connection: Mom and Dad’s authority mimics God’s authority. We are created beings subject to our Creator.
Stage 2: Actions (2yr-4yr)
Do you have a 2-year-old that bites? A 3-year-old that throws tantrums? As our kids grow, so does their capacity to sin. The “Actions” stage is where we deal with right and wrong. The key word for this stage is self-control. This is when our kids begin to understand that they can choose their actions. Keep your commands simple, but step up the accountability. “You may not hit and bite. Instead, you must be gentle. You must sit on your bottom at the table. You may not throw your food.” As we hold our kids accountable for their actions we want to avoid two extremes. Too much: Lecture our kids every time they have a melt-down. Too little: Assume they’re too young to understand what they’re doing, so we can’t expect them to obey. To strike the right balance, choose reasonable expectations, make them clear, and then follow through every time.
This is the mimicking stage. Our kids need a constant example of what good behavior looks like – and that comes from us.
“Try asking Mommy again in a happy voice instead of a fussy voice.”
“Instead of grabbing the toy from your friend, ask if you can please have a turn.”
Practice, practice, practice. It’s okay for it to feel rote and repetitive. That’s what kids need. I had a mom ask me, “Should I have my four-year-old apologize even if he doesn’t mean it?” Yes. We are helping our kids establish good habits that they can fall back on when their hearts are ready to understand the meaning behind it. We are saying, “This is the right way to behave. As you grow, you will understand why we choose to behave this way.” For children, actions often come before attitude. If we wait to discipline until our kids are mature enough to understand heart attitude, they will be steeped in bad habits that will be hard to break.
Gospel connection: There is a moral standard of right and wrong. God is holy and He deserves our obedience.
Stage 3: Attitude (4yr-8yr)
This is where the rubber meets the road: Connecting discipline to the heart, and the heart to the gospel. We explain to our kids where our disobedience comes from and why we choose to obey instead.
“You lied to Mommy because you have sin in your heart. I do, too. But if we ask Jesus to forgive us, He will wash away our sin and make our hearts clean.”
“We don’t obey so Jesus will love us more. We obey because He already loves us so much and we’re so thankful for what He did for us.”
This is where we take a step beyond looking at the action and focus on the attitude behind it. Instead of telling my son not to hit because it’s wrong, I tell him why it’s wrong. “Hitting hurts others and it does not glorify God.” We created the hooks in their brains in the first two stages. Now we are hanging new information on them. My son recognizes my authority when I tell him not to hit (stage 1), he realizes he has control over it (stage 2), and now he’s ready to know why he shouldn’t hit. Layer upon layer, we build understanding.
Gospel connection: We are born sinners, but there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ. We obey out of love because He loved us first.
Stage 4: Application (8yr – and up)
At this point we have given our kids the tools they need to obey. Now it’s time to let them practice. This doesn’t mean we remove our discipline, but our discipline will take on a different shape. It will shift from commands to discussion. We want our kids to want to obey, all on their own. But how do we help them get there? This requires taking a step back and helping our kids ask two big-picture questions:
- Physically: What will be the consequences of my actions – both for myself and those around me, in the short-term and in the long-term?
- Spiritually: Do my actions glorify God? What do my actions say about my heart?
One day our kids will decide on their own if they want to live God’s way or their own way. Ultimately that’s in God’s hands, not ours. But we can help them think about it now, with our help and shepherding.
Gospel connection: Our actions show what’s in our hearts. Obedience is the fruit of trusting Jesus for forgiveness.
Let’s take a look at how discipline evolves throughout these four stages with one example: Backtalk. Notice how in each stage more understanding is added and more responsibility is transferred from the parent to the child.
Stage 1: Authority. You may not say No to Mommy. Mommy is in charge of you, and God is in charge of all of us.
Stage 2: Actions. You are throwing a fit instead of using self-control. You must talk in a calm and respectful way and then I can help you.
Stage 3: Attitude. When you disrespect Mommy, you disrespect God. When you talk kindly, you honor God and reflect His character.
Stage 4: Application. How can you speak to your mom in a way that honors God? What do you think the outcome will be if you speak that way, versus if you choose kind and respectful words? What does your attitude say about what’s in your heart and what do you think about that?
Our goal as parents is to plant deep, not wide. We’re going for long-term heart change. That means discipline is a slow process. In each stage we add more information to the roadmap that points our kids to Christ. We can’t control what they ultimately do with the roadmap, but we can make it as clear as possible. And we can be confident that what they learn as children will stay in their hearts forever.
Books by Sara Wallace:
“For the Love of Discipline: When the Gospel Meets Tantrums and Time-Outs” is a must-read for moms in the trenches. Theology meets practical application in this relatable, personal account of discipline in action. Available on Amazon, P&R Publishing, Westminster Bookstore, and Christian Book Distributors.
“The Gospel-Centered Mom” Bible study is a breath of fresh air for every mom in need of grace – both receiving it for herself, and passing it along to her kids. Written for busy moms by a busy mom, this study meets moms right where they’re at. This book is perfect for a group study or a personal devotional. Available on Amazon and Etsy.