Developing Discipline in Kids

Before we can develop discipline in our kids, we must understand the concept of discipline. The word brings to mind such things as spanking, grounding, or shouting orders. The biblical definition of discipline doesn’t mean any of the above; it means “training.” Webster also defines discipline as “training intended to elicit a specific pattern of behavior or character; and behavior that results from such training.” That’s the kind of discipline God talks about in the Bible. He desires us to achieve an excellent lifestyle and character, and He uses discipline to accomplish that for us. God says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Revelation 3:19).

Though closely linked to love, discipline still conjures up negative feelings. The reason is a lack of understanding. I remember my dad bending me over his knee when I was a child. With his belt poised in mid-air and my backside tightened awaiting the sting, he said, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” I confess I didn’t believe him, but the first time I took my little girl into her room to spank her, I found myself saying and meaning those same words.

It’s not fun to discipline our kids. I don’t think it’s fun for God either when He has to discipline us. We discipline our kids because we know it’s best for them, but it’s hard knowing they don’t understand. As a father of three, I’ve come to realize they won’t understand until they have kids of their own. How do we bear disciplining our children in the meantime? We do it God’s way. He loves us enough to correct us even though it hurts because He knows it’s necessary. Our gifts will never be used to the fullest until we learn to correct and improve ourselves. We need to teach our children discipline for the same reason.


If we associate discipline with punishment, imagine how much more our kids do. The very word brings negative connotations. Spanking, grounding, privileges revoked, no Nintendo, whatever punishment we use is what our kids will associate with discipline. They see only the immediate displeasure and not the end result. Here are three ways to help them understand discipline.

Communication is the first step to help them understand the need for discipline. Explain what discipline is and how important it is in our lives. I explained to my five-year-old daughter why she had been spanked. I sat down on the edge of her bed and pulled her onto my lap. “Do you know why Mommy and Daddy have to spank?” I asked. Of course, she said no. So I explained, “We want you to be good. We want people to like you.” Then I asked her to tell me what she had done wrong. That way, the next time she would be able to tell me what she had done and why Mommy and Daddy needed to spank. And, sure enough, when that time came, she answered, “Because of discipline. You want me to learn to be good.” Children of all ages need to understand why they’re disciplined. They need to know that in order to achieve any desired result, they have to have discipline.

Visualizing desired results is another way to help kids understand discipline. We should help them “read the future.” As a youth pastor, I encourage my youth group to look a year down the road. “Project where you want to be,” I tell them. “See what you want the desired result to be, and then work to get there.” We do that as adults. We set two-year goals, five-year goals, and so on. While it’s more difficult to achieve the goals than to set them, we know we must be disciplined to get anywhere. We may not always practice discipline, but we understand the concept. We need to explain this to our children by applying it to their own situations. For example, if a teenager wants to lose weight, it will take discipline. She can’t say, “I want to be thin,” and expect it to happen. Losing weight is difficult; she will have to practice discipline to achieve her goal. The same is true with saving money. A teenager will never be able to save money for a down payment on that first car if he spends every dollar he earns. He must be disciplined enough to do without the new sneakers everyone else is wearing. Or perhaps the goal is to read the entire Bible in a year. As teenagers, my brother and I had that goal. We used study guides designed to help us read through the Bible in a year, but we didn’t follow them faithfully and, consequently, didn’t reach our goal. We need to help our kids visualize future accomplishments so they’ll appreciate the discipline needed to achieve the desired results.


It’s easier to teach our children discipline when we start early in life. Sometimes we don’t realize how important this is. There are some disciplines that will not be understood until our children are in their teens. But often they won’t be developed if we wait too late to start.

Studies show that by the fourth grade, kids are starting to make decisions about how they feel about their parents, how much they’ll listen to what they say, and how much time they want to spend with them. By nature, young children love to be with their parents. But as the teenage years approach, the opposite can occur. It’s important we start early on a trusting, loving relationship if we expect our influence to continue into adolescence. It’s also about the fourth grade that kids begin to ask Jesus into their lives and to really understand what that means. We shouldn’t miss this crucial time to develop spiritual disciplines in them as well.

By the time our kids reach fifteen or sixteen, their attitudes have changed dramatically. Teenagers view their parents as friends more than disciplinarians. If we’ve developed discipline early, it will be easier to cultivate friendship without sacrificing discipline. The sixteen-year-old who wants Mom to be a friend still needs Mom to guide her.

Another way to help kids understand discipline is by being an example, which we’ll address later in this chapter.


