Discipline is Not a Dirty Word: 5 Tot Training Tools

There are some words that make us cringe. “Discipline” is one of them.

When I was in college I worked part time as a tutor. One of my students was a kindergarten boy. I was shocked at certain words that were altogether missing from his vocabulary – words like obey, sin, and discipline. He had never heard them before. He was a bright boy, but he was not raised in a Christian home. The world has no time for such words. Sometimes, unfortunately, neither do Christian parents.  

We associate discipline with anger, pain, and guilt. But the Bible paints a very different picture. We see that the heart of discipline is love. Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one He loves.” Proverbs 13:24 says, “The one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”

Discipline means: Protection (Psalm 23:4). Peace (Heb. 12:11). Wisdom (Proverbs 29:15). Joy (Proverbs 29:17). 

When we strip away the negative connotations we see that discipline is a gift reserved for God’s own precious children. What could be more beautiful than being treated as a child of God? 

We want our kids to know that belonging to us means something special, too. It means protection in the form of boundaries and consequences. 

To withhold discipline is to withhold love. 

But why do our kids need discipline at all? This is where some might want to stop reading. Discipline is fundamentally rooted in how we view our children. We believe our children are born into this world with a deadly problem: sin. Sin comes from within (Matthew 15:19). If you don’t believe in the fundamental wickedness of mankind then the rest of this article is irrelevant. 

But if you do believe it, you have a serious job to do. 

We were on vacation at the coast a few years ago. We sat at a coffee shop perched on a rocky mountainside overlooking the ocean and nervously watched our toddler explore his new surroundings. A family sitting nearby had a little girl a few months older than our son. She flitted around the rocky cliffs and her parents smiled and told us, “She is such a free spirit! We never interfere with her independence.” The people sitting around us smiled. There seemed to be an unspoken respect for these freedom-loving parents.

Until the little girl bolted across the busy street. 

Her parents didn’t even notice she was gone until a customer at the coffee shop looked up and screamed. I’m happy to say she was not injured. Her parents, white with horror, gathered her up and quickly left the shop amid head shakes and disapproving frowns.

An undisciplined child is not a child with more freedom. It is a child in exceedingly more danger – not just physically, but spiritually. 

“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child (Proverbs 22:15).” If that verse doesn’t give you the chills read it again. That’s scary. If you’ve read the book of Proverbs you know that foolishness leads to great harm. Our children are utterly incapable of freeing themselves from their own foolishness. While it is not our job to save our children (only God can do that), God has sovereignly placed us in their lives to help drive the foolishness out. That can only happen with loving discipline. 

So what is discipline? It’s everything you do that lovingly conveys your God-given authority. It might be as simple as a look or a word, but it still sends the message: “Your job is to obey me just as my job is to obey God. It is not an option. It might be difficult, but I am here to help you.”

It’s helpful to look at what discipline is NOT. Discipline is not: 

– A list of creative punishments.
– A response to being inconvenienced. 
– An outlet for frustration.
– “Embarrassment insurance” for when your kids are in front of your friends. 

Ultimately, discipline is not something we do to our kids, but it’s something we do for them. It is a lifestyle. It doesn’t need it’s own category; it’s woven all throughout family life. 

But it doesn’t happen by accident. A friend recently brushed off discipline casually and said, “Of course we will discipline for really bad stuff, but our kids don’t really need it right now.” 

Moms, discipline is not a, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” scenario. If you have kids you’re already at the bridge. You arrived the day they were born. You need a game plan. 

So how do you start? There are five practical ways to implement discipline in the early years. These tips are geared toward little ones, but evaluate whether or not they are enforced with your older kids. It’s never too late to start.

1. No Means No (And Kids Aren’t Allowed to Say It).

My sweet nine-month-old boy is an explorer. Electrical outlets, cell-phones, and various choking hazards draw his attention the most. When he reaches for something dangerous I look him in the eye and say, “No.” If he continues to reach for it he is met with a swift consequence and again the word, “No.” At nine months old he already stops mid-reach when he hears that word. If there were no consequences and no consistent follow-through, “No” would not mean anything. It carries weight. It’s a special word that requires immediate compliance on his part. 

