Click below to listen to this post about discipline on the Candidly Kendra podcast
Recently a question popped up on my Facebook News Feed. It was not very different from many I’ve seen before.
I have twin boys (almost 4) who apparently think they’re rodents. They’ve done this to the furniture in their bedroom, and now I’m finding teeth marks on our coffee table and dining room table. Is there anything I can put on the furniture that tastes awful, but isn’t harmful?
This understandably harried young mom sent along a picture of her kids’ dresser, new-looking, glossy black, but marred with tiny teeth marks all along the edges.
Now I’ve had four year-old boys. I’m not at all surprised that they took a taste of their dresser. That’s exactly the kind of thing little boys do, and will continue to do if they aren’t stopped. They aren’t bad kids. And what they did to the dresser doesn’t make this young woman a bad mom.
The thing about this woman’s question that caught my attention was that she asked, “Is there anything that I can put on the table that tastes awful, but isn’t harmful?” Her first instinct was to deter her kids from their inappropriate behavior.
The answers from the Facebook pool focussed on deterrence as well (maybe in response to her exact question):
- Rubbing bar of soap did it for my kiddo
- Bitter apple spray. It works for dogs.
- hot sauce
- They are deficient in vitamins. Rule that out to be safe.
- apple cider vinegar
And then there was the outlier, the woman who said:
- Spank them teach them to respect your home and not destroy stuff. I have three boys and none of them would ever have done this.
Do you have a guess as to how this last comment was received? This mini-community in the world of Facebook was outraged. They were offended and intolerant of her opinion.
I have to admit, she didn’t express her opinion very carefully. In fact, it almost seemed as if she were inviting outrage. But the point was clear. Our society is more comfortable with deterrence than discipline.
A Deterrence-Discipline Partnership
When my own son Owen was two years old we moved into a new house. In the corner of the main floor there was a long, steep stairwell leading to the basement. There was no door to block Owen’s access to the dangerous flight of stairs. We needed some sort of solution to keep Owen safe.
I remember sitting down with my thinking cap and for the first time I thought through the concepts of deterrence and discipline. I could put up a baby gate. (Deterrence.) But the nature of our stairwell would have required some carpentry to put up a gate. Or I could teach him that he was not allowed to set foot on the wood platform at the top of the stairs. (Discipline.) I had taught him that he couldn’t cross the street without holding my hand. I had taught him not to touch the stove. I thought I could teach him this.
For you curious moms out there, this is how I did it. I took Owen over to the wood floor. I patted the floor with my hand and said, “Owen, do not touch! No. No. No!” in my serious, this-is-important voice. Owen looked at me very gravely. He understood. Then I set him down near his toys in another part of the room. After a while, Owen chased a toy car onto the wood floor above the stairs. I could see that he had forgotten the new rule. I picked him up quickly and said, “No, Owen! Don’t touch!” And I gave his little hand a totally painless swat, to show that it was serious, but understanding that it was only a mistake.
Later, of course, he tested me. He clearly remembered the rule, but he crawled onto the wood floor, sat down and look me square in the eye. That time I said, “No, Owen, now you will need a hand swat.” And then I swatted his hand in a way that smarted a little, but would quickly fade. I’m a firm believer that defiance requires discipline, and that was a clear act of defiance.
So, what do you think? Was I training Owen with discipline or with deterrence?
I was using discipline to train his heart to lean into obedience.
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”
But I was also relying heavily on deterrence.
“Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.”
Proverbs 6:27-29 ESV
For Owen’s safety, I didn’t just count on his obedience but I also watched him like a hawk. I was his deterrent.
Deterrence protects the child, but discipline shapes their heart.
Deterrence and discipline are best viewed as allies, not opponents.
Raising Kids With Both Deterrence and Discipline
Both deterrence and discipline are important elements in training our kids whether they are toddlers or well on their way to young adulthood.
We tell our kids what we expect of them. We teach them why God’s standards matter. And then we put protections in place.
I told little Owen what the rules were, and then I watched to make sure he obeyed. The partnership of the discipline and deterrence hopefully has the effect that if one fails, the other one succeeds. So if I step our of the room, Owen’s heart that is learning to obey will lead him to stay safely away from the steep staircase.
This Discipline-Deterrence Alliance works for older children as well. For example, we have had conversations with our teenage boys about God’s plan for sex, about the dangers of pornography, and about the reality of the temptation of sexual sin. We’ve asked them to talk with us about the temptations that arise, and have carefully kept the communication doors open.
But we have also put protections on their phones and computers. We’ve set rules against having electronics in their rooms. And we reserve the right to check their devices whenever we want.
The advantage of relying on both deterrence and discipline is that we are assuming that they will be better at technology than we are, as teenagers typically are, and we hope and pray that when the deterrents fail, the training of their hearts through discipline will pick up the slack.
Deterrence and Discipline….And Prayer
I wish parenting could be brought down to a handy-dandy formula.
Discipline + Deterrence = Perfect Angel Children
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Even perfect parenting, if it somehow could exist (which it can’t) doesn’t lead to perfect and perfectly happy children. If you have any doubts about that, just ask God Our Perfect Father, whose children are anything but perfect!
“Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the Lord has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.'”
You won’t do it right. I won’t do it right! And even if we did, our kids wouldn’t be perfect.
So what can we do? Is there any hope?
The final piece of our parenting puzzle is the gospel. It is the beautiful truth that though we fail, God loves us unconditionally; and that grace is his generosity of love and delight and kindness and approval, given to us because of Jesus.
That grace is the most important lesson we can teach our kids through our parenting style, whatever else we do.
Gospel-Centered Parenting Tips
- Pray for your kids daily. Not just to guarantee some sort of result, but also, and maybe more importantly, to remind yourself daily that they are ultimately in God’s hands, not yours.
- Keep in mind that the most important way to train your kids’ hearts is to teach them grace. Teach them that their hearts are more important than their behavior. Be careful to discipline defiance, not mistakes. And be quick to apologize for your own sins against them.
- Tell a good friend what you are learning about grace-centered parenting, and open up the conversation to encourage each other and keep each other accountable.
- Read a good, grace-centered parenting book. I highly recommend Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp for parents of babies and toddlers, Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick for parents of school-aged kids, and Age of Opportunity by Paul David Tripp for parents of teens or pre-teens.
*Regarding “the rod”: There are many passages in scripture that encourage parents not to spare the rod with their children. (See Proverbs 29:15, Proverbs 23:13, Proverbs 22:15, and Proverbs 13:24.) I believe that the primary lesson to take from these Scriptures is that we must be about the work of disciplining our children. But I don’t believe that the Bible is indicating that there is only one right way to discipline. As a parent, you will know what is working for you and your child. Maybe you tried spanking your child and quickly discovered that this triggered terrible memories from your childhood. Maybe your child responded worse to spanking and somehow became even more defiant. (One of my kids did this). I strongly urge you to evaluate your efforts at discipline to make sure that your anger isn’t escalating and that you are always under emotional control. I once heard that discipline should always be “matter of fact.” Ways that you can consider disciplining your children if spanking isn’t the right fit are: time-outs, loss of privileges, natural consequences. See the books listed below for more ideas.
This is a great book for parents of babies and toddlers who are just starting to formulate their plan for discipline.
This book gives clear and practical suggestions for how to focus on the heart rather than behavior in your elementary-aged children.
This book serves as a reminder to keep the main thing the main thing during the potentially difficult teenage years. The teen years are not a liability, they are fully of possibilities!
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