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Disciplining children

Attitudes to disciplining children may vary in different cultures

2007 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Photo: Marcus Perkins, Tearfund

From: Family life – Footsteps 72

Helping to build strong and healthy families

Talking to a parent or caregiver about appropriate discipline can be difficult. Attitudes to disciplining children may vary in different cultures, and usually parents are acting out of love and care for the child. However, some forms of discipline may harm a child’s development.

Positive discipline

Discipline is a part of love. Positive boundaries allow children to develop, grow and reach their full potential safely. This provides a firm foundation for the future of the family and community. Children are naturally curious and like to explore. We need to have patience, explain things, answer their questions, and provide them with safe spaces to explore both physically and mentally. We need to make clear what the boundaries are, and the consequences of unacceptable behaviour. When children step outside these boundaries then we need to provide a calm, positive response.

If we just get angry or shout it can discourage children from exploring at all, which will prevent their full development. Removing a privilege (such as a toy or time with friends) from them for a period of time is an effective way to communicate the consequences of inappropriate behaviour. Remember that sometimes a child may be reacting out of fear or grief. They may really need someone to listen to them and provide comfort and reassurance, rather than discipline.

The word discipline is related to the word disciple. We are called to ‘disciple’ our children and show them the way to go so they can grow up to make a positive contribution to the world. Jesus had disciples. How did he teach them? Relationship was key. He spent time with them and displayed positive ways of living. Jesus was their role model. He loved and encouraged his disciples. We need to show love and affection to our children, and to encourage and praise them when they behave well. Jesus was also full of forgiveness. We need to forgive children when they make mistakes and avoid reminding them of their failures. Both mothers and fathers need to play an active and positive role in their child’s upbringing. Discipline should be a part of this loving relationship between parent and child, but not the only part.

Valuing children

In many societies, children are not respected or listened to. The Bible shows that Jesus welcomed children. In Mark 10:14 he says ‘Let the children come to me. Do not hinder them’. Jesus valued children, not simply as extra labourers in the household, or as a form of support to the parents at the end of their life, but as individuals in their own right, with their own value and relationship with God.

Tearfund‘s Child Protection Guidelines state that adults should not hit or smack children. Discipline should be appropriate to the child’s age and understanding, and the level of their misbehaviour. It should not be given in anger. Sometimes parents are reacting to their own fear for the child or anger with themselves for letting the situation occur. We must be careful in our discipline to ensure that we are providing the right role model for the future. Children learn by copying how adults behave. Do we want children to react with violence? Some alternative forms of discipline include:

  • Time out – remove the child from the situation and give them a time for reflection without any distraction. (This also provides space for the parents to calm down if they are angry and to decide on an appropriate response.)
  • Stop the child from seeing friends for a day.
  • Give them an extra chore or job to do that they would not normally perform.
  • Remove any privileges (such as a favourite toy) for a set, agreed period of time.


If discipline is to be effective, it is important that it is consistent, appropriate and that the child understands the reason for it. Always take time to explain clearly to the child:

  • what behaviour was unacceptable
  • why it was unacceptable
  • what level of behaviour is required in the future
  • what the consequences of their actions will be.

Mandy Marshall is a Programme Development Officer for Tearfund and has trained on child protection issues worldwide.

For more information on child protection issues contact Tearfund’s Child Development Advisor, Aneeta Kulasegaran Email: [email protected]

Good discipline

  • Verbally encourage and reward positive behaviour.
  • Model the behaviour you want to see – children learn by imitating what adults do, not just what adults tell them to do.
  • Be clear and consistent – explain what the child has done wrong, the consequences, and the behaviour you want to see in the future.
  • Deal with the situation as soon as possible. The child may have forgotten what they had done if it is left for too long.
  • If you have warned a child of the consequences of inappropriate behaviour, then act – carry out the discipline that you said you would provide. Don’t warn them and then do nothing.
  • Let the response be measured and appropriate for the level required. Do not over-react.
  • Do not use physical violence.
  • Reassure the child that you love them and forgive them. Your discipline is a result of their inappropriate behaviour and does not affect your love for them or their self-worth and value.

Adapted from Celebrating Children, edited by G Miles and J Wright, published by Paternoster Press.

Photo: Marcus Perkins, Tearfund

Photo: Marcus Perkins, Tearfund

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