However, it is also a special word that is reserved only for Mommy and Daddy. A child who is allowed to tell his or her parents “no” is running the show. Don’t forget that by not enforcing your authority you are entrusting the physical and spiritual well-being of your precious child to a child. Step in. Your discipline says, “I will not stand by and watch you bring harm to yourself by rejecting my protection and guidance.” 

As your children get older there are other ways they can express their negative feelings to you. Teach them to politely ask for other options. Show them how a respectful tone sounds. When my two-year-old wants to put on his own shoes and screams, “No!” I teach him to say instead, “Can I please do it, Mommy?” Kids need an outlet for communication, but “no” carries authority. It is only for Mommy and Daddy.  

2. Stop Chasing Your Child Around

We were visiting with friends not too long ago and the mother told her two-year-old son, “Come here so I can put your jacket on.” The little boy looked her right in the eye, spun on his heels and ran in the other direction. She proceeded to chase him around the room and tackle him playfully to get him to put his jacket on. Moms, stand your ground. Stay in your seat. Teach your child to come to you. 

Do I always do this? No. Sometimes I am that mom chasing her child with the jacket. It is a work in progress. 

When the kids are toddlers we say, “Come to Mommy,” while leading them by the hand to show them what we mean. Little by little we say it without physically leading them. If they run the other direction they receive a consequence and we start over. I take the child back to the spot they were standing and I go back to my spot. I say, “Let’s try that again. Come to Mommy!” I hold my arms open wide so they know what to do. Usually then they come running into my arms laughing.    

3. Obey the First Time.

Second chances, third chances. Counting up to five, counting down from ten. Bargaining. Bribing. These strategies might appear to be a form of discipline, but they really tell your child you do not mean what you say. Your voice is just another noise. 

Very dangerous.

Your kids need to know that your voice is the most important sound in their world right now. Your voice can make the difference in a life and death situation. Our friend’s three-year-old son climbed a ladder onto their roof. He was rambunctious, but he had been taught to obey his mother’s voice the first time. When she saw him the first thing she said was, “Sit down.” He sat down until she climbed the ladder to rescue him. Can you imagine what would have happened if he had given her a playful grin and run in the opposite direction?

Slow obedience equals no obedience. Obey first, questions later. Say these to your kids until they become family slogans.  

4. Don’t Obey For Your Child. 

This one is so easy to fall into, especially when our kids are little. Our kids don’t do what we say so we work around it. 

I was at a friend’s house recently. When it was time to leave I told my son, “Clean up the crayons, please.” He ignored me and kept coloring. In my distraction and my rush I finally cleaned up all the crayons myself and dragged a wailing child out the door. 

Something went wrong. Sometimes we don’t enforce obedience because it takes too long. In that situation I didn’t have time to discipline, so I shouldn’t have given a direct order. I could have said, “Time to go!” and cleaned up the crayons myself. But once I give an order, I have committed myself to following through with discipline for disobedience. It’s worth being late. It’s worth being embarrassed. 

I’ve been in situations where what I actually wanted my child to do was irrelevant because the moment had passed, but I made him do it anyway. For example, my two-year-old took a toy away from his cousin. I told him to give it back. By the time he toddled over to her she had forgotten about it and was playing with something else. I could see the wheels turning. He really wanted to keep it. But because I told him to give it back, I required him to follow through. It wasn’t about who wanted to the toy. It was about obeying Mommy. 

Right now it’s cleaning up their crayons when you told them to do it. Later it will be paying their speeding tickets and making excuses for them to their high school teachers. 

5. Require a Response. 

“Don’t touch the lamp. Now what did Mommy just say?” Asking for immediate repetition is a great way to confirm that your child is listening. It gives them accountability. They know you know they heard you. 

“Yes, Mom,” is another way to confirm they heard. Don’t let your child ignore you. Don’t let them roll their eyes or stomp off in the other direction. Require eye contact until you are done speaking.  

