What the Bible and a Psychology Book Say About Disciplining Children

The Bible doesn't say much about disciplining children, but here's what it says, along with advice from a psychology book.

In the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, the Bible says:

Proverbs chapter 19 (TEV)

18 Discipline your children while they are young enough to learn. If you don't, you are helping them destroy themselves.

Proverbs chapter 29 (TEV)

17 Discipline your children and you can always be proud of them. They will never give you reason to be ashamed.

In a chapter of a book called Psychology for Social Workers and Counsellors, author Carole Sutton writes about ways of disciplining children having tantrums:

Child having a tantrum

She says that when she was working with parents with young children, she was often asked to help with children of about three and four who were having regular tantrums that increased as they found they got their way by having them. Every time they wanted something their parents didn't want to give them, they could make their parents give in by screaming and shouting and throwing themselves on the floor. They would bite children who were playing with toys they wanted, and they'd throw food, plates and cutlery if they didn't fancy the meal put in front of them.

Her job was to help the parents get their children out of the habit of throwing tantrums, and support them in learning new techniques of controlling their behaviour.

She would first simply ask the parents to write notes every day for the next week of how often their child had a tantrum, and where they took place. She would find the parents typically wrote that their children had had seven or eight tantrums a day!

The reason she didn't give them any tips on controlling their children for a week was so she could find out how bad the problem was, and so when the parents began to get the hang of controlling their children's behaviour, they could look back at the notes they'd made and they'd be able to tell how much better they were doing than they had before.

But then she would give them ideas on what to do.

She'd tell them that every time their child had a tantrum, they were to look at them with a fierce expression and say in an angry tone of voice, "No!". She told them that if that didn't stop them, they were to isolate the child by putting them alone in another room or in the hall to finish their tantrum. That way, the behaviour would be penalised instead of rewarded as it had been, so there wouldn't be so much incentive for the child to carry on having tantrums, so they'd stop having them nearly so often.

She also advised them to praise their children a lot when they were playing nicely or eating their food with no fuss, or doing anything else that pleased the parents. That way, they'd be rewarded for good behaviour instead of bad, so the good behaviour would be what they'd want to carry on doing because it felt nice to be rewarded, instead of the bad behaviour.

She says she ended up helping a lot of families like that. Their notes showed that their children soon started having far fewer tantrums than they had before. The number they had went down quite a bit every day.

In the Book of Proverbs, the Bible says:

Proverbs chapter 22 (NLT)

15 A youngster's heart is filled with foolishness, but discipline will drive it away.

In chapter 6 of her book Psychology for Social Workers and Counsellors, Carole Sutton gives more advice.

She says it's important to let the child know their bad behaviour's unacceptable every time they do it, so they get the message. Otherwise, if you give in to them sometimes and refuse to give in at other times, they'll still keep doing it in the hope you'll give in, and they'll think they just need to try harder. So their behaviour might even get worse.

So she says that when people start disciplining their child instead of giving in to them, the child should be watched closely for a few days, whether they're at home or at playgroup and so on, and every time they even look like they're going to do the bad behaviour, such as if they bite other children whose toys they want and they go up to another child and seem to be going to bite them, they should be stopped in their tracks. If they're going to do something harmful such as something that hurts another child like hitting or biting, they can be held back, while the person restraining them says in a very stern voice with an angry expression on their face,

"No! You must not do that. That hurts people."


She says this kind of thing is nowadays taught to student teachers, because a child's behaviour in the classroom often depends on a teacher's reaction. A teacher might believe a certain boy's uncontrollable, when in fact he's been encouraging the boy's behaviour without realising it, fiercely telling him off one minute and then looking amused the next. The boy is encouraged to carry on the bad behaviour, because he knows he'll get the reward of the teacher's amusement sometimes, and also he knows he won't always be told off, so he always thinks that this time, he might get away with it. That's why the message of disapproval has to be sent every single time the child misbehaves. He or she needs to know there's absolutely no chance of them getting their way this time.

In the Book of Proverbs, the Bible says:

Proverbs chapter 13 (TEV)

24 If you don't punish your children, you don't love them. If you do love them, you will correct them.

Here's a little bit more advice from the book Psychology for Social Workers and Counsellors:

The author Carole Sutton says another thing that's important is that any praise for good behaviour or telling off for bad behaviour the child gets should ideally be done as soon as possible after they've done what they deserve praise or telling off for. That way, they'll associate their good behaviour with getting praised so they get nice feelings so they'll want to do more of it, and their bad behaviour with being told off and not being allowed to do it so they don't get any good feelings at the end of that. If you don't tell them off at the time but wait and do it some time when they're not having a tantrum, they'll still think they can get away with tantrums because they got away with the one they had that you didn't tell them off for. And if you praise them for something they did some time after they did it rather than at the time, they'll still be pleased, and might do what you like some more, but since they won't be getting praise consistently at the time, they'll be less motivated to do it than they would if they got praise every time they did something good.

