When we discipline our children, our words often speak louder than our actions. Yes, the rod stings and can hurt. But the wounds our words leave behind last far longer than any physical discomfort our children experience. With the right words, however, the rod brings great healing. (Read “The ‘Forgotten’ Part of Discipline” for more on this subject.)

Here are some examples of what not to say:

  • “You always … ” or “You never … ” If our purpose is to build up and restore our children, these will thwart our efforts. Phrases like these are rarely true; they are often spoken out of anger or frustration, neither of which restore our children.
  • “Your brother/sister never does this … ” If Christ determined our worth in the same way, how would we stand up? There is always someone better than we are. But this phrase is doubly destructive. In one statement you tear down the disobeying child and puff up with pride the obeying one—building a wall of resentment between them.
  • “What are you, stupid?” Your children’s intellect is not the issue here. Smart people sin just as much as anyone else—maybe even more. The source of your child’s bad or foolish decision was their heart, not their head.
  • “You’re hopeless.” Not only does this communicate what you think of your child, it also is wrong. Can you think of a more hopeless case than Saul of Tarsus? He became Paul and was used to write one third of the New Testament. Can you think of a more hopeless leader than Peter? How about a more hopeless orator than Moses? They all had one thing in common—God. “With God, nothing is impossible” (Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27; Luke 1:37; Luke 18:27). Do not steal from their hearts what God has preserved in Christ.

These words cannot restore a child. They cannot walk them to wisdom. At best, they are ineffective. At worst, they are verbally abusive. And as parents who love Christ and have been charged with the welfare of our children, we must be more careful with our lips.

Also, saying nothing at all during discipline can often hurt more than any words you say. Silence robs your children of the love they need following a fall. Imagine the Prodigal Son returning to a silent father; that story of grace would become a great tragedy. Yet, we recreate that tragedy in our homes far too often. If you cannot think of something kind to say, don’t choose silence. Just admit something like this, “Daddy needs to pray and ask God’s forgiveness for what’s happening in my heart … I’ll be back in a minute.” If your God is the same as mine, He will give you something to say while you pray—He’s never let me down.

Important words to use when disciplining

On the other side of the spectrum are words that have within them the power to heal and restore. These express God’s purposes behind the times when He disciplines us. They should express the purposes of our hearts when we discipline our children. Here are some examples:

  • “I love you.” With these three sincerely-intended words, you can communicate to your children that your love for them has nothing to do with their performance. Telling someone that you love them in the immediate wake of their sin is restorative. It removes the shame and the need to perform back into your acceptance. It lets them know that you are not standing above them but you are in it with them.
  • “Do you understand what we’ve just talked about?” After the physical part of discipline comes the instructive part. It is here that you correct and instruct your children’s hearts and minds on what happened, what they could have done differently and why what they did was wrong. When you do this, it is important to know they are hearing what you are actually saying and not misinterpreting anything. So ask this question and then listen. If they say “no” or “I’m not sure,” you have a chance to explain it in another way until they do understand. This is a small thing for parents to do that provides an enormous benefit to you and your children.
  • “I struggle with the same thing.” Behind every childish sin is an issue that we all have in common. A 4-year-old boy may lash out and punch a friend in the eye. However, the issue that drove that sin may have been anger or envy. We can relate to that sin. The key here is helping your children know that dealing with sin is a lifelong process. Christian parents often feel that if we confess that we are also struggling, we might lose their respect. The truth is, if you are not honest about your own sin, you may not even have their respect. Let them know this and pray for God’s power together to change the two of you.
  • “You are a blessing to me and our family.” When the one who just swatted their backsides says these words, it places the act of discipline in the same context as God’s discipline of us. Though He responds to our actions, we are still a blessing to Him and His family. We need to share that type of encouragement with our children.

Once discipline is over, stop talking about it—especially in front of others. This builds great trust between you and the offending child. They know they can trust you and share honestly with you because they never see you share what happened with others.

Words like these will reassure your children of their value to you. They will underscore that the foundation of your relationship is bigger and stronger than any wrong act they could perform. Words like these mirror how God the Father loves you.

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