Requiring a response reminds your child of your different roles. You are the parent, they are the child. It reminds them that you probably won’t forget what you said. You mean business.  

In conclusion, I will never forget what a high school teacher told me when I was teaching third grade: “Discipline your students when they’re young. What’s cute when they’re eight is really ugly when they’re fifteen.” How about your own kids? If you think they’re disobedience is no big deal now, think about what it will cost them when they are young adults. 

Our authority points our kids to God’s authority. One day it will show them that our holy God has holy standards met in Christ on our behalf.

(Looking for a fresh new ladies’ Bible study? The Gospel-Centered Mom is now available on Amazon!)

24 thoughts on “Discipline is Not a Dirty Word: 5 Tot Training Tools

  1. #5 is what I am working on with my almost 5 year old. I have noticed that if I ask her to repeat the command I told her, she doesn't want to – because repeating it means she has to obey it!


  2. Wow, Sarah! This is just right! So well said: “We associate discipline with anger, pain, and guilt. But the Bible paints a very different picture. We see that the heart of discipline is love.” and “An undisciplined child is not a child with more freedom. It is a child in exceedingly more danger – not just physically, but spiritually.” Thank you for writing this much needed article.


  3. Solid! This is solid wisdom, nothing extraordinary, no secret unlocked, but time-tested wisdom which too many have abandoned.
    I am the father of 7 boys (1 set of twins, ages ranging from 4-10), we were especially helped early on from people like Voddie Baucham and Albert Martin (who has a 40 part audio teaching on parenting which was a sunday school series..comprehensive, indeed).
    The hardest part of being diligent in these matters is our own hearts, and I like that you touched on what shouldn't motivate parents. For it would be far too easy to just train our children to put on a good show for others, which will not only lead to them being puffed up with enormous pride, but it won't last (the unbridled character WILL come out).
    What you have said about discipline could be said about a number of things which our culture has rejected as 'bad' and 'unloving', for instance 'rebuke', or bold exclusive stands on Gods truth etc. This is IMPORTANT because we have to make a choice to love our children as God loves us, which means we have to often chose what is NEEDED over what is WANTED. We MUST be convinced that God knows best, that 'pain' doesn't mean 'unloving', and along the way we must plead with our Father to help us be consistent in this matter, FOR HIS GLORY 🙂
    As to forms of discipline…hmmm…well…to the mommas who might be WAAAY too lenient, if you're going to do it, then make it count (OH NO, i could never…), from a few flicks to stinging swats, your child shouldn't be giggling through it or picking his nose until your done, it should be consistent from mommy to daddy. In addition, a rotten attitude, sulking or stomping away means the need for discipline isn't over yet.
    For some children one long match is the PRAISE THE LORD turning point where quite a dramatic turnaround is noticed, while others may have you exhausted for months because they are that stubborn in their outward rebellion (be diligent, it will be worth it, and regardless of the outcome, do it for the glory of God and the good of their soul).

    I would only add that there are a few things that will certainly HINDER your efforts in this.
    Un-confessed, unrepentant hypocrisy in the life of the parent will only lead to a frustrated child who sees their parents call them to submit to God given authority while the parents rebel against God.
    Along with that 'authority' of course comes the need for the parents to not only be of one accord, but that the husband is truly leading his wife and his wife is truly submitting to her husband (in word and deed). Children are MASTERS of 'divide and conquer' if we let them, and if we let them they might get their way but they will be miserable and so will our marriages as we compete for our child's loyalty.
    Being unwilling to confess our anger when we have spoken or acted sinfully towards our child (even in cases where we need to explain that they were wrong, they needed discipline but we didn't do it right and we sinned against God).
    Disciplining WITHOUT love, which will end in us pushing our children away, neglecting to show them affection because we want to really FEEL how disgusted we are with them. THis is not how our Father treats us, we are shown the evil of our sin, we are brought to sorrow and are gladly welcomed in our repentance. SO we too can discipline our children, even in the worst cases while also showing them great affection and expressing our love, without condoning their sin or hinting that we are 'sorry' for applying godly discipline.