The praise doesn't have to be elaborate or over-the-top. It could just be things like, "Well done; you are a good boy!" "Thank you for doing that." "I am pleased with you", and that kind of thing.


She gives an example of how it'll actually cut down the amount of work you have to do if you tell them off immediately, saying imagine a mother's at the shops with her little girl. The child might start shrieking and yelling as soon as they go past the sweets, because she wants some. If the mother isn't firm, it'll mean that either she gives in straightaway and gets the child some sweets, or she doesn't give in for a long time with the child making more and more fuss till she does. In that case, the child will have learned that the thing to do to get what she wants is to yell and shout louder and louder till she gets it.

On the other hand, if as soon as she starts, the mother says firmly, "No!" and decisively marches straight past the sweets, and does that every time the child yells because she wants something, the child will learn that yelling doesn't achieve anything, so she'll learn there isn't any point in doing it.

In the Book of Proverbs, the Bible says:

Proverbs chapter 29 (TEV)

15 Correction and discipline are good for children. If they have their own way, they will make their mothers ashamed of them.

Proverbs chapter 23 (TEV)

13 Don't hesitate to discipline children. A good spanking won't kill them. 14 As a matter of fact, it may save their lives.

Carole Sutton tells the story of Richard, an aggressive pre-schooler who changed for the better when different techniques of controlling his violence were used:

What the Problem Was


Richard was nearly four years old. Health visitors had expressed concern, because he was becoming a possible danger to his baby brother. He'd always been lively, but since the baby had been born, he was always irritating him and sometimes attacked him. His mother was finding him increasingly difficult to control, and not only her, but playgroup leaders. The boy would bite other children, pull their hair, take their toys from them and hit them. Playgroup leaders were so worried he would hurt other children that they asked his mother not to bring him to the playgroup anymore.

After that, his mother, who'd been having difficulty before, just didn't think she'd be able to cope any more. She'd just about managed when he could be taken off her hands every morning while he was at playgroup. But having to look after him all the time put a serious strain on her. She didn't like him being in the same room as the baby, but if he wasn't, which one should she look after? And whenever would she get any of the housework done?

Carole went to see her to do what she could to help. The first thing to be done was to let the mother unburden herself about her worries. The stress of looking after the boy had been building up, and it was a relief for her to get it out of her system by talking about how she felt and what the problems were to someone she thought would help. She was angry with the boy, frightened by his aggressive behaviour, embarrassed because other mothers wouldn't let him go to their houses to play, and aware of bad attitudes the neighbours had towards the family because of the way he behaved.

Her husband was just as upset as she was, because he'd supported her attempts to control the boy, but things were only getting worse.

They seemed like a perfectly respectable family. Carole questioned them about themselves, but she didn't expect to find anything bad about the family history and didn't find anything. The only big problem was the boy's behaviour.

Carole found it easy to sympathise with the parents. She herself had had the experience of finding it very difficult to look after two little children, the older one resenting it when the younger one was born. Toddlers can get jealous when new babies are born and take up attention they once had. She remembered the relief she herself had felt when her two children had grown old enough to go to playgroup for a few hours every morning.

Of course, letting the mother express her feelings wasn't going to solve the problem in itself. So when she was feeling calmer, they moved on to discussing ways of changing the boy's behaviour. The mother said there were three main things she wanted help with:

  1. At mealtimes, he would throw food, deliberately eat slowly or not eat at all. But if she took his plate away, he would protest loudly and demand it back.
  2. She needed help with his attacks on the baby, where he would sometimes hit or bite the baby, or sometimes take his toys away or pull the covers off him.
  3. He would come downstairs after he'd been put to bed, asking for drinks or complaining that he felt lonely. Sometimes he would get up in the middle of the night as well, and wake his parents up by calling out over and over again.

The mother was naturally most concerned about his attacks on the baby. She was very worried he'd really hurt the baby one day. The next most concerning thing for her was his behaviour at mealtimes, and the third was his coming downstairs after he'd been put to bed. So they decided to tackle the problems in that order.

