Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him (Proverbs 22:15).

Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged (Colossians 3:21).

Dad and Mom, do your children feel loved, guided, and empowered by you? Or do they feel mistreated, embittered and discouraged? God says many things in the Bible about bringing up children, but one of the most important is that parents need to treat their children with care and not be too hard on them. In Colossians 3:21 the Bible says, “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.”

Does this mean parents must always let children do whatever they like? Sorry, kids. God expects us parents to guide and correct and even punish our children. The opposite of wrong discipline isn’t no discipline. It’s right discipline.

There’s an approach to parenting based on the notion that children are by nature sweet and pure. Dads and moms shouldn’t teach any rules or punish their kids for breaking them. All parents need to do is get out of the way and watch those beautiful little people blossom. Give them what they want, let them do as they please, and let them clarify their own values as they go. Some experts recommend this approach, but sensible people still call it “spoiling kids rotten.”

Kids aren’t all sweetness and light. They need parents who can say no and back it up with punishment. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15). Loving parents are willing to discipline children for their good. Proverbs 13:24 says, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” I remember being told more than once when I was little, “If you can’t hear it with the ear, you’ll feel it with the rear.” The Bible book of Proverbs says bluntly, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die” (23:13). In other words, a well-deserved spanking isn’t going to kill a kid.

What Is Abuse?

About now, some of you are getting upset. You feel strongly that spanking is always wrong, that any swat on the britches is child abuse. You know what can happen when adults start hitting children. Maybe you were badly beaten as a child, or you work at a hospital or social agency have seen the bruises, burns and broken bones, maybe even the dead bodies, of abused children. So when I say that spanking can be good, or when Proverbs says that physical discipline won’t kill a kid, you feel outraged. You know that beatings can kill–you’ve seen it. Even when the beatings don’t kill the body, they can destroy the spirit. And so you’re 100 percent against physical punishment of any kind.

Let me just say that I detest abuse as much as you do, and God hates abuse more than any of us. One reason I’m doing today’s program is to make that very clear. When parents bully and brutalize the children God created, it makes God furious.

But does this mean it’s always wrong to spank? Let’s change the subject for a moment. I think it’s wrong to scream at your kids and to go on yelling uncontrollably. That’s verbal abuse.  But does this mean you should always speak softly and sweetly, always say pleasant things, and never rebuke your kids? Sometimes a child needs a good, sound scolding. Verbal rebuke is verbal abuse only when it’s taken to an extreme. Likewise, a young child who defies mom or dad may need a spanking. Physical punishment is physical abuse only when it’s taken to an extreme.

God doesn’t prohibit all physical punishment or all scolding. But he does condemn cruel and abusive extremes. Children sometimes need punishment–true enough–but it must be fair punishment, controlled punishment, loving punishment.

And, let me hasten to add, children need much more than just punishment in order to flourish. They need encouragement, lots of it. They need to be taught and built up in what’s healthy and right. They don’t just need to feel that badness is painful. They need to feel that goodness is joyful, enriching and fulfilling.  They need parents who demonstrate the meaning and wonder and happiness of a relationship to God. The Bible packs all this into just a few words when it says: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

We need to keep our feet planted firmly in reality.  We don’t live in a fantasy land of fairy tale kids and perfect parents.  Every day we get reminders of how bad our kids can be, and how incompetent we parents can be, and sometimes it’s hard not to overreact.  When they misbehave we can get so afraid of how they might turn out, or we get so frustrated at our failings as parents, that we lose perspective.  At times like that, we need to remember that even if kids aren’t perfect, they might still turn out all right;  and that even if we’re not perfect parents, we have a Father in heaven who knows our faults and yet keeps helping us grow into the kind of people he wants us to be.

You can read all sorts of books on raising kids, and some of them may be very good, but to tell the truth, I get skeptical about some of these books, especially the ones that make it sound like you can can produce ideals kids if you just follow a certain set of directions.  If you follow the recipe to bake a cake, it will turn out right;  and if you follow the recipe to raise a kid, it will turn out right.  But there’s just one problem.  Kids aren’t cakes.  They’re persons.  Each person is unique, and there’s no magic formula that works every time.

The Bible says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).  That’s true as a general rule, but because we’re all unique persons, there are exceptions to that general rule.  Sometimes great parents have have a kid that turns out rotten, and sometimes rotten parents have a kid that turns out great.

In the Bible, God doesn’t offer a detailed recipe for raising perfect kids.  Instead, the Lord gives a brief and rather general description of the basic approach he wants parents to take.  If you want to help your children flourish, you can learn most of what you need to know from just one verse, Ephesians 6:4. “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”  If we can get just that one sentence into our heads and hearts, and deal with our own unique circumstances and our own unique children in light of it, and then leave the rest in God’s hands, we’ll go a long way toward being the parents God intends.

