Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
What a reward is promised upon completion of the task, but, oh, what a task! Through the ages, many philosophies have been advanced about child rearing and discipline. There have been advocates of very rigid discipline as well as those who maintained that "love is enough." In the second half of this century, it appears, many have been following the guidelines set out by the latter, by the proponents of permissiveness. Pointing out the dangers of excessive punishment, these philosophers have advocated the abolition of punishment, and many parents have applied their laissez-faire philosophy: What do we see as the result? Ever-increasing immorality, civil disobedience, vandalism, violence, and drug usage. The outcome has not been, as was promised and expected, a crop of the most happy people that ever lived. The rising suicide rate among young people is evidence of the fact that many are utterly disillusioned with life and devoid of a reason for living. The undisciplined actions of the young adult are the result of an undisciplined upbringing.
What ought to be a Christian's outlook on discipline? Perhaps a definition of discipline is in order, to start off with. Jack Fennema, in Nurturing Children in the Lord, sums up his examination of various references in the Bible to "discipline" as follows:
It is clear, then, that the biblical definition of discipline is synonymous with nurture. This discipline or nurture contains two primary emphases, that of instruction or education, and that of chastening or correcting.1
It has always been the Reformed position that the education of children is the responsibility of the parents of those children. Parents are a child's primary educators, and so, for the purposes of this article at least, we will speak mainly of the task of parents in relation to their children, though much will be directly applicable to a child's secondary educators, i.e. teachers.
Parents have been given a clear mandate in carrying out their responsibility: "Train up a child in the way he should go..." (Proverbs 22:6), that is, "...in the discipline [nurture] and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4), and the goal is that the child may grow up to love the Lord and to serve Him to His praise and glory. It follows that parents must themselves display their love for God and their desire to serve Him according to His Will. They must be living examples of their verbal instruction. How important the quality of the marriage relationship is then, for it is in the home environment, created by the parents, that this nurture is to take place. We ought not to be surprised by the breakdown of order in society, since the family unit, the building block of society, is crumbling before our eyes. With all the broken homes, what else can we expect? Therefore we must guard the sanctity of marriage and the family unit with every fibre of our being. Life depends on it!
In order for parents to carry out their responsibility, God has granted them authority over their children. Authority provides the structure necessary for the family unit to function properly. But, in accordance with God's commandments, this authority must be exercised in love. Authority includes not only the element of dominion but also that of service. "Authority and love are not a duality in education. Parental authority cannot be separated from parental love ... Without love, authority becomes tyranny!"2 Conversely, love without discipline is no love. The Bible teaches, "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him" (Proverbs 13:24).
So then, out of love for their children, parents establish certain rules and guidelines for them to follow. There are those who consider such parents strict and authoritarian, and that children who experience such restrictions are stifled in their development and are unhappy. They believe their children should be free to act and to express themselves as they wish. Left to themselves, however, children do not develop into the happy, responsible adults these people think. In the absence of rules, anarchy reigns; and without restrictions, children become most insecure and unhappy. True freedom and happiness exist only within certain established boundaries. For a Christian that means within the boundaries of the law of God, in the service of God. Christian parents, therefore, will guide their children in order for them to gain that freedom. They will give them clear directives based on the Word of God and will lovingly guide them on the way to becoming independent, responsible adults.
Obedience to authority is the required response. "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Ephesians 6:1). In obeying their parents, children demonstrate obedience to God Himself. When a child rejects the authority of his parents, he defies God Himself, and when this happens, a child is in danger of leaving the path that leads to freedom and life. His parents must then exercise the second aspect of discipline — that of chastening, correcting.
The purpose of chastening must be clear in our minds: it is to direct a child back to the path he should be following. By the corrective measures which are taken, it must be the parents' aim not only to promote acceptable behavior in the future, but also to develop the right attitude, for behavior is determined by attitude.
Just what these measures are will of necessity vary from child to child and from situation to situation. It is imperative that, from the outset, the rules and expectations established by the parents are understood by the child, otherwise he cannot be held accountable. In applying corrective measures, there are two important directives for parents. One is that they must be fair — bearing in mind the character of the child and the nature and seriousness of the misdeed. "The punishment must fit the crime." It must fit the child also. Scripture warns, "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger..." (Ephesians 6:4). Parents must be reasonable and fair in dealing with their children. The second is that they must be consistent. They must make sure that their orders are indeed carried out. If they do not, they are themselves promoting disobedience. Children must learn to comply (promptly, not after repeated reminders) with the requests their parents make. Also the correction of the misdeeds must be handled consistently. It should not vacillate with the mood of the parents. Children derive security from knowing where the boundaries are and that they are being guarded consistently.
The matter of discipline is portrayed quite well in an analogy used by Dr. James Dobson in his book, Dare to Discipline.3 It is that of guardrails at the side of a bridge that spans a very deep gorge. The guardrails are the guidelines and boundaries set and applied by parents out of love to safeguard their children. The guardrails not only prevent them from leaving the road to face certain death, they also serve to clearly show where the road is, the path we are teaching our children to follow, where according to Psalm 119 God's word is a lamp to their feet. How privileged we are! We have been entrusted with God's children to nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord so that they commit themselves to Him with their whole being. It is a task we could not begin to undertake in our own strength, but we do not have to either. God is ever near to instruct and to guide us through His Word and Spirit, and He has promised, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith..." (James 1:5, 6). If we carry out our task faithfully, we have the promise that when the child is old he will not depart from the way he should go. A rich reward indeed!