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Children and Parenting

As we approach the final week of class here at Southwestern, I am about to lecture on the final topic of the semester—children and parenting. Now before you say that I can’t cover that in three class meetings, trust me that I know I am giving it merely a bit of lip service. However, that is the life of being a professor. Unlike Dr. Finn (my illustrious SBC Witness co-contributor) who deals with topics like history that don’t change, technology and culture bring up new challenges for ethicists to face every day. Anyway, back to the subject of my post…

I want to consider the issue of children and parenting, especially as it relates to discipline. In Christian circles, there are a number of various approaches to discipline that may be considered, but I want to focus on two. The first is the “spare the rod, spoil the child” crowd that considers discipline to include physical punishment at times and suggests distinct obedience to the wishes of the parents. The second group is the “keep it positive and build little Johnny’s self-esteem” crowd. This group believes that parenting should be a positive endeavor and avoid any possibility of bringing shame or reproach upon a child. Of course, there are extremes on both sides of these positions, but I want to consider the moderate, sensible versions of both positions.

The first group is best characterized, in my opinion, by Tedd Tripp in his book Shepherding a Child’s Heart (2nd ed., Shepherd Press, 2005). Tripp’s basic approach believes that behavior is an overflow of the heart. As a result, it is the parents’ responsibility to use discipline in such a way as to address matters of the heart and in so doing to direct the hearts of their children to God. This viewpoint suggests that parents make their expectations clearly known and encourage obedience without challenge, without excuse, and without delay. Sometimes the discipline required to shepherd a child’s heart to God may require the use of the rod, but Tripp strongly warns against distortions of the rod that are unacceptable. At its essence, Tripp considers the rod to be a parental exercise, an act of faith, an act of faithfulness, a responsibility, physical punishment, and a rescue mission.
The second group is best characterized by a positive take on the training of children that involves the building of self-esteem in the child. They are represented by a number of recent books and authors I have read and heard of late (but I don’t have their book info handy to give proper publication information). In essence, they believe that the self-esteem of the child should be built up greatly in opposition to any form of negative discipline. For example, if a child has not obeyed the wishes of the parent, the parent should not point out the disobedience, but should praise another area of the child’s life where he did meet parental expectations. The thought is that the child will be self-motivated through positive reinforcement to do the things that he has not previously done.

In my study of Scripture and teaching in my class, I find the second approach to be disconcerting in light of the biblical evidence. If Scripture is to be our guide and the best example of parenting comes from our relationship with our Heavenly Father, then self-esteem/positive reinforcement “discipline” seems to be lacking. Don’t get me wrong, I desire to praise my children both for what they do and who they are. They are made in God’s image and are inherently valuable as a result. However, I also see in Scripture where God chastens his own children and then instructs us to use discipline appropriately to direct the hearts of our children toward him. For example, Proverbs 29:15 states, “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother.” In addition, Ephesians 6:1-3 teaches that a child’s obedience to his parents is actually an act of obedience to God.
With all this in mind, how do you think we ought to address this issue of discipline?