  4. Julius, 7 boys!! Wow. Thank you for your comments. You added helpful, practical application. I appreciate your point about watching our own hearts and actions so that we avoid hypocrisy. Hypocrisy can quickly harden hearts against the precious truths we are trying to impart.


  5. Sometimes just being open about my own failures, and being faithful about parenting even in front of others, causes others to ask about my parenting. I try never to give advise unless asked! Thanks for your wonderful blog 🙂


  6. Our little guy is 20 months old and just now really starting to push boundaries. Until now, he's responded well to timeout in his room, but it is no longer having the same effect as he just plays after a few seconds. We had planned to spank, but are almost licensed foster parents and since that's not allowed, we want to be consistent with all our kids and are choosing not to spank. That being said, any specific tips? One example I'm struggling with us that our highchair doesn't have straps. Everyday, every meal, he's standing up. He even looks at me and says sit, knowing that's what I'm going to tell him, and then smiles. He might obey temporarily. If I constantly do timeout for this, i can't actually imagine how anyone 1) gets through a meal, 2) can lovingly discipline more than 1 child.


  7. Hi Ash! What a great question. I put it out there to some godly moms who have biological children as well as foster children. As you can imagine, I got a range of feedback and advice. This is a unique situation that definitely requires prayer for wisdom. At your son's young age, time-outs can be difficult. If you've decided not to spank, you need to find something else that is meaningful to him. You might need to get creative. Anything that makes that lightbulb come on – “Mom means business! I need to obey!” But if you do not yet have your foster kids, it might be a short and effective window of time to still discipline as if you were not going to foster. It could lay some important groundwork for your son that you can build on later with other discipline methods. As his safety is at stake, like you mentioned, consider prioritizing effectiveness with him over consistency with all your future kids. I hope you find something that works for you!


  8. Hi Ash! I used to be a punitive mom and am now a peaceful parent. A lot of times with punitive parenting, parents have to increase the intensity of the punishment for it to be effective, which leads to abuse (85% of abuse cases begin with regular old 'discipline.') We have successfully parented our child through the toddler years with no punishment, and I'm looking forward to parenting the rest of his years with these great techniques. HTH!!

    I'm going to list some websites that have been helpful to us.

    http://www.littleheartsbooks.com/ (this has been my BIGGEST help!)






    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ash, I hope you see this. For some reason I am unable to reply to your comment. The example about the highchair straps….so we know that straps help our child stay in the chair. Babies and toddlers have zero impulse control and need our guidance and ability to create an environment that prevents them from acting on impulses that could be dangerous. Therefore, I'd suggest getting a high chair that has straps that keeps him safe (which honestly, it isn't safe to have a high chair without straps.) By creating a safe environment, you enable him to explore safely, which helps him learn more (b/c punishment shuts down the learning center of the brain.) HTH


  10. Ash, I hope you see this. For some reason I am unable to reply to your comment. The example about the highchair straps….so we know that straps help our child stay in the chair. Babies and toddlers have zero impulse control and need our guidance and ability to create an environment that prevents them from acting on impulses that could be dangerous. Therefore, I'd suggest getting a high chair that has straps that keeps him safe (which honestly, it isn't safe to have a high chair without straps.) By creating a safe environment, you enable him to explore safely, which helps him learn more (b/c punishment shuts down the learning center of the brain.) HTH

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Well…all this about obedience. I get it. I have 8 kids. It's frustrating when we want them to do or be a certain way at a certain moment…but they're sentient beings. “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” A slave has had their wills stripped from them. There is no virtue in being an obedient slave because it is simply an act of survival, focused on the self.

    But when a person enters into a relationship with Christ…He sets them free. And, the virtue in doing the things that are right and good is that are free not to. So when we're instructed, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” were it not for the fact that we CAN “not” love them, it would be no big deal that we do. We're told, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” If we do something that's automatic, trained in us, something we can't help but do, there's no credit to us because anyone, sinners, even dogs can do the same.

