I remember, not too long ago, looking a child right in the eye as he begins to slowly, deliberately tilt the full cup of water in his hand. “Stop – don’t you pour that on the floor!” I say, as I watch him do exactly that.
As the water hits the floor, my first thought is “You’re really going to get it now!”
I want to swoop in with the swift punishment that such clear disobedience surely deserves.
But I have to stop, and reconsider my motivation. It’s not just punishment that he needs, it’s discipline.
There is a big difference between punishment and discipline, and it’s important that we understand it.
What is punishment?
- The goal of punishment is justice and retribution for wrongdoing (Ps. 59:5, 2 Chr. 6:23).
- Punishment is the consequence we deserve for our sin, but Jesus bore this punishment for us on the cross (Mat. 25:46, Lam. 3:39, Jer. 21:14, Luke 23:41, Col. 2:13-14, Isa. 53:5).
- The punishment we deserve would destroy us completely (Rev. 6:17).
- Punishment is a last resort for the rebellious and unrepentant (Pro. 29:1, Jer. 36:31).
- The punishment of criminals is one of the duties God assigns to the state (1Pe. 2:14, Rom. 13:4).
- Punishment is ultimately God’s responsibility (Ps. 98:9, Jer. 11:20, Rom. 12:19).
What is discipline?
- The goal of discipline is repentance, growth, and life (Isa. 26:16, Pro. 6:23, Pro. 29:15).
- Discipline might be painful, but it leads us to righteousness (Heb. 12:11).
- Discipline is administered by a wise, loving God for the good of His children (2 Sa. 7:14, Pro. 3:11-12, Heb. 12:5-8, Rev. 3:19).
- Discipline is administered by wise, loving parents for the good of their children (Pro. 13:24, Pro. 19:18, Pro. 23:13).
- Discipline should not be done in anger (Eph. 6:4, Jas. 1:20, Gal. 6:1).
- Those who respond to discipline will be spared from punishment in the future (Pro. 15:10, Pro. 15:32, Jer. 7:28-34).
So the goal of discipline is to bring about change, to alter the course, while punishment merely metes out justice, or even revenge.
Our job as parents is to administer firm, loving discipline that leads our children to repent of their sin and walk in righteousness. This discipline is both driven and tempered by the grace God has shown us in saving us from the punishment we deserve.
Update: Thanks to the moms who pointed out the need for some practical application here. I’m going to list some reactions that could be considered straight-out punishment, and then let me describe what discipline looks like in our home, on a good day, with an almost-three-year-old.
First let me caution you that this is merely our method for applying these principles. It’s not a formula everyone needs to follow. But hopefully it will help you see how punishment and discipline might look different in real life.
What would punishment look like in the above situation?
- Yelling at my son (what I usually feel like doing).
- Immediately hitting or spanking him without talking to him.
- Pouring water on his head.
- Giving him a “time out” but never talking to him.
- Making him clean up the mess but not addressing the disobedience.
- Doing nothing, but being angry at him for the next hour.
- Ignoring instances like this all week and then finally blowing up at him or spanking him when it happens for the fifth time and I’m fed up with it.
What would discipline look like?
“Uh-oh. You made a mess.”
“You also disobeyed Daddy. We need to have a spanking. Please go to Daddy’s room.”
(In the room. We sit on the edge of the bed. My son is in my lap and I’m looking him in the eye.)
(seriously) “Did you obey Daddy?”
“God says you should obey mama and daddy.” (This is a good time to look at the If-Then Chart together, if you want help explaining what he did wrong and what God says about it.) “When you disobey, I have to give you a spanking. We’re going to have two spankings now.”
(bend over knee and give two spankings on the bottom)
(hug until done crying)
“I love you.”
“Can you say, ‘Daddy, I’m sorry for disobeying’?”
“I’m sorry for disobeying.”
“I forgive you.” (hug again) “Will you obey Daddy next time?”
“Good. Let’s pray for you. Dear Jesus, I thank you for ____ and for making me his daddy. Help him to obey Daddy next time. Thank you Jesus that you forgive us when we sin. Thank you that you love us. Help us to obey you. In your name we pray, amen.”
(Usually by this point he is back to his cheerful self, and we may chat about something else or play around for a minute before leaving the room.)
“Now, let’s get a towel and clean up the mess.”
(Work on it together until done.)
With a younger child, you’d probably have less discussion, just explaining what he did wrong and why you have to spank him. With an older child, you might have more discussion, give him a chance to tell you what he thinks he did wrong, and maybe more creative discipline based on what you know will motivate him.
It takes time. Especially when you’re the only parent at home, it’s hard to take the time to discipline like this. But in our experience, the time investment will eventually pay off.