Disciplining Teenagers

My earliest discipline attempt as a parent came when my son was about two years old. He was in my lap and we were playing peekaboo. It was a blissful moment until he slapped me extremely hard across my face. I remember the sting brought tears to my eyes and I was stunned. In an instant I had my “serious mommy” face on and I took his offending little hand into my own. I had learned a trick that you can “spank” without hurting, but still make a loud pop noise. So I did just that, while these very words came out of my mouth: “Don’t hit!!”

Congratulations to me. I had just spanked my two year old’s hand while telling him not to hit.

Thus is my capability as the human disciplinarian to three children. I think this parental responsibility is one of the most challenging for a Christian parent. How do we model and execute forgiveness while correcting and punishing our children’s behavior? I listened to a speaker at our church one time tell the story of his inebriated teenaged son who got behind the wheel of his car and totaled it. The speaker immediately bought his son a new car. He believed that this response would imitate the radical grace of our Heavenly Father, not unlike the response of the Prodigal Son’s father. I left that class even more confused about my role as a parent who is also a believer.

In Hebrews 12:5 the author refers to Proverbs 3:11 – 12: My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives. The writer goes on to say, For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (12: 11)

Here is the cornerstone to a God-like discipline for the Christian parent. Our heavenly Father disciplines us because of His love for us. In God’s perfectly manifested love He cannot and does not overlook our sin. In love He corrects us. We are told also that He is slow to anger and quick to forgive. God’s wrath, His reaction to our waywardness, is never capricious or histrionic. It is measured and appropriate. It is the wrath of nothing less than divine love.

God also uses the consequences of our sinful ways to serve as punishment. We are not told in the parable of the Prodigal Son that the father replenished the son’s wasted fortune. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden and forever after work has been hard. In my view, the drunk driving mentioned above should have left the son without a car.

As we seek wisdom and instruction on how to discipline in love, I suggest several things to consider:

Let the punishment fit the child

We punish to correct and to produce that “peaceful fruit of righteousness,” not to scare or shame our teenager (while the consequences of the offense may do just that). Being grounded for a week may serve well our extroverted, popular child, while making little difference to our homebody. If your teenager is truly repentant and aware of her waywardness, that may require a punishment different from the unrepentant one. This is all tricky stuff, which we must do in love. We also have the scriptures as our manual, and prayer as our portal to the Holy Spirit.

Let the punishment fit the “crime”

My blushingly bad moment of spanking a 2-year-old for hitting me did not fit the behavior. The stakes are much higher for parents when punishing/correcting teenagers. Teens are so articulate, so almost-grown people, and they are keen to spot to our hypocrisy when it might be there. To get it right, resist reacting in the moment when you are angry or disappointed. Try discussing the means of punishment with your teenager. The discussion should not be a debate, but it can be a forum. There is no downside, I think, to letting your teenager understand your process of choosing a punishment. We can let them know that we seek to yield the fruit of right- minded correction: a punishment served in love.

Be clear what is being addressed in your punishment

If your teenager lies to you about a bad grade he made on a test, and you later learn about the grade, is his offense telling a lie or doing poorly on a test? It seems to me that those two pieces deserve separate attention. The dishonesty is a matter of the heart, and it is an act of spiritual and moral dis-ease. Doing poorly on a test can be lack of preparation, or it can be an indication that academic intervention is needed. If the bad grade was caused by laziness, the grade itself may be sufficient correction. The focus for the parent then would be on the dishonesty.

Finally, it is important to understand loving punishment as the means to redemption, and that redemption may well take a while to bloom in a human heart. In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, he translates St. Paul’s analysis of his repeated correction of the Corinthians in this way: And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart. 2 Corinthians 7: 11 – 13.

When I submitted the draft of this article to our editor, she noticed that I had entitled it “Discipling Teenagers” when clearly the article was about discipline. We agreed that discipline is one of many functions of leading our children into a life in Christ. Perhaps if we can see the correction of our children as a loving obligation, done to achieve the “peaceful fruit of righteousness,” we can persevere in the discipline process. Even when the fruit is slow to harvest, we will be blessed with a measure of confidence that surely comes from God and keeps us, and our teenager, on His path.



Carolyn Lankford lives in Birmingham, Alabama and has three grown children with her late husband, Frank. Formerly a co-director of Christian Education at the Church of the Advent, Carolyn served as the Advancement Officer at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University before transitioning back to the Advent to work as Interim Director of Women's Ministry from 2021-2022.

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