8 Real-Life Questions about Children and Discipline

Biblical Help for Parenting

The Bible teaches that a loving parent is one that disciplines his or her child. But the how can often confound well-meaning parents. Below, Sam Crabtree, author of Parenting with Loving Correction: Practical Help for Raising Young Children shares some practical advice for how to navigate some specific situations in the home.

One Step at a Time

You might feel overwhelmed by the amount of parenting advice that exists. Take a breath. Break the goal down into small steps, and take one step at a time. Find a pace to finish the race. Meanwhile, here are my answers to some specific questions related to corrective discipline that parents have asked me.

1. How young is too young?

Don’t punish newborns. It’s the extremely rare baby who can comprehend his offense during the first few months of life, much less make an association between an offense and some resultant punishment administered by an overstriding parent.

Let me hasten to add that children just a few months of age can begin to arch their backs in defiance of their parents, and such defiance can and should be met with correction.

What kind of correction? For one thing, don’t allow the arched back to dictate. For another, you can hold the child firmly, without harshness, until he stops arching his back. Outlast him, so that he understands he’s not in charge, and his back-arching is an unwelcome and unrewarded behavior.

You can say no to a very young child and back it up by physically restraining naughty behaviors such as biting or hitting you in the face.

Small infants—prior to learning to speak—are fully capable of discovering how to manipulate their parents. For example, they cry and cry, and you rush to pick them up. They reward you with quieting down. They didn’t need anything—they weren’t hungry, didn’t have a soiled diaper, didn’t have a toe uncomfortably curled inside their sock. They just want to drive the bus, and you’re the bus. In the process, fussy babies are rewarded for fussing when mommies scurry to pick them up at every whimper.

Yes, there are exceptions—such as colicky babies and very sick babies. But it will do a well-fed and dry child no harm to lie safely and cry himself to sleep, which is harder on the parent than on the child. To speak this way is not advocating neglect, abuse, or harshness. Wise parents strike a balance between giving the legitimate attention that helps an infant flourish and the kind of attention that gives rise to a tiny dictator.

When a child comes to realize that the exhausting work of extended crying is simply not going to achieve his aims (getting attention, being in control, etc.), the behavior will disappear, although it may temporarily spike before it’s gone. A child who’s about a year old should be corrected wisely, lovingly, decisively, consistently, gently, and firmly. That may sound too general, but I want to avoid simplistic formulas.

Don’t discipline a young child for failing to comply with an expectation he can’t meet. Children can’t grow up without spilling, for example. Spills happen. Accidents happen. But when a child clearly demonstrates that he can comply with a standard you want him to obey, then you can begin to hold him responsible. For example, when you know your child can say please or thank you, it’s reasonable to begin expecting that child to say it.

Children can be patiently taught to obey without prematurely expecting them to behave like adults.

God is bigger than parental failure. When we apply his grace, he gives more.

2. My teen sleeps late and won’t go to church with us. Should we wake him?

If you want him to go to church (and I’m assuming you do), then yes. His sleeping is disobedience.

Does he live in your home? Then he should follow your household practices. Have you articulated the principles and benefits behind your household rules? Does he know you love him? Do you affirm him when he cooperates? Do you commend the commendable in his other behaviors? Then show the contrast of your displeasure when he oversleeps. Is he required to go to school or a job or other functions? Whatever you do to require him to go to those other functions can be applied to requiring him to go to church.

How do you reward him? If allowing him to sleep late is its own reward (from his point of view) for skipping church, then by letting him sleep you’re rewarding him for church-skipping.

Do you model enthusiasm, faithfulness, and self-discipline in doing things you don’t always enjoy, but believe are important in order to avoid future regret? Do you complain about going to church yourself?

3. How can we get our children to sleep?

In addition to the standard wisdom of monitoring sugar intake, shifting toward quieter and less rambunctious activities toward bedtime (reading books instead of dueling with light sabers), I discovered a couple of remarkably effective practices. When putting children to sleep, don’t say simply, “Go to sleep,” since nobody (including parents) can obey that command. When a person isn’t sleepy, he isn’t sleepy. Perhaps the child is simply wide awake and can’t sleep. Don’t put him in the impossible situation of having to obey a command he cannot obey.

