When Does Discipline Become Abuse?

The Bible and Parental Discipline

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Discipline is important in the parent-child relationship. Yet, the way parents discipline their children has always been a controversial topic. The national spotlight shone on issue again last week when police arrested thirty-year old Shaquana Spears for physically disciplining her children after they broke into a neighbor’s home. Was Ms. Spears right or wrong in the way she disciplined her children? When does parental discipline become abuse?

Schaquana Spears wanted to show her three sons some tough love by whipping them for breaking into a neighbor’s home, and now she might be facing felony charges.

I was being a mother who loves her kids, who wants to protect her kids, and steer them in the right direction. I’d rather discipline my kids than for them to be beaten in the street, caught in someone’s home murdered, or in someone’s prison and me having to visit.

According to police documents, Spears struck her 13-year-old son multiple times with an electrical chord, but she says it was a belt. The teen had lacerations on his arms and marks across his body. Two other sons also had visible injuries. In response to this case, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services said,

… reasonable, constructive discipline is a healthy part of parenting … but it crosses into abuse when it leaves a child cut, burned, bloody or bruised.

This story inspired me to ask a few questions: What does the Bible say about parental discipline? What are the means for parents disciplining their children? The Bible has a lot to say on this subject.

What is parental discipline?

Parental discipline is parents’ loving, corrective training of their children, by verbal instruction and physical and non-physical discipline, so that they grow up in the way God wants.

Who is responsible for disciplining children?

According to Hebrews, just as God our Father disciplines us, earthy parents should be the primary disciplinarians of their children:

As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? Hebrews 12:7

Discipline should not left to the schools or other agencies. This is the parents’ responsibility. Loving correction is evidence of the legitimacy of the parent-child relationship. Therefore, if parents will not discipline their children, they are abdicating their responsibility, showing a lack of love, and exposing their children to someone else disciplining them – someone who might not be so loving. Ms. Spears recognized if she did not discipline her sons, it was only a matter of time before law enforcement disciplined them with a juvenile, jail, or prison sentence.

Parents are to discipline their children out of love, not anger.  

As God has given the primary responsibility to parents to correct their children, parents should go about this task with the proper motive, genuine love. Parents should fight for the highest possible good of their children. I know no discipline feels loving when it is given. In fact, it hurts. But, if done out of genuine love and care, it is designed to help our children to grow wiser and walk in the way of God. A loving parent inflicts temporary discomfort on his children to spare them the long-range disaster.

Refusal to discipline one’s child when he needs it shows that a parent’s genuine love and concern are questionable.

Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them. Proverbs 13:24

God also disciplines those he loves:

For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. Proverbs 3:12

So, here is the bottom line: Correction = Love and Love = Correction

If a parent disciplines out of anger, then it becomes punishment, but if a parent disciplines out of love, it is corrective training. Remember, the goal of any discipline is to train our children to obey God. I don’t think this can be accomplished if we correct them from a place of anger.

What are means of parental discipline? 

This is the $64,000 question, right? How do we go about disciplining our children? Do we spank or whip them? Do we give them time outs? Do we remove privileges? What does the Bible say are the means by which we can discipline our children? Here are at least two ways:

Training: Discipline includes directing our children in the right path. This kind of direction means making daily spiritual deposits into their lives, teaching them what God desires.

And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:6-9

God’s people are responsible to meditate on his commandments to keep them in their hearts. This enables us to understand the Law and to apply it correctly. Then we, as parents, are in a position to impress them on our children’s hearts also. Parents, we accomplish the moral and biblical education of our children, not in a formal teaching period each day, but when we, out of concern for their make God and His Word the natural topic of a conversation. These conversations might occur anywhere and anytime during the day. Every occasion is an opportunity to teach our children about God and what he desires. If our children listen to our directions and instructions, then there will be no need for harsher discipline.

Correction: A second means for disciplining our children is correction. When the Bible talks about correction, it seems to advocate for all forms of discipline, including physical discipline.

A youngster’s heart is filled with foolishness, but physical discipline will drive it far away. Proverbs 22:15

Discipline your children while there is hope. Otherwise, you will ruin their lives. Proverbs 19:18

Don’t fail to discipline your children. The rod of punishment won’t kill them. Physical discipline may well save them from death. Proverbs 23:13-14

To discipline a child produces wisdom, but a mother is disgraced by an undisciplined child. Proverbs 29:15

These verses are strong warnings against parental passivity.  Children need discipline. A child guilty of wrongdoing should be corrected in some way. Some parents choose non-physical discipline – timeouts, removal of privileges and activities. These are legitimate forms of correction. It appears from Scripture that physical correction is a viable option as well. Though the rod means a literal rod or stick, it could mean any form of correction. Yet, parents do have an option of physically disciplining their children.

However, if a parent chooses to use this option, I strongly advocate that she must not do it out of impulse or out of anger. Any correction that is administered in anger is punishment or revenge (Jesus has already taken our punishment). This is not biblical. Now, some physical correction can go too far and spill over into abuse. Though Ms. Spears motives were right, I wonder if she lost control of her emotions and disciplined her children out of anger.

The challenge for parents is to detach themselves from the situation long enough to quell their anger. Most parents don’t intend to be abusive. I think they lose control of their emotions and lash out at the child out of revenge rather teaching the child right from wrong. Once a parent is trapped in the “anger” or “revenge” mode of discipline, he/she will not respond compassionately or rationally. Abusive behavior will likely occur.

Communicating Expectations

I think an important part of parental discipline is communicating expectations and consequences for not fulfilling those expectations. For instance, you instruct your child to clean his room and clearly tell them the consequences if they do not clean their room. If your child chooses not to clean their room and you implement the agreed upon consequences, then correction and discipline do not surprise him. The key, however, is being consistent.

If we communicate expectations and consequences, but not go through with consequences when children disobey, our children will test and break the rules. Why? They know that mom and dad will not follow through with the consequences. This will ultimately create delusion in our children. They will think they can break the rules and not experience consequences for their actions. They are in for a rude awakening when teachers, police or employers make and enforce the rules.

So, clearly communicating expectations and following through on consequences help our children to see what good choices and bad choices look like.

What is the ultimate purpose of parental discipline? 

The number one purpose of discipline is to impart wisdom to our children and help them live holy lives.

Do you agree with the way Ms. Spears disciplined her children? 

How would you have handled the situation? 

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