One thing we need to keep in mind about this sentence is that it addresses parents who already know they have authority.  In fact, just before the Bible says this, it says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.  ‘Honor your father and mother'” (Ephesians 6:1-2).  God clearly gives parents the authority to make and enforce rules for their children.

Some of you parents don’t like this.  Maybe you buy into the philosophy that kids are born innocent and beautiful and your job is to give them what they want and stay out of their way.  Or maybe you just want to be buddies with your kids.  And buddies don’t go around making rules or handing out punishments.

But is it realistic or healthy to see yourself only as your kids’ buddy?  Your kids can find other kids their own age to be their friends, but where are they going to find parents?  If you don’t use your authority to set some boundaries and bring some structure and discipline to their life, who will?

As a parent you probably have more love for your children than anyone else possibly can.  But you must love with parent-love, not just buddy-love or grandparent-love.  It’s okay if your kids’ friendships are mostly fun and games and enjoying each other’s company.  That’s what friends are for.  And it’s okay if grandparents give kids whatever they want and spoil them a little.  That’s what grandparents are for.  But if you’re a mom or dad, then act like it.  You should do lots of fun things with your kids and have many good times together, but you also need to accept your God-given position as the main authority in your children’s life.  God wouldn’t command children to obey parents if he didn’t want you to be a parent worth obeying.

With all that God says about the rightful authority of parents, however, he is equally clear in opposing the misuse and abuse of that authority.  One of the worst effects of sin on us is that we become people of extremes.  We tend to be spineless and permissive and spoil our kids rotten; or else, if we do have some sense of authority and discipline, we go to the other extreme and become rigid, domineering, and even downright brutal with our children. God warns equally against both extremes.

What a marvelous way God has of showing us a perfect balance!  God wants us to use our authority but not abuse it.  We should expect obedience from our kids, but we shouldn’t embitter or discourage them.  What does that mean?  Well, there’s no recipe or how-to list for producing perfect kids, but here are a few suggestions in keeping with Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.”

For one thing, be controlled.  One of the quickest ways to exasperate and embitter your children is to keep losing your temper. How can you insist that your children control their behavior if you can’t control yours?

This is where scolding and spanking can become abusive.  It’s one thing to give a child a no-nonsense scolding. It’s quite another to yell and scream uncontrollably. It’s one thing to give a young child a well-deserved swat on the backside. It’s quite another to deliver blow after blow as a way of venting your own rage and smashing your child into submission.

If you can’t control your temper, you’ll be wisest never to spank your children at all. None of us should resort to spanking too quickly: We should spank only when kids disobey us and directly defying our authority, and we should spank children only when they’re quite young and learn most effectively from quick, physical consequences. But some parents should never spank, simply because they can’t control themselves if they do.  If that’s your situation, you need to find other ways of punishing.  Your kids need to respect your authority and discipline, but they don’t need to be scared stiff of your violent and uncontrolled temper.  So be controlled.

A second suggestion is closely related:  Be consistent.  Nothing drives a kid crazy more than having you react to something one way today, and another way tomorrow.  He does something wrong when you’re in a good mood, and you just ignore it or make a joke about it.  Later he does the same thing, but this time you’re grouchy, so you blow up and threaten to ground him for life.  That is exasperating for kids.  They soon get the message that punishment is more the result of your mood than of their wrongdoing.  Don’t be unpredictable.  Be consistent in your reaction to their behavior.

And be consistent in the sense that your own behavior is consistent with what you expect of your kids.  Don’t tell them to say no to drugs and booze and then get drunk yourself.  Don’t tell them to put God first and then put work and money first in your own life.  You exasperate your kids if your life isn’t consistent with what you teach them.

Also, be consistent also with your husband or wife in how you treat the kids.  As father and mother, don’t contradict each other’s ways of dealing with your kids.  When one of you says no, the kids may try to get the other one to say yes, and they find out soon enough which of you is the easiest to win over.  As parents, be on the same wavelength.  (By the way, that’s why it’s so important to marry someone who has the same faith and the same philosophy of life.)  Don’t confuse your kids.  Be consistent.

A third suggestion:  Be reasonable.  Don’t expect a five-year-old to have the maturity of a fifty-year-old.  Don’t make rules for the sake of making rules.   And don’t put too much pressure on kids to succeed in school or in sports.  You want kids to make the most of their talents, but you also want them to feel grateful for whatever measure of talent God has given them.  Some kids may need an extra push, but far too many get pushed so hard that it crushes them.  They feel like failures who will never measure up.  Are your kids really underachievers, or are you an overexpecter?  Be reasonable.

