Parenting Choices: Punishment or Discipline?

Your child misbehaves. She speaks disrespectfully, or he breaks a family rule. Feelings or bodies are hurt and your emotions rise. Action is clearly needed to correct the bad behavior, but what approach will be most effective for correcting behavior? What do you do next?

Choose wisely

It is easy to react emotionally in the moment and punish our children for their offense. It is far more difficult to keep a clear head and choose to respond thoughtfully and discipline in a way that redirects bad behavior. Parents have countless choices to make in any given day, but the decision to punish or discipline is one we must make carefully. What is the difference?

Punishment vs. Discipline

When we punish our children for their behavior, the focus of our actions and words is on what has already been done in the past. Punishment looks back on previous choices and causes our children to feel guilty or fearful. As Christians we acknowledge that the sins of the past have already been atoned for through Jesus death on the cross.

He (Jesus) himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).

Our sins and those of our children have already been forgiven so it is not our responsibility to punish them. It is not our job to punish, but we are called to guide our children to a life of discipleship. While we may want them to reflect on what they have done, leaving them with emotions of guilt and fear can lead to a breakdown in communication and honesty between the parent and the child.

Be future focused

Since correction looks back on the behavior, often teaching and reconciliation are overlooked. When the child must choose behavior in the future, will they know better how to choose? When we use discipline as the method of correcting our children, the focus is on teaching them what we would like them to do in the future. We help our children assess their situation and see how their choices impacted others so they can make wiser choices going forward. When consequences are considered, the goal is more about reconciliation with the injured rather than simply rebuke for bad actions.

Let love guide

When we talk to our children, without shaming them, they more easily sense our love for them and understand that we, as parents, are concerned that they learn to make better choices. This feeling can build relationships and increase trust allowing both the parent and the child to feel secure in the relationship.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love (1 John 4:18).

Love drives out the fear we experience in our relationships. When relationships are based in love, intimacy grows. When relationships are based in fear, intimacy falls away. It is difficult to be close to someone who makes us fearful. We see this reflected in our relationship with Christ, as well.

Model grace

Accepting Jesus’ gift of forgiveness, we find that our own sins and short-comings are awash in His grace, and we enjoy continued relationship with Him because He loves us, not because we always do what is good and right. Modeling this in our parenting gives us the opportunity to help our children learn this important truth as well. Since our roles as parents can greatly affect the way our children connect with Christ, it matters that we shower them with the love and grace that are also showered upon us. Learning that mom and dad forgive, teach, and enfold can help our children see a glimpse of the far greater gifts of God.

When our children struggle with behavior, it is natural to feel upset, frustrated, disappointed or mad. We have many choices to make when deciding what we will do those emotions and the situation at hand. When we step back, take a breath and begin to think it through, what we will remember is that we have a limited time to teach our children all that they need to know. We will remember that maintaining a close relationship with them helps to keep us in the right position to do that teaching. And we will remember that lessons couched in selfless love have the greatest ability to change our hearts.

About the author — Nadia Swearingen-Friesen

Nadia Swearingen-Friesen is a writer and national speaker with a passion for empowering parents to approach their families with great intentionality and grace.  Nadia and her husband, Mark, are the parents of four children and live in the Chicago area. Nadia also blogs at

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