John Wilmot (1647–1680) was the 2nd Earl of Rochester, a poet, and a friend of King Charles II. He once opined, ‘Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories’. Not a few of us parents know how he feels, and that not least when it comes to the vexed question of discipline. When I only had a dog, I was an ‘expert’ on parenting, and made sure as many parents as I knew understood what a great resource they had in me. But now I’m a dad of an actual person a person (like me) with a will of their own; and I’ve now lost count of how many times I’ve said to my 18-month-old daughter, ‘That’s not your draw … you know that’s not your draw’, or ‘No, BooBoo (my affectionate name for her), I asked you not to touch that’.

In a post (or even an entire monograph) one cannot say everything that could – or perhaps even should – be said about discipline, though one must say something, while being encouraged that the conversation that we enter on this issue goes back a long way (and may it continue). Tell me that Cain and Abel’s folks didn’t have a few chats about it! That said, with so many opinions, agendas, fears and practices that abound, one does embark on any public discussion of parental discipline with a certain amount of trepidation. Suffice it to say that despite the passion that erupts in some parents on this issue, and despite the reality that there may indeed be some models that are better for some kids (and parents/carers) than others no one model is best in every situation. We not only all cook lasagne differently, we all parent, and discipline, differently. This is not to suggest, however, that all lasagne recipes are equally good.

In his delightful book A Little Child Shall Lead Them: Hopeful Parenting in a Confused World, Johann Christoph Arnold, reminds us that in an age when discipline of any kind is regarded by many as physical abuse, it is tempting to dismiss wholesale the Old Testament proverb about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. (Indeed, one of the most helpful books that I have ever read on parenting – though it is not directly about parenting – is Join Up in which Monty Roberts suggests that the rod in question here is that of the fishing kind). Arnold suggests that even if we reject physical punishment (which, incidently, he does not), we can find sound wisdom in other proverbs, and he cites 19:19: ‘Reprove your child, for in this there is hope’. The reason: Whenever children are conscious of having done something wrong and there are no consequences, they learn that they can get away with it. ‘It is a terrible thing’, he writes, ‘for a child to get that message. With younger ones, the issue might seem unimportant; their misdeed may actually be small, but the lessons they learn will have repercussions far into the future’. Discipline so conceived is essentially a positive thing. Moreover, it has goal; namely, to nurture a child’s will for the good.

With our 18-month-old, after it is established that she really is being naughty (and there is not some other reason for her behaviour) the good old ‘time out’ (or threat of) seems to do the trick most of the time. Hopefully it will for many years yet. It enables us to be assertive, and to clearly follow through when a threat has been made, and ignored. That said, parenting (like good lasagna making) requires creativity too, and that no less in matters of discipline. In his sapient book, The Secret of Happy Children, family therapist and parenting author Steve Biddulph devotes a chapter to the issue of being assertive (as opposed to aggressive) parents. Assertive parents, he contends, are ‘those who are clear, firm, determined and, on the inside, confident and relaxed. Their children learn that what Mum and Dad says goes but, at the same time, that they will not be treated with put-downs or humiliation’. He also suggests that it is not a skill we are born with so much as one we can take time (if we will) to learn. He summarises:

· Be clear in your own mind. It’s not a request; it’s not open to debate: it’s a demand which you have a right to make, and the child will benefit from learning to carry it out.

· Make good contact. Stop what you are doing, go up close to the child and get her/him to look at you. Don’t give the instruction until s/he looks at you.

· Be clear. Say, ‘I want you to … now. Do you understand?’ Make sure you get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

· If they do not obey, repeat the command. Do not discuss, reason, get angry or scared. Breathe slowly and deeply so that you become calmer. What you are signalling to the child is that you are willing to persist on this one and not even get upset about it. This is the key step, and what matters most is what you don’t do. You don’t enter into debate or argument, you don’t get heated, you simply repeat the demand to the child.

· Stay close if there is any chance that the child will not carry out the task fully. When the task is completed (say, putting away toys), then don’t make much of this either. Simply say, ‘Good,’ and smile briefly!

It seems to me that one of the most important things to remember with whatever form of discipline is employed is that one be not only persistent but also consistent (and this extends to backing up your partner; if you disagree with their call, talk about it later, in private). Again, Arnold: ‘Aside from creating confusion in a child’s mind, inconsistency also prevents the formation of the boundaries that every young child needs. Even though he may resist at the beginning, he will thrive on routines once they are established’.

It also seems to me that one’s disciplining will only ever be productive if our kids feel our love as strongly as they feel our desire to correct them. Isn’t this precisely the way it is with God whose discipline of his people always occurs within the context of his covenant love for them, a covenant that is unilateral and so not ultimately threatened by our rebellion. In other words, discipline is effective when it takes place in the context of a pre-existing relationship of love and trust. Which is why it’s basically futile for absent parents to try and discipline. And which is why at the heart of any discussion of discipline must be the reality of forgiveness. Forgiveness for our children … and for their parents. True discipline is never an end in itself. It never shames, but always liberates. Its goal is always redemptive, always reconciliatory, always freeing, always hopeful, always manifesting the triumph of grace. Only in the context of grace are we set free to love our kids enough to discipline them for their good, and are they set free to be the people they were created to be.

Image: Rembrandt, ‘Reconciliation Between David and Absalom’, 1642. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.