Parenting is the best, hardest job you’ll ever have. I’ve been doing it since 2010, and I still feel confused most days on how to raise my children to be strong, compassionate, loving, and forgiving by the time they leave the nest. For me, one of my biggest struggles is discipline.
As a former teacher, discipline was a regular part of classroom management. But I always felt like it was contrived, that it only worked for certain people, and only for so long, before it fell short of the ultimate goal: intrinsic motivation. As a parent, I feel that tension even more. In the typical sense, discipline is about punishment and reward. But what motivates one kid doesn’t always motivate another.
So what’s the solution? How can we parent with excellence consistently and not get burned out on discipline? What system can we use to change the cycle of take-away-give-back-fight-regroup?
I find the answer in discipleship.
Love and Justice
God is full of love and justice, according to scripture. But how is that possible? Love forgives all wrongs, does not hold grudges, does not bear wrongs. But justice punishes for wrongs, demands reparations, and mandates retribution. How can God be full of both?
Here’s how: Our definition of justice today isn’t the same as the Old Testament definition.
Today’s definition is based on the Greco-Roman concept of justice—a system of balance and equality. We see some of that in the Pentateuch, with its many different law codes and subsequent punishments. But the whole story of the Bible speaks differently when it comes to actions.
Love IS Justice
When Jesus encounters the adulterous woman about to be stoned to death, the crowd rightly quotes the law of the Torah. Stoning is the appropriate punishment, the course of discipline prescribed, no question. So why does Jesus convince the crowd to leave? We know how, but why?
It’s simple: because that’s who God is, and has always been. He is Love.
Need another example? Let’s go back to Genesis.
When God showed Adam and Eve the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, He told them that they would “surely die” the day they eat of it. But this didn’t happen. Instead, He clothed them, blessed them, and reestablished His promise to them. They suffered grave consequences, but God did not kill them on the spot.
God’s goal wasn’t punishment. It was restoration and relationship.
Justice is Reconciliation
God has always defined justice as reconciliation, not retribution, discipline, or punishment. The consequences of the action remain—the life they had to live was hard, relentless, and exiled from God’s direct presence.
What God did in that moment was shower them with the kind of love only a good father can have: love that sees relationship as the most important part of the story. God had the right to kill them but chose instead to restore them back into relationship with Him. Arbitrary discipline was left aside in favor of restorative love.
So how should this affect our parenting? What role does discipline have? And what do we replace punishment with?
Discipline Steers Actions
Discipline has to do with reshaping the actions you see someone take. It’s reactive, rather than proactive, so it’s about responding to what has already happened more than building the framework to take the right action first.
But this means that we are focusing on punishing an outcome, not encouraging a mindset. We look to correct the bad, not foster the good. And we end up in a cycle of punishment and fear that leads to hiding mistakes instead of learning from them. It’s the same thing that makes Levitical law such a stumbling block for both Christians and non-Christians alike. Ultimately, beyond all purposes and intentions, it’s a system of death.
And for that reason, it will never accomplish the work we want it to accomplish. It will only perpetuate anger, hurt, fear, and deceit.
Discipleship Changes Hearts
With that in mind, how do we accomplish the work we envision to build our children into passionate and responsible adults? How do we keep them connected to the body of Christ without toxicity and fear?
The answer is simple: through Discipleship.
Discipleship is leading someone on a path while providing a clear example of what that walk looks like. Jesus’s disciples weren’t simply hearing his teachings (and to be honest, sometimes they weren’t even doing that right), but were also witnessing his teachings in real time, lived out through his very actions, choices, and responses to all that went on around him.
If we want to parent well, if we want to see our children grow into confident followers of Christ, we need to walk beside them. We need to encourage and support them in the toughest times, not hover over them to pull them out of danger or lord over them to pounce on their every mistake.
