Parents, Discipline Your Little Children

Perhaps there was a time when parents generally over-disciplined. Today too we must believe that “correcting [children] unduly” is a sin against the fifth commandment. [i] But the more common modern problem seems to be insufficient discipline. Couple our cultural moment of permissiveness with the unpleasantness of administering discipline and we understand why parents err on the side of lenience. But lenience, like severity, is still an error.

We need to recover the biblical paradigm of loving but firm physical discipline, especially for little children. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6). So must we. 

The Need for Discipline

The fifth commandment requires parents to “instruct, counsel, and admonish” their children, “reproving and chastising such as do ill.”[ii] The reason for this is plain: You get more of what you subsidize, less of what you penalize. And God wants less sin. Penalizing sin even in very young children conveys the crucial point that sin brings pain. Punishing sin is one of the most important callings of parents. Yes, parents must train their children in the doctrines of God; they must “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). But if children aren’t receptive to parental authority your spiritual teaching will be impotent.

Your children need discipline. They do not know what is best for them. Scripture puts it more firmly: Folly is bound up in their heart. That folly will not dissipate with time or be suppressed by gentle reasoning. “The rod of discipline drives it far from him” (Prov. 22:15). Our children are not merely childish, they are conceived and born in sin (Ps. 51:5). In Psalm 51 David confessed that God was disciplining him for his sin. God had, figuratively, broken his bones and suppressed his gladness. But that is exactly what David needed to regain a willing spirit. He wasn’t listening to the more gentle counsel of his conscience. He needed stronger discipline. And he believed that strong discipline is consistent with love. The God who chastened David is also steadfast in love and abundant in mercy. Likewise, “whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prov. 13:24).

Being born in sin our children need physical discipline almost from the start. J.C. Ryle admits that it is hard for a parent to inflict pain on a young child. But, he warns, “If you do not take the trouble with your children when they are young they will give you trouble when they are old. Choose which you prefer.” “A child left to himself brings shame to his mother …Discipline your son, and he will give … delight to your heart” (Prov. 29:15, 17).

Physical discipline is a bitter medicine that loving parents loathe to administer. But it is God’s medicine so we must. Unless we would be accessories to our children’s sins we must punish them. And discipline works. The fruit of biblical chastening is often evident in the lives of children who have benefited from it.

So how should we do it?

The Way to Discipline

Proverbs 13:24 isn’t saying that physical discipline is the only way. And surely there will be a cut-off age for spanking your children, perhaps somewhere between age six and ten. As children grow the discipline they receive should become more nuanced, and better matched to their changing situations. If older children fail to do a chore, make them do it with added penalties.

But for young children physical discipline is vital. Toddlers cannot be reasoned with. They have not yet developed abstract cognitive abilities. They simply can’t process the sentence, “Mommy doesn’t appreciate that behavior.” It doesn’t register. Spankings register. Physical discipline seems crude to modern parents. It is crude. By design. Little children aren’t sophisticated. Their correction must be as concrete as their minds.

The tool that Scripture frequently promotes is the rod. And the rod isn’t a euphemism for generic discipline. Using just the book of Proverbs it should be clear to an honest interpreter that the rod is presented as an instrument for inflicting measured pain as a penalty for disobedience.[iii] Here’s why Scripture commends the rod: “Defiance starts in the heart and works its way out into behaviors of the body (tantrums, disobedience, mouthiness, rebellious facial expressions), so spanking works in the opposite direction: it moves toward the heart by first gaining the attention of the body, commonly via the well-padded buttocks.”[iv] Obviously the rod should not be used alone; verbal reproof must be given alongside physical discipline (Prov. 29:15). In connection with the rod even little children can start to understand the word “no.” And isn’t that one of life’s most important lessons? God’s grace “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12 NIV). We must help our little children put to death their old nature; depravity cannot be appeased. Little children who obey their passions need stronger medicine. “By mere words a servant is not disciplined, for though he understands, he will not respond” (Prov. 29:19).

To be effective the rod of discipline must also be prompt. Little children do not have the maturity to be trained by delayed consequences. If your child rejects verbal instruction during a meal, on a car ride, or in the middle of a worship service, take them to an appropriate place and correct them.

Discipline must also administered lovingly. It isn’t enough to defend discipline as a loving method. Your love should be evident in your discipline. Emotions “distorted with anger … put a fog in the mind” so that a parent cannot discipline moderately. “When emotions are strong, correction must be delayed.”[v] And no form of discipline should be administered without prayer. We can expend energy but only God can provide the increase.

Parents, discipline your young children. Help them to understand early that God disciplines those he loves. Jesus’s death and resurrection cancels the worst part of the curse of sin. Hallelujah! But we still need chastening. Believe it: If received with faith and submission God’s discipline will yield “the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).

William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Jonathan Landry Cruse and Andrew Miller, Glorifying and Enjoying God: 52 Devotions through the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

[i] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 130.

[ii] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 129.

[iii] See Paul D. Wegner, “Discipline in the Book of Proverbs: ‘To Spank or Not to Spank?’,” JETS 48/4 (December 2005).

[iv] Sam Crabtree, “Should Parents Spank their Children?” Desiring God. September 5, 2020.

[v] William Gouge, Building a Godly Home: A Holy Vision for Raising Children (Grand Rapids, RHB, 2014), 143.