Now that we understand discipline and know how to help our kids understand it, we must decide what disciplines we want to develop in them. We must decide what values are important to us, then begin developing them in our children. But there are basic disciplines that every Christian parent should strive to develop in their children. These “nitty-gritty” disciplines fall into two categories: practical and spiritual.

Spiritual Disciplines. Of the many disciplines, we can develop in our children, the following four are very important:

Obedience. The most important discipline we can develop in our children is obedience. If kids don’t learn to obey their parents, how will they learn to obey God as teenagers or adults? I was in Bible college trying to write a message entitled “Rules to Christianity” when I first realized the importance of obedience. As I sat at my desk, tapping my pencil against my head, I thought about prayer, worship, and reading God’s Word. There must be other rules, I thought. Then it hit me. There’s really only one rule, and that’s obedience. People say if you pray, everything will fall into place. But if you obey, then you’ll pray. Obedience covers it all. We need to discipline our children to become obedient to us and to God. We’ll all submit to one authority or another our entire lives. The sooner we understand that, the better.

Devotion. The second spiritual discipline is devotion, which includes three basic elements: prayer, reading God’s Word, and worship. A healthy prayer life is important, and therefore we need to teach our kids how to pray. I’ve had seventeen-year-olds, raised in church, who couldn’t pray with me. They haven’t been taught how. It’s our responsibility as Christian parents to teach them. This includes not just talking to God but listening to Him as well. We need to help our children develop two-way communication with the Lord at an early age. It’s important to know the voice of God. When your child says, “I feel like the Lord spoke to me about . . .” discuss whether or not God would say that. Help them identify God’s voice in a clear way.

In addition to prayer, reading the Bible is an important part of our devotional life. God gave us His Word so we can learn about Him and understand the relationship we have with Him. We should make Bible reading a pleasant family experience, but also encourage our children to read the Bible on their own. We should develop enthusiasm in them for God’s Word by asking what they’ve read and allowing them to share with us.

Worship is another vital ingredient of a healthy devotional life. It’s disappointing to see kids raised in church not participate in worship in our youth services. They often appear stoical, expressing no emotion, not acknowledging God. I can’t understand it until I see some of the parents demonstrating the same lack of devotion. We must teach our children how to worship. We should be broken and humble before the Lord, offering the praise and worship of which He’s worthy. Our children need to see that from an early age; they need to know how important Jesus is in our lives. Then they can understand and practice the discipline of worship themselves.

Commitment. The third discipline is that of commitment. We need to raise a generation that is faithfully committed to God. Paraphrasing Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all the other things we worry about will be added to us.” Committed faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit. Dr. Robert Laurant, in his book, Keeping Your Teen in Touch with God, found that the number one reason teenagers turn away from God and the church after high school is due to a lack of involvement in the church.’ This is the reason given by young adults who no longer attend church. They’re not just talking about a lack of attendance, but a lack of committed involvement. Teens are involved in many activities, but few will have the lasting effect on their adulthood like involvement in church ministry. Committed involvement to the church and the youth group should be a top priority with teens. This discipline should be modeled by committed and involved parents.

Heart and Mind. The fourth discipline we need to develop in our kids is discipline of the heart and mind. The heart and mind are very closely related in the Bible. When we ask God into our heart, He doesn’t inhabit the organ that pumps blood, but rather our mind, personality, and spirit. In Philippians 4:8, the apostle Paul gave a list of things on which we need to focus our minds, then said, “think about such things.” In Matthew 12:34 Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (NKJV). Knowing that will give us insight into what our kids are thinking about, what they’re watching and listening to, and who they’re hanging around with. Our minds are like a computer: what goes in, comes out. Because of this, we need to develop in our kids the discipline of guarding their hearts and minds. In other words, they must guard what goes in and balance it with the things of God.

Practical Disciplines. Practical disciplines are spiritual disciplines on a practical level. Again, there are hundreds of disciplines we could choose to develop. The following four are among the most important:

Time Management. The discipline of time goes back to involvement and commitment. Kids have a lot of competing demands between homework, television, church involvement, social activities, and sports events. Time management is essential. We can teach them to organize their time by making and prioritizing lists. I learned to discipline my time the hard way. At age fourteen, it was my job to mow the church lawn. Invariably, I put it off until Saturday. One Saturday, as I was leaving for my job, a group of kids from the youth group called to invite me to go swimming. I couldn’t because I had to get my work done. While my friends were swimming, I was mowing. My mother said, “Today you’ve learned a valuable lesson: business comes before pleasure.” That’s a lesson all kids need to learn. If they learn to discipline their time, they’ll have time for all the important things of life.