Discipleship Over Discipline
Honestly, discipleship is so much harder than discipline for me. It’s easy to punish quickly and achieve immediate reactions. But discipline focuses attention on retribution instead of reconfiguration. There’s a time and place for punishment, without a doubt, but if you can guide your children through a situation with recovery and reconciliation in mind, you’ll find that discipline becomes almost completely unnecessary to implement. And here’s why I think that’s the case.
When discipleship is the mindset, your goal is to look at a situation while asking the question, “How could this become life-giving?” If you can instill the importance of this singular mindset, you can instantly change the direction your child will walk when they make the decision to move forward.
And by your child taking ownership of that servant-directed mindset, that philosophy of bringing kindness and compassion to the table before satisfying your own desires, the element of discipline changes from external punishment to intrinsic self-control and perseverance to see God’s vision through.
If you focus on discipleship, true discipline—the giving of oneself for the sake of a greater good—comes naturally without threat or punishment.
The Consequences of Discipleship
So what does this start to look like in a real-life situation? Let’s dig into this…
With discipleship, we’re proactively guiding our little ones through the decision making process that the Holy Spirit encourages. We’re looking at temptations head-on, calling them out for what they are, and positing alternative paths in these situations, especially before they happen.
In my own home, this means setting consequences that follow a logical pattern of cause and effect, focusing on natural consequences instead of punitive and arbitrary ones. If my kids are not acting responsible with their resources, they lose those resources (and sometimes other resources that demand responsibility). When they are being mean or nasty towards others, they lose the privilege of spending time with that person and follow up with an apology.
But, whatever the case, we always work towards finding a way to restore relationship.
Another one of our strategies is focusing on the Fruit of the Spirit as a proof system for our actions. Does what you’re doing look like the fruits of the Holy Spirit in your life? If not, then it’s time to evaluate your choices and change course.
Discipleship Means Learning
What we see is that our kids are learning how to be more like Christ instead of just learning how to be less sinful. And trust me, there’s a big difference between the two. When we make mistakes (adults included), we work towards apologizing, making changes to see better results next time, and digging into the why behind our choices.
And we’re also building empathy by looking at how our choices affected those around us.
So, when I lose my temper, I don’t just get to pretend it didn’t happen. I have to apologize to my family, and I have to figure out what caused my anger to start with. After that, I start looking at how others felt because of my choices and how they were feeling before I blew up. The next time I get frustrated, I use these reflections proactively so that I can better respond in times of stress or anger.
My modeling then helps support the same process for my kids. They can see what it should look like, what happens when it goes wrong, and how to recover from situations that seem overwhelming and unfixable.
Through this all, I’m going back to the Word, to scripture, to filter my processing and adjusting. It’s about looking more like Jesus, so that’s where I start. How can I look more like Jesus next time? What can we, as a family, do to encourage a more Christ-like home?
What Discipleship Has Done for Us
What are the results in our home?
First, and foremost, it’s less conflict and anger. When we are set in self-reflection, biblical processing, and a policy of relationship first, our home becomes more peaceful. The older kids help the younger ones, and the younger ones start seeing the fruits of kindness in their own lives.
We’ve seen selfishness fade, we’ve seen generosity grow, and we’ve seen an overall desire to bring justice to the people around us in new and significant ways. Our kids are learning to look outward to see what we can do instead of what we can get.
And we’ve seen a deepening of our dependence of Christ’s grace. For ourselves, for each other, and for the people beyond our walls. Our kids pray more, put faith in God more often, and point themselves back to the Bible when they’re stuck in a tough situation.
It’s not failsafe, and there are frequent ups and downs. We’re still human. We still yell, fight, hurt, and panic. But now we see our home as a safe place to process all of these things. We’re not enemies or adversaries, but allies in the journey towards holiness.
If it feels like too much to implement something like this in your own family, I am more than happy to help guide you in the process of setting up your home’s family covenant. I’ve developed a five-day email mini-course designed to guide you and your spouse through a process of determining your family’s core values, responses to conflicts, and scripture-based checkpoints to build a Christ-centered home and family. It’s absolutely free, and it’ll arrive in your inbox immediately when you sign up. Just fill out the form below and you’re set!