And when punishment is in order, be fair.  Make sure the punishment fits the crime.  Of course, kids don’t enjoy punishment of any sort.  They often complain even about fair punishments.  But deep down, they usually sense if the punishment is fair.  If you bully or punish them too harshly, it causes deep and lasting damage.  Likewise, if you humiliate them in front of other people, especially in front of their friends, you are wounding them deeply.  Never degrade!  Never humiliate!  Don’t drive a child into discouragement and despair.  Be fair.

Another suggestion:  Be attentive.  Try to understand your children.  If you’ve got a little kid who’s being impossible and making all sorts of trouble for you, it may be a case of defiance.  But then again, the child may just be overly tired.  If you’re attentive you can often tell whether the child needs punishment, or just a hug and a kiss and a one-way trip to bed.

In the same way, unsettling behavior by older kids isn’t always a matter of defiance and disobedience.  Teenagers may be going through tough times with friends, or wrestling with severe temptations and doubts and fears and insecurities, but all you see is ornery, obnoxious behavior.  You don’t have to pretend the behavior is okay, but watch for underlying causes.  They may need love and understanding and reassurance more than punishment.

Always, always listen to your kids and talk with them.  If you cut off all discussion without listening to their side of the story, you’re not treating them as humans.  After listening you still might decide they’re just putting you on–many kids are experts at making excuses, and they can come up with some humdingers to wriggle out of trouble.  But in spite of all that, you still need to listen before you make up your mind.  Sometimes kids give you a sense of what’s really on their heart, things you really need to know in order to understand them.  If you won’t listen at all, or if you won’t explain your own actions, you will exasperate and embitter your kids.

Be attentive also to change and growth in your child.  It’s hard for some of us to watch our kids grow up.  We’d like to keep them little and cute and lovable and controllable.  But kids change as they grow, and we need to change with them.  We can’t treat fifteen-year-olds like five-year-olds.  As kids grow up, we need to give them greater freedom and responsibility in making decisions.  You’ll exasperate and embitter your kids if you treat them as who they were instead of as who they are.

Helping Children Flourish

As a parent, use your authority in a way that doesn’t embitter or discourage your kids.  And never lose sight of your goal or of your God. Your calling as a parent is to help each child flourish as a child of God.  The Lord has entrusted you with the care of a precious, immortal soul, a soul that needs to be nurtured with a lot of firmness and a lot of tenderness.  That precious soul has been born sinful, so in order for your child to flourish, you need to say no and apply discipline.  That precious soul has also been born ignorant and weak and insecure.  So for your child to flourish, you need to help overcome the ignorance with sound teaching, the weakness with encouragement, and the insecurity with love.

On your own, however, you don’t have the inner resources to do this, and neither do I.  Of ourselves we don’t have what it takes to make our own soul flourish, let alone make another soul flourish.  That’s why we parents need to draw on God’s resources to keep us going, and that’s why we need to put our children in touch with all God’s resources in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But you can’t give what you haven’t got.  Ephesians 6:4 tells parents to bring children up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  But before we can do that, we ourselves need to be trained and instructed by the Lord.  We need a living faith ourselves before we can share that faith with our children.

Maybe you’ve been careless with your own soul and haven’t paid much attention to Jesus. If so, isn’t it time you changed–if not for your own sake, then at least for the sake of your children?  You wouldn’t be the first person to discover your need for Christ only after the Lord prompted you to ask yourself what would become of your children if you kept living far from God.

You and your kids need to know that there’s a Savior who lived and died and rose again to cover your sins and failures and to give you eternal life.  You and your kids need to know this Jesus for yourselves and put your trust in him.  Then you and your family will be free to flourish in the knowledge that even though you often fall short of what you ought to be, even though you fail each other and God, you can still live by faith in Jesus’ love and forgiveness and acceptance.

What’s more, when you trust in Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit of Christ living and working inside you.  The Bible says “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  Sounds like a pretty good list of qualifications for a parent, doesn’t it?  And it comes from a passage that doesn’t even mention parenting.  However, it’s a simple fact that if you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, a lot of other things, including things related to parenting, will begin to flourish.

When that happens, you can introduce your children to Christ in a way that seems right and natural.  You won’t have to force religion down their throats in a way that exasperates or embitters them.  Instead, Jesus will be such a constant presence in your home, and the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control will be such a natural part of who you are, that your kids can’t help but notice.  And as they accept the Savior they meet in you, they too will begin to flourish with a life that lasts forever.


Father in heaven, you have loved us with an everlasting love, and you also discipline those you love.  Draw us to our Lord Jesus, fill us with your Spirit, and mold us into the people you want us to be.  Then, Lord, help us express your fatherly love, firm and yet gentle, in the way we treat our children.

We pray for the children, Lord, especially those who are mistreated or abused.  Touch them with your kindness and help them get beyond the anger and bitterness and discouragement that poisons their lives.  Move abusive parents to repent and change their ways, and forgive all of us for the ways we have failed you and failed our children.  Work through us and even in spite of us to make our children flourish, through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.