    God…does not follow us around and attempt to control our every move, punishing us when we step out of line. And, we are told to, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.”

    If we center our parenting on Christ's example, we don't see Him controlling, punishing, threatening, or isolating (time-out) His children. We see Him stripping off His higher status to get down to our levels, and taking the pain and punishment for our mistakes, sin, self-centered-wills…for us. Jesus came to, “save His people from their sins,” not punish them for them. Not rub our noses in our sins. Not force us to become HIS slave. But He came to set us free…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jesus came to, “save His people from their sins,” not punish them for them. Not rub our noses in our sins. Not force us to become HIS slave. But He came to set us free…Jesus would put straps on a child's hi-chair for their safety…not to control them. Jesus…comes to us…saves us from our sins…and doesn't send us off alone to wallow in them. And, Jesus never inflicts pain on us…sin does. Sin hurts us and He came to take that pain for us…and that's the Good News…the Gospel.

    Sin and satan try to control us…and enslave us…and strip us of our wills and make us into nice obedient thoughtless robots who do what they're told. The Nazis were very obedient to their leader.

    Obedience will lead you to do what you're told…even if it's wrong.
    Morality…will lead you to do what's right even if you're told not to.

    When you're a moral person, motivated by love, you choose to obey that which is Good, even under threat of pain and punishment. A moral person disregards their own comfort for the sake of doing what's right or to avoid pain. When you're an obedient person, you will choose to obey to avoid pain and punishment…even if it means doing what's wrong. An obedient person is focused on their own comfort.

    Plus…we all talk about “training up our children”, right? Which one of us wants to be married to a man who is “obedient”? Like, whose Prince Charming's main quality is “obedience”? And, I can tell ya from experience…a man who was trained as a little boy by the head woman in his home…a home where she challenged his every choice and forced him with pain, punishment, and isolation, to do HER will always…doesn't grow up to be anyone's dream man. A man raised to comply and obey a mom…will be attracted to a bossy woman…who will end up ruling over his home in the future. And, so who are you setting your son to someday be controlled by? And, how will your son ever feel capable to follow his own choices and will to be the “leader of his home” God says he's supposed to be…if you've trained him from day 1 to be compliant?

    The world and the prince and power of the air wants our kids to be obedient.
    The King of the Universe wants moral people who freely choose to love even when it hurts.

    What do you do about the hi-chair? You skip it. You sit him on your lap. Or, you two sit at the coffee table and eat together putting a puzzle together. You work WITH him. You let him learn to make choices. You ask him where he'd like to eat and if he wants to eat at the table with the hi-chair you tell him if he stands up he'll have to get down. You put him on the floor. You tell him the truth (because it sets you free) that you're afraid he'll fall (unless the truth is that you're only worried about being obeyed?). You tell him he needs to be safe because he's your little boy and you love him so much and seeing him stand in the chair scares you…and watch his heart melt and watch him CHOOSE to sit.

    Stop worrying about CONTROLLING kids' every moves! LOVE always wins, remember? Not control. Control = slavery. We all want to escape slavery. We all run to love.


  13. That is a GREAT point! In this article I was specifically talking about the parent-child relationship. In our family we put other adults in a different category, and strangers in yet another category. It's a good conversations with your kids about how to talk to other adults. There are family friends we teach our kids to speak respectfully to, but we tell them not to talk to strangers at all unless we are nearby. As they get older we will talk to them more about responses to other adults.


  14. Hi Sara, I love this article, and have been really interested in figuring out how to discipline my 16 month old son. I noticed in the beginning of your post that you mentioned giving a consequence to your 9 month old son if you told him no, and he continued to reach for the outlet. Would you mind sharing the types of consequences that you have found helpful with very young children? I am trying to figure out what would be best for my son, as I realize that he needs to start being disciplined. Thanks so much, appreciate any suggestions!


  15. Julius, your reply really fed a need in my soul right now. I'm going to copy and paste it somewhere where I can be reminded of it. This article was golden and much needed.


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