Almost one third of American and Canadian parents say their methods for disciplining their children don’t work. That was the finding of a survey of 5,000 parents reported on in January 2007’s Clinical Pediatrics.
I’ve seen these parents at the local grocery store. Their repeated threats—“If you do that one more time …” “Did you hear me?” “For the last time, stop it!”—float and pop like tiny bubbles. Many of these parents have simply given up, leaving their children in charge.
Why don’t their methods of discipline work? What about you and me—do our methods work?
After time-outs and removing privileges, the third-most common form of discipline, according to this survey, is yelling at the child. This is a sign of parents who never taught their children to listen—parents who punish only when their children get on their nerves.
They have fallen into one of the easiest parenting traps: lack of consistency and follow through. The Plain Truth About Child Rearing, put out by the Worldwide Church of God under Herbert W. Armstrong, calls this “perhaps the most common of all parental failings in administering just and loving discipline.”
That booklet reads, “To punish for an infraction one day, and then to allow the same infraction without punishment the next day is totally confusing to a child. … Frequently, parents will say, ‘But I do spank him,’ and then go on to argue, ‘But it doesn’t seem to do a bit of good!’ Always, at the root of a statement such as this is discipline that is totally ineffective because it is not being done consistently.”
We can succumb to this trap when we become too focused on ourselves. We can give a command and fail to notice whether the child obeys, for example. We can make excuses for our children, having fuzzy expectations and failing to recognize rebellion for what it really is.
The problem is especially bad in a society suspicious of and ambivalent about authority and discipline. Parents second-guess themselves; each act of youthful defiance can create a quandary for a parent loath to confront a child.
It is critical that we teach our children to listen carefully and to obey our instructions promptly and specifically.
The only way to teach this is by speaking only once, and disciplining the child who fails to obey. “Check up on yourself,” the child-rearing booklet challenges. “Begin to speak only once.” Try it. Give your child a single, simple command and see how he responds.
We are to emulate God as a parent. The Bible contains several powerful examples of how consistent He is in disciplining His children when necessary. One of the clearest is the case of Uzza.
King David was moved to reclaim the ark of the covenant from the Philistines and transport it back to Jerusalem. This was a noble goal, and God backed it. The problem was, God had clearly demanded that this holy object be handled in a certain way, and David treated those demands casually.
God had instructed that the ark was to be carried only by the Levitical sons of Kohath (Deuteronomy 10:8; Numbers 4:15); David assigned the job to two non-priests, including Uzza. God wanted the ark borne on the priests’ shoulders and touched only by the staves extending through its rings (Numbers 7:9; Exodus 25:14); David put it on a cart. The ark was to be covered with badgers’ skins (Numbers 4:6); that may not have been done in this case. And God warned that if the ark was ever touched, the offender would die (Numbers 4:15).
In transporting the ark, David failed to consult God altogether; rather, he consulted with the people, who assured him everything was right (1 Chronicles 13:1-4). But it wasn’t right—in fact, David was being very sloppy with the law of God.
The oxen carrying the cart stumbled; the ark became unsteady; Uzza reached out to secure it—and the moment he touched it, he died. Just as God said would happen.
If He was like most parents today, God would have reasoned, Well, clearly that was an honest mistake. I’ll overlook it this time. I’ll give them another warning. Actually, maybe I shouldn’t have made that law in the first place.
But God didn’t do any of those things. He had spelled out the law and the penalty for its infraction. He spoke once, and He followed through.
Look at the effect this rebuke from God had on King David and the Israelites. It was deeply shocking. At first, David became angry—yet more evidence that his thinking was off at the time. But after some months of reflecting, he repented. He then finished the job correctly, taking special precautions to do it precisely according to God’s original instructions (1 Chronicles 15:2, 11-15).
God’s firmness prevented David’s disobedience from getting any worse and set the nation back on course!
The incident beautifully illustrates Paul’s statement in Hebrews 12:11: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Revised Standard Version).
Follow God’s example. Be clear about the rules. Speak only once, and expect your children to obey. Pay attention—and when they deviate off course, don’t make excuses for them. Be consistent about applying the necessary discipline. If you do, you’ll find that the battles between you and your children will subside. You and your children will both experience the peaceful fruit that only results from the godly application of consistent, loving correction.