Is punishing children overrated?


I am not against spanking.  I am not against punishment. In fact the very reason why I do either of those is the same reason that is prompting me to stop. For me the purpose of parenting is to train my children. The reason why I spank(ed) them is because there is an age where I believe that is the best way to teach them. As the children grow so must the teaching methods. Over time we stopped spanking and started more “age appropriate” forms of discipline.

For the last 3 weeks I have been thinking about how I parent my oldest 2 daughters (Dove age 7 and Eden age 5). I have concluded that the majority of my parenting with them revolved around some form of punishment. Loss of privileges, time outs, etc. I have also realized that, not only do these forms of discipline distract from my goals as a parent, I think there are times when it conflicts with them.

The disobedience of a child is one of the best opportunities to  teach.  It is amazing how receptive children are to this instruction. Given this, I find it amazing that my first instinct is to resort to a 5 minute time out. I mean, think about it. You hear these stories of teenagers who are grounded for months. Have the parents talked to the children about how and why the crime was committed and really concluded that this is the most effective way to teach them the applicable lesson? This seems like a really bad way to teach most anything.  Most of my memories of punishment produced a very strong desire to not get caught and almost no desire to grow, change, or learn. And yet, this is still my default parenting mode. After thinking about it,  I think there are two reason why I do this:

  1. It is, by far, the easiest.
  2. I am somewhat afraid and intimidated by legitimately teaching my children

In the Bible there are so many references and examples of God punishing His children but there are far more references to Him teaching and instructing them. In our house, I fear that there are far more examples of punishment than there are teaching. This is perfect if we want to raise a military family in which the children learn to respect and fear the parents and any other authority figures. . But this is not our goal. We want to raise a family where the children fall in love with God and the other members of the family. I feel like this goal requires tools that are more complicated and difficult than punishment.

Therefore, effective immediately Kami and I are going to attempt the following. When a child breaks a rule, disobeys or does something that “deserves” punishment we will ask ourselves the following:

  1. What do we want our child to learn from this situation?
  2. What is the best way that we can teach them this lesson in a way that will have a life long impact and not just help us to survive the minute, hour, week, or month?

We’ll let you know how it goes. What are some things you have learned about teaching your children?


18 thoughts

  1. I love your approach here. This is what I try to do with my children. I find that calming my temper first helps. I am also blessed with a precocious older child who really doesn’t let either my husband or myself “get away” with just punishment. She always wants to know why. If she understands the consequence, she is much less likely to repeat the offending behavior. She has been great training for us as parents and helped in our approach with the younger two.

    Principles from the Love and Logic program have also been helpful to us.

  2. What an irony! Stacie and I are in the middle of a “punishment vs. training” revolution ourselves.

    We can discuss more in person later, but I’ll record what I see as one point of overlap and one point of possible divergence:

    Overlap: Training over punishment. I’ll admit I have not done enough actual training and instead have relied to heavily on haphazard punishment.

    Possible Divergence: I’ve been persuaded that I need to enter a brief period of more (not less) consistent spanking for training purposes; not punishment. That may appear to be a subtle semantic difference but I believe the outcomes are radically different.

  3. I whole heartedly believe that spanking is an appropriate, God endorsed way to train your children. However, spanking must always happen with reproof. A child needs to be punished so that they do not feel guilty for the sin that they committed. Once the punishment has happened it is over and they are forgiven. Spanking and punishment take a lot of work, because they is always teaching that should follow. Reproof/teaching should alway happen with scripture. The Point of it is to get a hold of your child’s heart. The holy spirit’s words do a lot better getting a hold of your child’s heart than your own.
    Teaching should happen throughout the day, all day. In non confrontational times I teach my kids to obey. I say, Okay Autry it is time to practice obeying, in these times I tell him to do things and he does them(we do this for about 15-20 minutes). It is a good way for him to learn to obey when emotions are calm and you are having fun.

    IN summary teaching and punishment should always go hand in hand. However, punishment should only be a small fraction of the time that you are teaching your child.
    I don’t know if you have read Ted Tripps sheperding a child’s heart, but it is really good. His basic premise is that we raise our kids to bring glory to God, and everything we do in our family should be centered around that.

  4. ariel, thanks for your feedback. i’ve heard good things about love and logic.

    jason, i don’t think your divergence. i would employ ourselves and all parents to use whatever training methods best work including spanking. i don’t think we would disagree that if spanking or any method stopped being effective it would be foolish to not look into other methods.

    emlie, i haven’t read that book but would like to. rather, i would prefer to read the cliff notes on it. i’m wondering to what age do you think spanking is “appropriate.” for our two oldest girls i felt like by the time they were able to understand our words an heart (around 5 years old) that spanking became more obsolete as a training method. i want to make sure that i am clear that i think it is very effective at behavior modification. our boy is 4 and i think the methods we will be using with him are going to be quite a bit different but i’m not quite sure how yet. i do think that i am going to be leaning less on spanking though because i feel like i have a pretty unhealthy dependence upon punishment as a tool.

  5. I’m really glad you’re thinking about this and wanting to teach. It’s way easier not to want to teach our kids because it’s so time-consuming and a lot of the time the opportunity happens when you’re really mad at them. So it’s great that you’re thinking about it.