Rather, say something like this: “Lie down, close your eyes, and lie still.” That command can be obeyed, even if he doesn’t go to sleep.

When sitting next to a child as she lies still (with your desire that she go to sleep), don’t let her hands touch her face. There’s something stimulating about the hand touching the face, which works against drifting off to sleep. Gently pull her hands away from her face. The hands can instead be holding a stuffed animal, or folded together, or in some other position.

You can also slowly, tenderly cover her eyes and close the lids with your fingers. Sometimes this can be done without actually touching the eyelids or eyelashes. By gently and slowly stroking downward between the eyebrow and the eyelash, the child’s eyes will close almost involuntarily. And the result is often (not always) sleep.

4. How do I stop a child from climbing out of bed?

If this is an issue that’s disturbing your home’s peace, then to establish that peace, you must elevate this climbing-out-of-bed issue to a higher place than whatever else you’re doing at the time. It’s more important than watching your favorite TV program, or finishing up the dishes, or relaxing a few minutes with your feet up, or preparing yourself for bed. You’ve issued a command, and your first job is to make your words mean what you said.

It’s not just about the child going to bed. It’s about bigger things, like submitting his will to the will of an authority, learning that he’s not in charge of the universe. When you persist in this, you’re loving him. To think you’re too busy or too tired to follow through is to make a grave and costly mistake.

Mean what you say, and consistently apply the consequence.

Parenting with Loving Correction

Sam Crabtree

This guide offers parents practical steps and tips for wise, God-centered, and consistent correction aimed at transforming their children’s hearts.

5. What about children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder?

I feel a great measure of sorrow for dear friends whose children with severe learning disabilities present exhausting challenges at almost every turn. I groan with them—and with all creation—at this manifestation of the fallen world in which we live, awaiting the day when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). I earnestly ask God for breakthroughs, relief, rest, and joy. Yet God in his infinite wisdom sees fit for the problems and challenges to persist.

Children are not identical with regard to how quickly they benefit from correction. There’s a continuum, from quick learners to those who are less quick. Even in cases of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, only in the most severe cases (which are rare) does the child fail to pay attention to the fact that it’s painful to sit on pointy objects, and therefore, when he sits on something painful, he gets off of it. He modifies his behavior to avoid sitting on pointy objects or picking up prickly items with his fingers or staring directly into the sun.

To state the obvious, attention deficit is a deficit in attentiveness, a shortage of heedfulness. Attentiveness isn’t merely a physiological capacity; it’s also a character quality that can be shaped and developed, like all character qualities.

I’ve known some children who were deficient in attentiveness learn to not do things like poke themselves in the eye with pencils. Why don’t they do such painful things? One straightforward reason is that they learn to pay attention to the pain produced when they’re inattentive. The negative reinforcement of pain has a shaping effect on their future behaviors, and the positive reinforcement of pleasure also has a shaping effect. Attentiveness doesn’t require genius; it does require heedfulness and wakefulness. Correction awakens.

Some children have special needs, but we do them no favors by allowing their “specialness” to be a license to evade adaptation to reality and natural consequences in the world. ADHD can be an explanation for quirkiness, but it’s no warrant for naughtiness.

Every child—including every ADHD child—has a spiritual nature made in the image of God. All children manifest character qualities, good or bad. Brains and hearts are involved in the decisions made by all of us, including ADHD children. Certain behaviors are clearly defiant, though it’s trickier to distinguish in ADHD children, and sometimes we just don’t know. But when we do know, those behaviors call for correction.

6. Does practicing correction guarantee there will be no prodigals?

No. In a fallen world, practicing correction well is no guarantee that compliance and obedience will be achieved. However, short of an ironclad guarantee, we do have a great measure of assurance that correction which is well-practiced, consistent, and begun early will bring fruitful and happy results. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (Prov. 22:15). Drives it far from him? Yes. But the rod must be applied wisely, consistently, and in the context of many other parenting dynamics such as affirmation, humble modeling, and other factors.

