While playing in our family room, my oldest son made a decision he knew was not good. He looked at his grandfather, sitting soberly on the sofa, and then at me.

The two of them sat in silence, waiting to see what I would do. My son did not want to be disciplined and my father-in-law did not want him to be disciplined. However, his sin was clear and I chose to follow through and discipline him.

I took him upstairs to spend this time with him in private, leaving my father-in-law in the family room. We were gone about 10 minutes. Upon our return to the family room, my father-in-law made a profound observation: “Rob, how come they always go up crying and come down happy?”

The answer to that question requires an understanding of what I call the “forgotten part of discipline.”

What we forget

As parents who desire to raise our children to love and honor God, most of us know what the Scriptures say about the physical part of discipline. Though spanking has become a controversial form of discipline in today’s culture, God’s Word is clear. Proverbs 22:15, for example, tells us, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” And Proverbs 23:13-14 says, “Do not hold back discipline from the child, although you strike him with the rod, he will not die. You shall strike him with the rod and rescue his soul from Sheol.”

We know this is part of the calling God has given us. So, as our children sin or rebel, we remember these clear teachings and we discipline our children. The problem comes when we equate spanking with discipline. Biblical discipline involves much more than spanking.

We often forget the context in which the physical part of discipline is supposed to exist. It is intangible and easy to overlook. Consider these proverbs:

Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Proverbs 16:24

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones. Proverbs 17:22

God uses our words that accompany the spanking to restore our children. They are to be sweet. They are to bring health. They are to restore a joyful heart to our children.

We too easily forget to communicate this type of love to our children during discipline. The rod of discipline applied without love is nothing but a beating. Instead, the biblical process of disciplining a child is designed to drive folly out of the heart. This connection between the pain felt in discipline and the removal of folly is not scientific–it is spiritual. We must remember we are dealing with our children’s hearts and spirits here, not just their backsides.

How can a child go up the stairs crying and come bounding down with joy? He cries because he knows what he is going to receive will be unpleasant. He returns with joy because what he has received has been loving.

The goal of discipline

Have you ever considered what you want to accomplish by disciplining a child? Typically a parent wants to train his children to obey him. Or a parent wants to avoid being embarrassed in a store, in a restaurant or in church. He wants respect from his children. These are fine desires, but they are secondary goals. However, we need to consider a deeper, clearer primary goal for discipline.

When my child requires discipline, I have this goal in mind: to see this as a God-ordained opportunity to walk my children to the Good News that saves mankind.

Just this past week, I finished reading a book to my children about a boy who falls in love with Jesus. He wrote his father, an activist atheist, about his conversion. Among his words were these, “Father, I have good news. Are you a sinner? I hope you are because Jesus came to save sinners.”

Our children are sinners. So are we. But just like the boy above, the very truth that saddens the heart can make the spirit glad. Yes, we are sinners but “Jesus came to save sinners.” Hidden within this truth is a great opportunity for hope in discipline.

Often, a parent’s tone and facial expressions convey a hopelessness to children during discipline. They act as if there is no real hope of them ever getting it right. But in light of the reality and purpose of the cross, this is nonsense. In Christ, your children can die to their sin and live in righteousness. (1 Peter 2:24) In Christ, they need not be slaves to their sin any longer. (Romans 6:17-18) In Christ, the reality of the cross can come to life in their lives. This is profound. This is incredible. This is the gospel.

Remember the words of Proverbs 16:24: “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Following the discomfort of discipline, how sweet it would be to the souls of your children to receive words of grace that walk them to the hope of the gospel. These words will bring health to their body, to your relationship with them and to their relationship with God.

Don’t be guilty of forgetting the “forgotten” part of discipline. Use words of restoration and grace every time, and watch God bless with fruit in your children’s lives.

How we do it

When this perspective is new to people, they often want to know what it looks like in action. They also want to know if it really works. Let me walk you through what this looks like in my family. Yours may look somewhat different, but you’ll see the elements that are necessary.