Money Management. Another important discipline is money management. Very few adults in our churches tithe. But tithing is an important part of worship, a discipline set forth by God that should be developed in our children. We need to teach them to be good stewards by giving back to God one-tenth of what He’s given them and by budgeting | their money wisely. To do that, they need to understand the concept of money.

A man once asked, “God, how long is a million years to You?”
“One minute,” He replied.
“How much is a million dollars to You?”
“One penny.”
“Well, God, may I have a penny?”
“Sure,” God replied, “. . . in a minute.”

That’s often a teenager’s perspective of money. They think ten dollars goes a long way when it belongs to their parents, but once it’s in their hands, they find it really only buys a couple of burgers at McDonald’s. Whenever I take my youth group to the Six Flags amusement park, they spend most of their money on trivial things. Then, invariably, when we stop to eat on the way home, half the kids don’t have any money left. They haven’t learned the discipline of money management. They haven’t learned how to budget. We need to train our kids to be good stewards of their money.

Interpersonal Relationships. The third practical discipline concerns relationships. I meet many teenagers who aren’t disciplined in their dating relationships. They don’t know how to deal with affection, and that can lead to undisciplined behavior. It’s important we teach them how to show affection without compromising God’s standards. Discuss godly ways in which affection can be displayed that don’t include physical actions.

We need to teach our children respect for others, something many adults also need to learn. If we can teach the value of living by the Golden Rule, which is to “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12), our children will have no problem in this area of their lives.

We also need to teach the value of choosing good friends. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Our kids need to have the right kind of friends if they’re to have a positive edge.

Learning. The discipline of learning is equally important. I have a sign in my office that reads, “Why didn’t life’s problems hit me when I was a teenager and still knew everything?” Teenagers may think they know it all, but we know better. They’ll discover, as we did, that learning is a lifelong process. For this reason, we need to develop in our kids the value of learning. Learning skills are not always reflected in a child’s school grades. For example, a child may earn high grades because of an ability to memorize, without actually learning what was taught. Conversely, a child who doesn’t perform well on tests may learn more than grades reflect. If our kids clearly understand the importance of learning, as opposed to just getting by, and that learning continues throughout life, they’ll be better equipped to face the challenges that lie ahead.


Teaching these disciplines to our kids is accomplished, in part, through example, instruction, correction, experience, and accountability.

Example. We instill discipline in our kids by example. This method can be the most difficult and the most influential. We’ve all heard it said, “I can’t hear what you say; your actions speak too loudly.” It’s true, actions speak louder than words. Our walk has to match our talk, especially regarding our Christianity. If we say we’re a Christian, we need to act like one. The same applies in modeling discipline. If we say prayer is important, we need to pray. If we say holy living is important, we need to live holy lives. We must set the example if we expect our kids to embrace the values we wish to instill.

I’ve seen a commercial where a father and son are out for the day. The young boy does everything his father does. When they sit down under a tree the boy crosses his legs just like his dad. Then the dad lights a cigarette and tosses the package down. The boy picks it up, looks at it, and the commercial ends. It’s a great message that tells us our kids are watching us. In effect, our actions say, “This is how I want you to live.” Kids, and especially teenagers, don’t buy the old
saying, “Do as I say, not as l do.” Many teens are turned off to church and ultimately God because their parents don’t act the same at home as they do at church. We must be consistent in the examples we set. The apostle Paul instructed the Corinthians to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). We should be able to say those same words to our kids.

Instruction. We also instill discipline by instruction. It’s not always enough to model certain behavior; it needs to be explained as well. Jesus modeled prayer before His disciples daily, and yet they asked Him to teach them how to pray. (See Luke 11:1.) He instructed them through what we call the Lord’s Prayer, which was really just an outline He used to explain how they should pray. From it, they acquired principles that helped them develop their own prayer lives.

Regarding God’s laws, Deuteronomy 6:7 says, “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” In other words, take every opportunity to instruct them in the ways of God. Explain the whys, the hows, and the rewards. But remember, we must continue to learn ourselves if our instruction is to have lasting value.

Experience is another method by which we instill discipline. It is sometimes difficult to convince our children that something is a mistake when they can’t see ahead. We’ve gained our knowledge through experience, but they haven’t had the benefit of it yet. When example and instruction fail to get the message across, we have to let them learn by allowing them to make mistakes. Sometimes the lessons can be harsh. A good illustration of this is found in 1 Samuel 15:1-26. Samuel had come to train Saul to be Israel’s first king. He gave Saul a word from God telling him to go and completely destroy the Amalekites. He was very precise in saying that Saul was to destroy everything. After the battle, God told Samuel that Saul had not done what he was instructed:

When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.”

