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3 Dangers of Disciplining Your Child Out of Guilt

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I couldn’t see his son very well.

I was standing just behind, and off to the side of the bleachers, along the third base line.  I could see just enough though, to see his son had tears rolling downs his cheeks. For 11, or 12, he was a very good pitcher – better than most. Unfortunately, this was not his game – and he knew it.

His dad was standing even further away, but I could hear him with perfect clarity. His emotion over his son’s performance was apparent to all who had ears to hear and eyes to see.  Not only did the boy know this was not his game, so did his dad.

Those tears, rolling faster as the inning went on, carried more emotion than I probably realized. He knew he had blown it. It was not the win he was competing for; he was pitching for his father’s approval.

Who hasn’t performed to get approval?

My heart broke for the boy pitching and pouring his heart out that day. Now obviously there is no sin in losing a baseball game. But our kids do fall short in life. They don’t always choose obedience. So how do we respond as parents? What do we communicate to our kids in their sin?

As parents, if we’re not careful, we can teach our children, if even subtly, they are more loved when they are performing well than when they are bad.

I am not suggesting that parents become overly, and unwisely, permissive. I am suggesting we need to be careful of parenting out of guilt, and not, the gospel. Too much of discipline is often built on anger, addressing the behavior (and missing the heart), punishment, or fear. Our children need to rightly understand conviction. Sin is serious and its consequences are real. But parenting by guilt alone can leave a child living under the weight of condemnation.   Why is this so dangerous?

Let me suggest three dangers of disciplining out of guilt:

  1. We teach our kids that performance = acceptance & approval – The good news (gospel) is good because we are saved not by our performance, but the performance of Jesus. In Christ, the Father looks on us with acceptance and approval. We demonstrate the gospel to our children when we reaffirm our love for them, even when they are bad (Romans 5:8). Be careful of only expressing your love for your children when they are performing well.

  1. We teach our kids to hide – This was humanity’s first response to sin (Genesis 3). In some ways, nothing has changed. We need to lovingly teach our children that a failure is not a loss of favor in God’s eyes. In Jesus, God has graciously given us a provision for our sin. The gospel motivates us to hide in Christ, and strive to be holy, for Christ. Our discipline is not Christian if it falls short of the Cross. We must regularly take our children to Jesus so that they see he is not only our provision for sin, he is also our power over sin (Galatians 2:20).

  1. We teach our kids to fake it – Parenting out of the gospel is about looking for progress in our children and not perfection. When perfection is the standard, kids will learn to fake it to get by. It is not the heavy hand, but God’s kind heart that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). His love, and our healthy fear of Him, is the right motivation for obedience. Because of Jesus, we can be honest about our sin and our need for him as our Savior. Be careful of creating a culture of perfection in your home! The gospel makes space for healthy growth – real growth.

While it is tempting to parent out of guilt, it is always better to parent out of the gospel.

Parenting out of the gospel enables us to teach our children that we have our Father’s acceptance and approval – a love that is both safe and secure. So the next time your kids fall short, don’t fail to lovingly discipline them. And whatever you do, don’t fail to teach them – that even in their sin, you love them.

“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love… As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” –Psalm 103:8, 13


Patrick Schwenk

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