    Someone mentioned the Ted Tripp book “Shepherding A Child’s Heart” and I have to say that I don’t think that book promotes relational teaching. When I read it he seemed to be more about presenting a formula instead of inviting relationship and struggle and the chance for the parent to grow and learn in the process. It seemed to be very authoritarian-centered and forcing glory to be giving to God by this rote obedience, instead of through relationship.

  6. We had an interesting discussion in an SFL last night after being immersed in the Fall with all of its curses and the very next week studying the loving, gracious Father in the Prodigal Son story – how do you reconcile these two faces of God.

    We really believe you must be one or the other. You cannot be both judge and loving Father you need to choose.

    I believe parents shouldn’t be forced to choose and should embrace both roles but desire to move away from dishing out consequences when that role is no longer necessary.

    For example, I think of it like this – there are two things you need when driving somewhere in your car –

    1. A guide (map, direction etc.)
    2. Guardrails (boundary markers)

    We want to train our teachable children (be a guide) but we must also set up clear and rigid guardrails for them to bump into.

    In my relationship with my Kels it’s 95% guide 5% guardrails.

    When Jack was 3 it was 85% guardrails 15% guide.

    I agree with trying to train kids when they smack into the guardrails but this requires two step action not one step –

    1. They need to experience hitting the guardrail.
    2. You need to help guide them to not hit it again.

    We have to be what our children need and during some seasons of their development they need really strong guardrails. We would all prefer to only be a guide but if they don’t want a guide and are trying to drive off the road we can’t shrink back from the need to enforce clear boundaries.

    I know this is part of what you mean by training but it sounds to me like you might experiment with removing the guardrails in some fashion and I’d be cautious with that.

  7. I feel uneasy with the word punishment. Punishment implies consequences without learning. Pure punishment with exasperate your child. I think you need to be asking yourself how can I negatively reinforce the issue while TEACHING my child to obey, be kind, not sin.
    Discipline will look different in different seasons. A friend whose children are all grown told me that most of the time you should be done spanking by the age of 6. However, some children will take a little longer. As they get older you do have to be a little more creative. The consequence should fit the sin, when possible.

    Here are some passages from scripture to keep in mind as you make a decision. (for clarification I am not saying that the rod is always spanking in these passages). I think the bible demonstrates the discipline is negative consequence and teaching.

    Proverbs 13:24

    24 He who spares the rod hates his son,
    but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.
    Proverbs 22:15

    15 Folly is bound up in the heart of a child,
    but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.
    Proverbs 23:13

    13 Do not withhold discipline from a child;
    if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.
    Proverbs 29:15

    15 The rod of correction imparts wisdom,
    but a child left to himself disgraces his mother.

    Proverbs 3:11-12
    11 My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline
    and do not resent his rebuke,

    12 because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
    as a father [b] the son he delights in.

    Deuteronomy 4:10
    Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.”

    Deuteronomy 11:18-19
    18 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

    Proverbs 19:18
    Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death.

    Hebrews 12:11
    No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

    On Tedd Tripp’s book. I would read the first like 3 chapters. It gives a great philosophy behind why we are training our children. I agree that in his book he does not communicate the issue of relationship with your child. That is the biggest flaw with the book, but there are some great insights in the book that need to be treasured. I have seen him talk at a conference however and he did communicate the importance of relationship.

    (sorry this is so lengthy I get really passionate about this issue)

  8. jp, i think your clarifications and distinctions are wise.

    “I know this is part of what you mean by training but it sounds to me like you might experiment with removing the guardrails in some fashion and I’d be cautious with that.”

    i think this is a good cautionary note. knowing my background with parenting i know i have depended way to much on guard rails and i seriously doubt that i will ever have the problem of removing them entirely….but good to be aware of.

    emilie – i agree. what if we were to take it a step further though and instead of say consequences WITH learning we say consequences FOR learning. are we saying the same thing?

    i believe it’s slightly more accurate to say that i don’t like the way i’ve seen some people represent it.

  9. I’ve been emphasizing how everything has consequences, and they’re either good or bad. Today they had a devastating (for them) consequence becauseI told them if they obeyed at the zoo then they could get milkshakes. They were both naughty so neither of them got one. They were SO sad and made excuses and cried all the way home. I was sad with them b/c I’d really wanted them to have them. I was glad that they really seemed to get the message that it was their fault and they were responsible, etc. They knew I wasn’t holding it over their heads to be mean, and I was free to be sad along with them. “I really wanted you guys to get your treat. I’m sad too.” etc. I was tempted to give in and get the shakes for them anyway but I knew there was no way I could do that or they wouldn’t be learning negative consequences; that wouldn’t be loving them well.
    I feel really good about it because we point out when good consequences happen and give them goals to look forward to and work towards and make a big deal when they meet their goal and they are so happy and proud of themselves. And it takes the pressure off of me for feeling mad at them for disobeying b/c then they endure the negative consequence (not getting a star on their chart or whatever) so the pressure is off me and on them, where it should be, and I’m free to love on them and hug them when they’re sad about it and not separate myself from them or shame them, because that’s the main thing about God that I want my kids to know, that he will never leave us even when we sin against him and we’re roiling in our consequences.
    It’s teaching me about myself too b/c each time they achieve a good consequence or have a bad one, I see “that is me, I know how they feel, I know that struggle, it’s still really hard for me to obey too.” So I can see them with some mercy. I think this helps them feel loved and know I’m on their side even when I’m enforcing the consequence.

