Faithful Discipline? There’s got to be a better way

Rev. Dr. Anne Cameron

Published in the Christian Citizen (Volume 2, 2013). Reprinted with permission of American Baptist Home Mission Societies with a link to the Christian Citizen page on the website

“Temper, temper!” he taunted. Two unforgettable words came out of the mouth of our then five year old son, John. John knew that mom had reached her limit and was about to hit him. I choose to use the word “hit” rather than ”spank,” because that is what spanking a child is.    John’s five year old wisdom stung. More importantly, it caused me to reflect. I knew there had to be a better way. As a child psychologist then, and a Christian minister now, I am convinced the better way can be found by grounding our discipline in faith.

You have heard it said time and again that the Bible condones physical punishment: “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. Actually, this phrase does not appear in the Bible! Proverbs says

Whoever spares the rod hates their children,but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” (Proverbs 13:24, NIV). The emphasis is upon effective discipline, not upon hitting. Four other verses in Proverbs refer to the “rod” (Proverbs 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15); these verses appear within the general context of discipline. Proverbs talks about “discipline” far more often than it does the “rod” (sixteen times vs. four, NIV English word search).

Hitting children is simply not effective for lasting behavioral change and is associated with unwanted negative behavioral outcomes (see Elizabeth Gershoff, 2002[i]). Moreover, hitting engenders anger and resentment, hitting teaches children that physical violence wins out in the end, and most important for Christians, it is not faithful!

Part of what we have to grapple with in the 21st century is that the Bible isn’t an answer book or a “how to” guide. It gives us guidance, but in many situations it does not answer the question “How?” The Bible cannot possibly address all of the issues parents have to deal with today: “How much screen time should our children have?” “How can we help our children resist peer pressure?”   Yes, there are biblical guidelines that are timeless: “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal. . .” among many others (paraphrase of Exodus 20:13-15).  There are broad values and clear direction in both Testaments. The grand sweep of scripture leans toward love, what some have even called the “rule of love.” “What is the greatest commandment? Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39 NIV). “Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you” (Luke 6:27 NIV).

Surely if we are to love our enemies, then we must love our children, even if at times our little ones may feel like our enemies!

If we choose not to use hitting children as a disciplinary technique, it doesn’t mean we have to throw out discipline entirely. On the contrary, effective, positive discipline is a crucial way in which we honor God and love our children. For Christians, Christ’s “rule of love” must guide our discipline. Faithful love of children requires both nurture and boundary setting (discipline). Faithful love includes both grace (forgiveness and letting go) and justice (consequences). Nowhere in the Bible can we find justification for hitting another human being under the guise of discipline.   Christ’s “rule of love” would forbid hitting another human being, regardless of the transgression.

Since the Bible doesn’t answer the “how to” questions, we look to wise parents and to the guidance of the social sciences to accomplish faithful parenting.   Time and again, we have learned (and research supports) that positive discipline, rules, limits, and natural consequences provide a framework for positive behavioral outcomes for children. Though it is well beyond the scope of this article to address “how to” in detail, some broad suggestions are offered Two excellent sources for learning about positive discipline techniques are: Discipline Without Distress (Judy Arnall, 2007) and Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, 2nd Edition (J. Nelsen, C. Erwin, R. Duffy, 2007).

It is crucial to establish a loving relationship, clear communication, and genuine trust with children, starting from the very beginning. Children learn what they live. When parents demonstrate respect, clarity, realistic expectations, and consistency, children will want to do what is asked of them. Developmental psychology has a wealth of knowledge to help parents know what is appropriate to expect of children at various ages and stages. It can also help us understand and respond to normal developmental behaviors such as “no-saying”, temper tantrums, and young children’s growing need to assert their independence.

Much negative behavior in children can be prevented when parents establish routine habits (e.g. regular bedtimes) boundaries (no TV on school nights), and predictable responses (“when you do this, you will not be able to do that”) so that children feel safe and know what to expect. Even something simple such as arranging the home’s physical environment to minimize the possibility of misbehavior is important.

Parents can practice positive discipline as an alternative to hitting children. Positive discipline is a broad umbrella covering many different parental behaviors. Examples include: removing the child from an offensive interaction, time-out, verbal feedback couched in neutral, non-anxious language, removal of privileges, allowing natural consequences to occur, providing incentives and small, immediate rewards for positive behavior, and rewarding positive behaviors with praise and affection, among many others. Parental consistency in following through is key to the effectiveness of any of these methods.

The importance of parental behavior cannot be overstated. Parents should strive in all ways to model self-discipline, positive behaviors, and the “fruits of the Spirit” in their own lives and adult interactions. And let us not forget our responsibility to nurture faith habits: prayer, forgiveness, family worship, charitable works, and compassion to reinforce our commitment to Christ and to pass that on to our children.

Each of us, children included, are created in the image of God. When we think of children in this way, it becomes impossible to consider hitting them. We are gifted with so many other ways in which we can faithfully shape young children’s lives, so that they will grow into their God given potential and become the intelligent, active, and compassionate beings they were created to be.

Rev. Dr. Anne Cameron, an ordained Presbyterian minister and psychologist, directs Missions at Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church, Richardson, TX. She may be contacted atThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

[i] Elizabeth Gershoff, “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review”,Psychological Bulletin, 2002, Vol. 128 (4), 539-579

Our Mission

The MISSION of the Action Team to End Hitting Children is to gather many people to do small jobs for the purpose of diminishing and finally ending the hitting of children. By "htiting" we mean to include beating, spanking, slapping, shaking, popping, and any other form of physical or emotional punishment that demeans the child and creates emotional, mental, and physical harm. Our strategy is to use many people to do small amounts of work that create momentum to make a difference. 

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