Given the concern in research and media about abusive discipline practices on children, as well as the seeming endorsement of corporal punishment lifted from Bible passages on the use of the rod, it is good to review and evaluate the biblical and theological perspectives on child rearing and discipline. It is good to also learn a number of tools that are effective and encouraged but have not been given as much emphasis. One of the primary sources of biblical reflection on discipline and instruction is in the book of Proverbs.
Biblical scholar R. Norman Whybray used knowledge of the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East to shed light on the book of Proverbs which has some of the controversial passages on discipline. Whybray argued that the book itself is a book of instruction put in the mouth of a father to his son or sometimes personified wisdom, meant to prepare young men to face the challenges and problems of the adult world. In Proverbs 1–9, the kind of conversation occurring between parents and children provides principles and insights. Both parents are involved in the instruction of and discussion on how to apply God’s ways with wisdom as the child interacts with the world around him or her. Parents teach, instruct, extol the ways of wisdom and warn about the enticements and dangers the child might face. The father’s manner, attitude, and persuasive words (Prov. 1–7) and personified wisdom’s words (Prov. 8–9) seem to support a preference for conversation and persuasion of instructing, admonishing, rebuking the son than physical means. Many passages address the wise or foolish use of the mouth and lips (Prov. 4:24; 10:6, 11, 32; 12:14; 14:3; 15:2; 16:23). The use of the rod as a form of discipline (Prov. 23: 13–14; 13:24; 22:15) is set only as one of the many tools in the full range and levels of disciplinary measures shown in the book of Proverbs. It recognizes that “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child,” and therefore wise instruction, godly discipline, reproof, training, and correction are needed so as to impart wisdom and develop character (Prov. 22:6, 15; 13:24; 3:11–12; Eph. 6:4). The child is urged to receive, obey, remember, and keep the parents’ instructions and to honor them (Prov. 3:1, 4:10; Eph. 6:1). The basis and motivation for heeding the parent’s admonitions are a healthy reverence and awe of God and a desire to please him, not legalistic outward obedience to a set of rules. Old Testament professor Paul D. Wegner explained that Proverbs encourages and identifies various levels of discipline: (1) encourage proper behavior; (2) educate on improper behavior; (3) explain sin’s negative consequences; (4) exhort gently; (5) rebuke or reprove gently; (6) corporal punishment that does not cause physical harm; (7) corporal punishment that causes physical harm; and (8) death. Of the last two levels, he said that the government, not parents, is given the power to implement as a consequence of or deterrent to destructive behavior.
There is also much confusion to the word “discipline,” often equated with punishment (punitive), instead of its original meaning of “training” with the root word “disciple.” The chief end is that the children develop wisdom and the fear of the Lord that will make them a blessing to their families and society as a whole. Proverbs shows parents the tools that they could use wisely, not arbitrarily nor reactively, to accomplish that end. Training implies an end goal, a set plan on how to accomplish the goal, and the consistency to implement progressively as the child grows and responds and develop the habits and skills that build character. Loving relationship, routine, structure, clear rules and consequences, responsibilities and consistency could help children develop the internal motivation to respond well to training and corrective discipline.
Elsewhere in Scriptures, God uses 3 ways to motivate His people: the fear of God (Prov 1:7); the love of God (Romans 8:38, 39); and the rewards of God (2 Cor 5:9, 10). God uses these 3 ways to motivate obedience in us & we need to use all 3 to motivate obedience in our children. Some have such tender spirits it takes only a stern voice. Others may be motivated by love and they want to please the one who loves them. While others need rewards to get encouraged. We need to know our children well, their interests and uniqueness, to know which one to use and when. Parents need to learn to be proactive and develop skills on the different ways they could train their children to help them grow in morality, character and maturity.