  10. My friend calls parenting with love and logic, parenting with manipulation. I havn’t read it…but I thought I would back up the not liking the book.

    I would say Ben that when you say consequences for learning is true. The only thing that you have to be careful of is that your consequences are not for the sake of threatening or manipulation. Manipulation and threating doesn’t conquer the heart issue. I am not saying that is what you are saying, I am just saying that is what you have to be careful of.

    For example, we are still in the spanking stage. If I were to say don’t do that or you will get a spanking, I would say that is wrong, because I am threatening. Instead the minute disobedience happens there is a talk, spanking, conversation, biblical passage that refers to the sin committed, a sorry, forgiveness, an I love you, and prayer of forgiveness and help from God.

    Manipulating and threatening is one of the huge easy to fall in pit fall of discipline from what I have observed and experienced.

  11. Emily: I don’t think I see letting your child know what their consequence will be if they disobey as a wrong thing. Or vice a versa letting your child know what will happen if they do obey. I see God doing this with us all the time in the Bible. He lets us know the consequences of sin and lets us know the blessings of obedience. But if they disobeyed and got the consequence communicated to them and then we didn’t follow up with a conversation where we got to what was going on in their heart than I believe that would not be very effective.

    Steph: I like where your heart is at in teaching your children. I like the idea that we enter into our children’s joy and sadness. I believe God does this with us.

  12. For what it’s worth, I was spanked in the same manner Emily describes where the minute disobedience happened there was a talk, spanking, conversation, biblical passage that referred to the sin committed, a sorry, forgiveness, an I love you, and prayer of forgiveness and help from God. It was very negative for me and my siblings because it was done without true relationship and love. I think this could possibly be done with love, but I want to point out that you can follow all the steps and still miss the big point behind discipline.

    I also want to say that making your child say “I’m sorry” really is making them lie if they’re not sincere. I don’t want them to say they’re sorry b/c I tell them to. This is a tricky one though b/c social protocol demands an “I’m sorry” a lot of the time. We wrestle with this.

  13. Stephanie-I totally agree that without relationship it won’t work. Relationship is key in all sort of discipline. The authentic sorry and true repentance is also something that needs to happen, but at times is hard to measure

    Kami- I agree with you that God shows us consequences in the bible. With believers he doesn’t threaten us to obey or else. He says obey because you love me (john 14:15). He also lays out to us the natural consequences of disobedience. It is a fine line between presenting consequences and threatening/manipulating into obedience. It is something I struggle with all the time. I think the main time I struggle with it is when I am frustrated and I just want them to obey right then. So instead of disciplining for disobedience and expecting obedience, I try and bribe them to obey.
    It all comes down to figuring out the way to get to our child’s heart, and pointing them to Jesus. That is why teaching is so important so that, by the time they are teenagers we have instilled in them right and wrong and have seen and heard the gospel.

  14. I hadn’t read your post until now, Ben. Interesting in light of what I talked about tonight.
    For others, I have been reading this book called “Grace-Based Parenting.” Although I haven’t gotten too far, I have really enjoyed it.
    One of the biggest things that I have realized is that what we believe about God and how we think God views us has so much to do with how we treat, parent, discipline, etc. our children. For instance, I have a hard time accepting God’s grace in my own life and therefore have a hard time showing grace towards my children.
    As far as my view on discipline, maybe it’s cliche but I think we all need to be seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit and realize that each child is so different from any other which requires different forms of love, discipline, care, compassion, etc.
    Needless to say, the subject of parenting in general has been on my heart so much recently. I can only pray that God will continue to work on my heart and that I will grow in the knowledge of His love, grace and forgiveness so that I may pass it on to my children.

  15. Hi Ben, just found your blog and don’t know you – you met my friend Tina at Starbucks last week. Love reading all these thoughts and wanted to pass on the title of a book that has been incredible for our family as we’ve wrestled with these issues. We read Ted Tripp’s ‘Shepherding…’ book, we read Grace Based Parenting, but this one has been the most profound so far. If you are a reader, it’s one to check out. Danny Silk’s “Loving our Kids on Purpose”. If you want a brief summary, I wrote a review of it at

    Hope to meet you and your family sometime!

  16. Hi Ben, just found your blog and don't know you – you met my friend Tina at Starbucks last week. Love reading all these thoughts and wanted to pass on the title of a book that has been incredible for our family as we've wrestled with these issues. We read Ted Tripp's 'Shepherding…' book, we read Grace Based Parenting, but this one has been the most profound so far. If you are a reader, it's one to check out. Danny Silk's "Loving our Kids on Purpose". If you want a brief summary, I wrote a review of it at

    Hope to meet you and your family sometime!;. All the best!!

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