1. We find a private place. When my children sin or disobey, it is necessary for me to bring about discipline. The best way to do this is in private. This allows them to maintain dignity and prevents them from feeling humiliated in front of others. (The only time we go against this principle is when the children are very young. With a child younger than 2½ to 3 years old, we often will bring the discipline as close to the action as possible.) To do this, we ask our children to go to a secluded place, most likely their bedroom.

2. We confirm the reason for the discipline. Once upstairs, I ask them if they know why they are being disciplined. This is important—if a child receives discipline but is not sure why, the entire purpose is lost. If they are unaware of why, then I help them understand, but usually, even with the little ones, they already know exactly what happened.

3. We apply the rod. In order to keep this portion of discipline within biblical guidelines, we must consider a few key ingredients.

First, we must choose the item to use. Different parents use different items as their “rod” of discipline. There is no “right” item. We make sure that the item will have the desired effect while doing no damage to the child.

Second, the place on their bodies is key. We always strike a very meaty part of their bodies—predominantly their backsides. When they are wearing heavier clothing like blue jeans, we may strike the back of a thigh, also a very meaty part. By restricting the spank to a meaty part, there is no lasting effect…just the sting.

Third is the amount of discipline. The number of swats they receive relates in part to the seriousness of the sin. I don’t mean the seriousness of the action. Throwing food at the table is disobedient. So too is a defiant “NO!” The root sin is disobedience and the number of swats is the same for both. Now, punching a brother in the eye receives more because of the increased danger they posed to the family. That is more serious.

4. We comfort them in their discomfort. When we are done with the spanking, they are generally uncomfortable. I often rub the part that was swatted and I always embrace them. God comforts us in our affliction and so we ought to do the same for our children. This is often a silent time (except for the crying). I don’t want to be preached at when I am hurting so we don’t do that to our children.

5. We instruct. Before the spanking, their hearts were hard and their minds were preoccupied. Now, after the spanking, they are more pliable and able to listen. This is where we attempt to restore them with our words. We try to build love and acceptance into them.

6. We pray for them. We always thank God for them and ask Him to help them by the power of His Spirit in the area of their sin. We try as best we can to avoid the temptation to preach to them through our praying.

7. We have them pray. They not only sinned against us (or a sibling), but they also sinned against God. So, when they pray, they acknowledge their sin before God and ask His forgiveness and His help in the future.

8. We love them. Before letting them go, we hug them. We tell them that we love them again. Sometimes we’ll pinch a child’s nose, tweak a cheek, or tickle his belly. We always try to do something that reminds them that everything is okay and that their sin has been separated from them.

9. We have them seek out the people involved. This final step is seeking out the forgiveness of those they’ve sinned against. This almost invariably starts with us, since it was our authority they rebelled against. This should not be a quick heartless, “I’m sorry.” That is not seeking forgiveness. It can vary, but it must always include a question like, “Will you forgive me for … ?”

Discipline can look different in every family. However, I hope this look at how it is done in our family has been helpful to you as you envision how you might carry out the forgotten part of discipline with your children.

In the end, the “how-to” is not nearly as important as the environment of love you create for your children. Take some time and evaluate your heart as you consider discipline in your family. Correct anything you find that fails to rescue them from their sin and restore them to a right relationship with you and with God.

Copyright © 2005 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Additional note: The purpose of this article is to encourage parents to restore their children’s hearts intentionally through their words. The article is not intended to give a comprehensive view of discipline. However, it must be said that discipline on the whole, and spanking in particular, must never occur when the parent is angry. Too much is at stake to allow anger to overtake the situation. When you are angry, I suggest taking 10 or 20 minutes to calm down and pray. If need be, allow the opportunity for spanking to pass rather than proceed in anger. You cannot achieve God’s purposes for discipline if you are sinning against your children in your anger.