For the first week though, Carole asked the mother not to do anything different from usual but just to keep notes of how many times he did each behaviour every day. The mother would use three sheets of paper, one for each behaviour.

The parents were disappointed that they weren't being given advice straightaway about how to solve the problem. But Carole explained that if they just kept a record of normal behaviour for the next week, they'd be able to look back on it later and tell they'd made progress. Also it would enable her to prove to her department that she was actually doing a decent job. So the parents were willing to agree to it, especially since they felt calmer after getting their feelings off their chests.

A week later, they'd made the notes, so she started giving them advice on what to do.

What Worked

Carole gave the mother five recommendations to follow:

  1. For the next five days or so, possibly a week or a bit longer, whenever Richard and the baby were together, the mother should be with them whenever possible, to give Richard a warning every single time she saw he was showing signs of intending to harm the baby.
  2. The warning should take the form of a firm and sharp "No!" said in a stern voice, perhaps a bit deeper than normal, with an angry facial expression. Then the mother should lift him bodily away from the baby and try to find something to distract him.
  3. If he carried on pestering the baby and made the baby cry, he was to be put outside the room in another room or in a passageway for five minutes. No one should pay the slightest bit of attention to him during that time. The idea was that it would be something he didn't like and also something that would deprive him of getting attention for his bad behaviour, since extra attention might have been what he was trying to get by it. So if he called out or shouted out insults or anything else, he was to be ignored, not answered. If he damaged anything in the place where he was sent to be alone, he was to be made to stay there longer.

    A small kitchen timer that would ring when the time was up was put where the boy would hear it, so he'd at least have the reassurance of knowing he'd be able to tell when the time was up.

  4. The boy should, however, be given twenty minutes to half an hour of the mother's full attention on his own every day when the baby was asleep. He could be told it was his "special time" that the baby was "too young for". That would make him feel happier and a bit special, so he might not be so jealous of the baby.
  5. Pleased

  6. Whenever Richard did anything at all nice for the baby, such as rocking his pram gently, giving him a toy, bringing his nappy and so on, she should praise him warmly and thank him for helping her look after the baby. She should tell neighbours and relatives about such growing helpfulness when the boy was around to hear, so he could get praise and encouragement to carry on from them as well.

When Carole visited the mother one week later, the mother said Richard's behaviour had changed a lot. She said the first three days had been very difficult, because she'd tried to be with Richard and the baby as much as possible when they were together, and as well as having to use the technique of saying "No!" with an angry voice and facial expression, she'd had to shut him out of the room five times on the first day and four on the second.

The mother said Richard had hated being put outside the living room into the cold passage and prevented from joining the family until the timer went at the end of the five minutes. The first time it happened, he had laughed defiantly and continually turned the lights on and off. But every time after that, he'd cried and begged not to be put outside. But the parents had been advised to put him outside anyway, so they did, and soon, he was upsetting the baby much less. In the two days before Carole's visit, he'd only had to be put outside once.

The parents were astonished by how quickly Richard's behaviour changed. But Carole told them it was usual for that kind of approach to work quickly if bad behaviour was penalised every time it happened, though it often took quite a bit longer for it to start working that well.

The change in the boy's behaviour was kept up.

As well as penalising his bad behaviour, the parents had praised him every time he did something nice for the baby, and had involved his grandparents in praising him as well. They thought Richard was still jealous of the baby, although his mother tried to spare his feelings as much as she could by feeding and caring for the baby's other needs while he wasn't there. But she had managed to involve him in mixing cereal and trying to feed the baby, and had praised him when he had a go, as well as making him feel good by enthusiastically telling him to "Show Nana how helpful he was being". Nana had played her part in the praising scheme warmly, and Richard went from being disapproved of a lot to sometimes even being the centre of attention for helping with the baby.

Couple eating

Since the problem of Richard's aggression towards his baby brother was disappearing, they then turned their attention to dealing with his bad behaviour at mealtimes, when he would demand to be fed even though he could feed himself, ask for special dishes, throw food he didn't want around, and deliberately eat slowly. Mealtimes were always stressful because of his behaviour.

Carole made three recommendations:

  1. If Richard threw food, his plate should be taken away and he should be told, "It looks as if you've had enough". However much he protested, his plate should not be put back. If it was, he'd only learn he could get it back by making a fuss, so he'd have no incentive to stop throwing food.
  2. If Richard refused to feed himself, even though he always fed himself at his grandparents' house where they refused to feed him - after all, he was nearly four, he should be told cheerfully, "Sorry, we're eating our dinner. You can manage." If he refused, then as before, his plate should be taken away and should not be given back.
  3. If Richard ate very, very slowly in a deliberate way, he should be told, "I'll be clearing the plates away when Daddy's finished his dinner. I'll be taking yours too then, so I can serve the pudding." If the boy hadn't finished his dinner by that time, his plate should again be taken away and not be put back.