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”

“Stop!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”

“Tell me,” Saul replied.

Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”

“But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

But Samuel replied: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams”– I
Samuel 15:13-22.

God took the kingdom away from Saul because of his disobedience. It wasn’t enough that he had been instructed in what God wanted him to do. He learned through experience that obedience was better than sacrifice. But it was too late: he didn’t get a second chance. Children who shun example and instruction as a means of developing discipline should be warned that experience is a much harsher teacher.

Correction. Correction is also necessary for discipline to be developed. But correcting is not condemning. It means “to set right, to remedy or to counteract.” When our kids make mistakes we need to show them a better way without humiliating them. When our children learn to walk in the physical sense, we don’t badger them for tripping over something on the floor. We set them back on their feet, remove the obstacle if we can, and show them how to walk around it if we can’t. The same is true in the spiritual sense. As they learn to walk through life we need to correct them, in love, when they trip and fall.

When correction is properly administered, it restores rather than alienates. A child who receives loving correction from a loving parent will not become bitter, and he will not reject the discipline the parent wishes to teach.

Accountability. Finally, accountability helps develop discipline in our children’s lives. They must understand that, as children, they’re accountable to us. When we give them responsibilities we must hold them accountable to perform their duties. But we must make sure they know what we expect of them. A list of chores is helpful and helps them measure their accomplishments. In training them to be accountable in this area of their lives, we’re helping them to become responsible adults.

But accountability doesn’t end when they reach adulthood. They will always be accountable to leadership, to authority, and to God, so disciplining them through accountability now is essential. To ensure our children are accountable for their actions, we need to be aware of their actions. We have to take an active interest in who they spend time with, what their activities are, and areas in which they experience difficulty. As cited in the account of 1 Samuel 15:1-26, Samuel held Saul accountable for his actions. He made him acknowledge that he had not obeyed God’s explicit instructions. When our children, regardless of age, violate the laws we’ve set for them, we must hold them accountable. It doesn’t help them if we overlook their violations or make excuses for them. It only prolongs the lessons they need to learn to live a life that is wholly pleasing to God.

Accountability is two-sided, bringing reward and punishment. As parents, we need to diligently reward the positive and punish the negative. If we allow one or the other to get out of balance, we defeat what we wish to establish.


Nothing is more frustrating than trying to do a job without the proper tools. If we’re to succeed in teaching disciplines to our children, we need to make sure they’re well-equipped. If we want our children to enjoy reading the Bible, we should get them a version they can understand. Several student Bibles on the market today are excellent tools for teens. If we want to teach our children the discipline of worship, we should get worship tapes they’ll enjoy and practice worship in their presence, either through family devotions or in church. If our children need to learn time management, we should require them to begin tasks on time; give them a time frame for completing tasks; and reward them when they achieve specific goals. If they need to learn to budget money, we should set up a budget for them to follow, using their allowance or money earned through a part-time job. We should go over the budget each payday and make them stay within it. If we want to teach them the discipline of order or organization, we could help them neatly organize their room, then require them to keep it up daily or weekly. We have boxes for our five-year-old daughter’s toys and have taught her to put big toys in one box and little toys in another. I’ve supplied her with shelves for stuffed animals and books. In short, I’ve equipped her with the tools she needs to keep her room organized.

We also equip our children by giving them responsibility. A good method is the five-step approach:

1. do it.

2. do it, you watch.

3. do it, you do it. while you do it.

5. You do it.

We need to take our children through the whole process with each responsibility we give them. They’ll catch on to some more quickly than others, but by completing the process for every situation we ensure they’ll be well equipped to be responsible adults.


In Romans 12:1, the apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God . . .” It requires discipline to accomplish this. Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). This also requires discipline. Any command of God takes discipline. Yet discipline, when developed, brings reward. Discipline is the pathway to achievement. It’s the “no pain, no gain” philosophy.

Disciplining our children can be agonizing and exhausting. Hebrews 12:6 says, “. . . the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” If we truly love our children we must do the same. Disciple is the root word of discipline. When Jesus invited someone to be His disciple, He was actually saying, “Come and be My disciplined follower.” The most important responsibility we’ll ever have as parents is to help our children become disciplined followers of Jesus Christ. The rewards of such discipline are eternal.

The Reverend Steve Thomas is a youth pastor at Canyon Hills Assembly in Bakersfield, California. His youth group has grown from thirty to more than two hundred during his tenure Steve is a conference speaker and has written a leadership training manual entitled Explosive Youth Strategies.

He and his wife Debbie have three children: Tristen, Blake, and Jordan.