Should parents “discipline” their children rather than “punish” them? And is this distinction especially important for Christian parents?
Yes and yes.
Far from synonymous, these associated words carry vastly different meanings. As Mark Twain famously said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
In the case of discipline and punishment, ’tis the difference between light and lightning.
To discipline one’s children is to rebuke, correct, and train them because you love them too much to let them grow into harmful, hateful, ungrateful people. Discipline proceeds from love and mercy.
To punish one’s children is to retaliate in a (usually flawed) attempt to exact retribution by imposing pain, shame, or another penalty. Punishment proceeds from wrath and justice.
What’s wrong with justice? Not a thing, in proper context, and when its ministers are just. As fallen beings, though, we tend to distort truths and ideals as we imperfectly apply them, leaving catastrophe in our wake.
Context Is King
In the context of societal laws, politics, and defense, administering justice protects the masses. The very possibility of living under just rulers is a gift from God, who (according to Genesis 6-9 and Romans 13) established human government to administer justice in response to increasing human violence on the earth.
In the context of divine judgment, justice is either awesome or terrible, and maybe both, depending on where you stand.
For continuity, take the God of the Bible. At a time he has appointed, God (who is inherently just) will fully dispense his wrath (i.e., justice) on those who fall short of holiness—sinners. This category comprises every human, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23, 6:23). God will make (and has made) special exception for those whose punishment God diverted to his Son, the Christ (i.e., Messiah), who took on human flesh nearly 2,000 years ago in order to qualify as man’s substitute, and bore man’s punishment (i.e., God’s justice) by being crucified. Afterward Christ rose from the dead and appeared to many, proving his sacrifice effective (for “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins,” 1 Corinthians 15:17). A just God will not double-punish. Those who follow Christ will receive (and have received) God’s mercy, Christ having absorbed God’s justice for them. Those who do not follow Christ will receive God’s justice.
Why We Don’t Punish
Parents (especially Christian ones) who punish their children—i.e., impose shame or pain to try to close the justice gap—only widen it, for three reasons.
First, and particularly applicable to Christians: if God does not double-punish, neither should we. Christ was crucified so that our kids don’t have to be. (You either.)
Second, as fallen beings, we parents often have a skewed view of justice, frequently calling on God or someone else to rain down justice on others while irrationally exempting ourselves.
Third, outside of a legal system, justice is ours to keep but not to dispense—not to our children, and not to others. This is why parents go to the police and courts when someone harms their kids, rather than go vigilante. (Would it be just to imprison, torture, and kill your daughter’s rapist? Ultimately, yes. Is it your place to do these things? No. Is it the government’s? Partially. Will they all eventually happen? Yes, and eternally, per God’s justice—unless that depraved person becomes a follower of Christ, in which case Christ has already borne God’s justice for him.
Discipline, My Son
In contrast to punishment, disciplining our children is vital—literally life-giving—to their physical and spiritual health. Like punishment, discipline always involves some form of pain, penalty, or deprivation—sometimes in the extreme. But discipline’s point is not to recover justice. It is to instill truth and cultivate sound character, both of which are indispensable to a fulfilled (not to mention godly) life.
Discipline is therefore one of the truest expressions of love parents can give their children. No one articulates this better than the biblical authors. King Solomon wrote in Proverbs 3:11-12, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” One psalmist wrote, “I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me (Psalm 119:75).” In the prophetic book of Revelation, Christ tells the lukewarm church at Laodicea (Sparta), “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19).
Clearest of all, the author of Hebrews threads two needles at once in explaining the importance of (i) parents disciplining children to preserve their earthly lives, and (ii) God the Father disciplining his children (Christ-followers) to enrich their eternal lives:
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:7-11).
Why It Matters
The discipline/punishment distinction is more than semantic. Parents who confuse these associated yet radically different responses to their children’s sins and folly will punish rather than discipline their children. They will treat their kids unjustly, model a warped understanding of justice for their kids to impose upon their offspring, fail to love them, and (for Christians) miss golden opportunities to explain that God’s justice toward Christ translates into God’s love and mercy toward them.
Ironically, indulging one’s children reaps a similar harvest—making refusal to discipline one of the worst punishments parents can impose upon the kids they claim to love.