I’m Afraid Their ‘Discipline’ Is Harming The Children


Q. I am grieved by the way my brother and his wife discipline their children. They slap them at the slightest provocation, hitting them until they cry, no matter how long it takes. They also insist that the children (one under a year old) respond instantly and pleasantly to any adult’s request, no matter how unfair. When I express my concern and try to reason with them, they tell me I’ve been reading too many psychology books. They “justify” their methods of discipline with a vast storehouse of memorized Scripture. Is there any way I can help my niece and nephew before it’s too late?

A. Your question reflects a valid concern. Not only should you be asking the question, “Is there any way I can help my niece and nephew?” you should also be asking, “Is there any way I can help my brother and sister-in-law?” Scripture warns us about the consequences of treating children in the manner you describe: “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. So watch yourselves” (Lk. 17:2). “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (Col. 3:21).

It’s usually safe to assume two things when you observe parents mistreating their children:

1. If slapping is done in public, then more extreme forms of abuse are most likely happening in private.

2. Such parents are troubled by serious personal problems; loving intervention in an abusive home is as merciful for the parents as it is for the kids.

It’s not surprising that your brother and his wife try to discredit you or justify themselves. It’s impossible for someone to treat children abusively without developing a coping mechanism to excuse the pain he or she is causing. Even though such callousness makes your private attempts to intervene difficult and prone to failure, it’s the best place to begin, unless the behavior is immediately life-threatening or sexually abusive to the children involved. If this is the case, the first step is to contact the nearest police department.

For most of us, advice from our siblings or parents is the hardest advice to receive. And yet it is these other adults within our own families who most often observe how we treat our children. Without them holding us accountable for the kind of parents we are, it’s possible to drift into abusive or neglectful patterns without even realizing it. Your brother and sister-in-law need you to speak the truth to them about this matter lovingly. Here’s a few suggestions for minimizing the conflict and dealing with their resistance.

1. Start by “planting seeds” and giving them time to sprout. On the surface it seems as if your brother and sister-in-law are disregarding your objections. But it’s highly possible that what you say will bear fruit later. Give God time to use your words to bring conviction to their hearts.

Plant these “seeds” in the spirit of 2 Tim. 2:24-26. Your part is to “gently instruct” without becoming quarrelsome. God’s part is to change their hearts. If you try to do God’s work it will only produce unnecessary resentment and hostility. For now, stick to privately calling attention to their behavior and gently requesting a change.

2. Repeat your concerns whenever you observe the troubling behavior. Even though it may hurt your friendship with them, don’t be afraid to mention your concerns more than once. Always do it in a friendly manner that communicates a commitment to them in spite of your disagreement over this issue. In a non-emotional way, state what you see going on and then drop the topic if they don’t agree with you. Again, give time for your seed-words to sprout.

3. Decide if the behavior warrants a group intervention. If, after giving your brother and sister-in-law several weeks to respond to the seeds you’ve “planted,” you still see no change in their treatment of the children, you are faced with a serious decision. Does their behavior warrant a group intervention? This is a judgment call only a loving and mature mind can make. Seek godly, professional counsel as you consider this question. If you determine the answer is yes, set up a group meeting with pastoral or professional supervision. Invite other members of your family–or close friends–who have observed your brother and sister-in-law’s behavior. Confront the offending parents in a gentle and loving manner.

4. Be prepared to go to a higher authority. If your private and group appeals go unheeded, and you have concluded that your nephew and niece are seriously threatened, you may have to go to a higher authority. Every state has government agencies that investigate the neglect or abuse of children. Most of these agencies are slow to take children from a home and they do everything they can to correct the problem without removing the children. Even though reporting your brother and sister-in-law to an agency may seriously damage your relationship with them, it may be the necessary price to pay to get them the help they need.

5. Pool family resources to provide whatever help these parents need to change their behavior. Often, parents who abuse their children are under great stress. They may need your help to pay for child care, medical treatment, counseling, or a better living situation. Your commitment must not be just to point out the problem but to help them find a solution.

KEVIN HUGGINS is the founder and director of a training program for parents of adolescents at The Chapel in Akron, Ohio. He also directs a church-based center for adolescent counseling and supervises the Chapel’s ministries to more than 500 junior high, high school, and college students. He is the author of Parenting Adolescents (NavPress, 1989). He and his wife, Tina, have three daughters. He holds M.Div. and M.A. degrees from Grace Theological Seminary.