What is it that the rod drives from the child? Folly. The rod does not, and cannot, drive out the folly of unbelief, because that is a divine work. But the rod can drive out the folly of failing to make connections between actions and consequences.

The foolish generally don’t see their own folly as folly. They need assistance in seeing it. They need awakening.

Being faithful to attempt correction doesn’t by itself guarantee that the situation will be all straightened out and all parties will behave as though they’re perfectly sanctified. There will be failures in your child’s behavior, and there will be failures in your parenting. What will be your attitude toward such failures?

God is bigger than parental failure. When we apply his grace, he gives more.

7. How can I correct an attitude?

We can correct behaviors that are manifestations of attitudes. If it’s not clear that a behavior is stemming from an unacceptable attitude, we can openly point out the behavior, and without yelling or debating or accusing the child of wrongdoing, simply state that in the future such behaviors will be considered expressions of the unacceptable attitude and will be punished accordingly.

For example, not listening can be a manifestation of self-centered preoccupation. A preoccupied person can be awakened to consider others—whether that awakening requires a tap on the shoulder, a word, a whistle, a traffic ticket, a spanking, or incarceration, depending on the context.

A pattern of interruptions can be a manifestation of pride. Quietly say, “You’re interrupting,” perhaps with your index fingers lifted to your lips or some other nonverbal cue. Interrupting isn’t necessarily headstrong, but a pattern of it is, especially when the child is asked to wait before speaking, and to not interrupt.

Or consider stubbornness. Dogged determination can be a strong quality to commend, and there’s a fine line between being determined and being stubborn. One evidence of stubbornness is the continual effort to have the last word. This must be curbed in our children.

Virtually all parents are acquainted with the situation in which a certain toy is completely ignored by their child until another child takes an interest in that toy. It isn’t quite accurate to say that a child is automatically naughty for taking renewed interest in a toy simply because a playmate shows interest in it, any more than saying it’s wrongheaded for an unbeliever to take interest in Christ Jesus when he sees his Christian neighbor enjoying Christ. But the way a child expresses his interest in his neighbor’s toy is either bad (stealing it back) or good (joining in the play). The expression is the manifestation of attitude that we can address.

8. How can I teach my children to tell the truth?

The following actions can be important in promoting your child’s truthfulness.

  1. Model truth personally—to your children, to the IRS, to store clerks, to God. Let your children see you correcting yourself, clarifying misrepresentations, and telling the truth when it “costs” you. Do this modeling consistently. Your whole life is modeling, and your private life will eventually and inevitably spill over into your public life. Your sins will find you out.

  2. Provide verbal teaching about truth-telling. Especially emphasize that truthfulness wins future trust. To be trusted in the future, we must handle present facts truthfully. One’s falsehood will forfeit his future believability. Tell your children about the boy who cried wolf.

  3. Include the child in establishing the consequence for lying.

  4. Express suspicion in specific unconfirmed cases, while granting the benefit of the doubt. If you don’t have eyewitnesses or firm evidence, grant the benefit of the doubt. “Something doesn’t add up to me, but I’m going to proceed as though you’re telling me the truth.”

  5. Pray for grace—the enablement to do what’s right—for both you and your child. Memorize and recite Scripture together. Ask together to be filled with the Spirit. Encourage an active walk with God, underscoring his omnipresence. I thank God for the continual reminders of my mother that God is with us wherever we go. That’s good news. It’s good news if you’re ever telling the truth in a tight spot, and no one believes you; God knows you’re telling the truth, and at the right time he’ll be your vindication. It’s also good news if you think you’re getting away with a secret sin and covering it up with a lie, because you’re already found out, which may disabuse you of kidding yourself and help you lay down any resistance you may have to God’s relentless effort to produce Christlikeness in his children.

  6. When a child tells the truth, praise him!

This article is adapted from Parenting with Loving Correction: Practical Help for Raising Young Children by Sam Crabtree.

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