The boy's mother was willing to try the ideas, but at first she was a bit worried that Richard would become malnourished if she did that, and didn't feel all that confident about being firm and standing her ground. But Carole reassured her that Richard would be allright, and that she would be doing the right thing. So she tried it.

It did put Richard off his bad behaviour. He soon learned he had to eat his meal if he wanted it.

The mother's husband and the boy's grandparents supported her in the new technique. When Carole visited a week later, the mother's notes showed that things had completely changed. The boy was now eating well and regularly, one eye on his mother's hand.

Carole visited the week after that, and the mother's notes showed that Richard had only had to be put outside the door for making the baby cry once at the beginning of the previous week and once at the end, a far cry from the four or five times a day the mother had had to do it when she first started. Carole encouraged the mother to carry on being firm with the boy every time and not to "soften up", since then he'd think he could get away with more.

Mealtimes were going well now, with everybody happy, though Richard had lost his dinner twice. Both parents were much happier with the situation though, so Carole then helped them tackle the problem of Richard's disturbing his parents by coming downstairs or calling out after he'd been put to bed.

By that time the parents were beginning to understand the reasoning behind what they were being asked to do, and they realised where they'd been going wrong, so they could guess where they'd been going wrong when it came to his coming downstairs and calling out in the night. What they'd been doing was accidentally rewarding the bad behaviour by sometimes letting him stay downstairs, though on other evenings they sent him straight back to bed. That meant he thought it was still worth coming downstairs or calling out, because he knew there was a possibility that that night, he'd get the attention he wanted.

Now they realised that what they had to do was to stop sometimes letting him have what he wanted. Every single time from then on, when he came downstairs, they had to say something angry-sounding to him and send him straight back to bed. They were to do the same kind of thing if he called out in the middle of the night. Before, they'd let him climb into their own bed as he'd wanted, but from then on, they were to lead him firmly back to his own bed every time he wanted to join them.


The new techniques very quickly changed Richard's behaviour. When Carole next looked at the mother's notes, they showed he'd only come downstairs for two nights after they started firmly sending him back to bed. His calling out at 2 o'clock in the morning or so lasted only another two nights after that. The parents didn't report any more sleeping problems.

Now the parents understood what worked, they were able to do the same things to stop Richard's other annoying behaviour without help.

When Carole visited them several weeks after that, things were still getting better. Both parents felt as if they "now had a different child". They had discussed with the playgroup leaders the need to be very firm with him when he became aggressive with another child, so they'd changed their behaviour towards him as well, with the result that his aggression had died down. When he hurt another child, they would make him sit on a special chair all on his own for five minutes, and the rule was that no one was to take the slightest bit of notice of him no matter how hard he tried to get their attention. But if he was kind to another child, he was praised enthusiastically in front of others.

The playgroup leaders weren't asking for him to be removed from the playgroup any more.

In the Book of Proverbs, the Bible says:

Proverbs chapter 22 (TEV)

6 Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their life.

In the New Testament, the Bible says:

Colossians chapter 3 (TEV)

20 Children, it is your Christian duty to obey your parents always, for that is what pleases God. 21 Parents, do not irritate your children, or they will become discouraged.

In another chapter of her book, Carole Sutton writes a bit about the treatment of older children.

A punk

She says other kinds of rewards and penalties will have to be used with older children or teenagers than with young children.

She says normally, people will be encouraged to change their behaviour for the better by approval and appreciation. But she says it won't always be the case, since it will depend partly on whether the person receiving the appreciation thinks the one giving it is sincere. But they'll often be grateful for it.

She says often in families, there aren't one or two outstanding problems, but just a whole load of little complaints made by each family member against the other, or against one in particular, who sometimes seems to be a scapegoat, taking the blame for things whether they were their fault or not.

Often there's a teenager who's causing quite a lot of trouble for his parents, who say he's "in with a rough lot", and "a difficult boy". They often say they've "tried everything" to make him behave but nothing's worked.

Carole writes that "everything" often seems to include sterner discipline, keeping the boy in, allowing him no pocket money, and sometimes thrashing. But it almost never includes giving praise or encouragement for things the boy is doing that are pleasing his parents, or when he's clearly trying to please them.

She gives an example of how a family started getting on better with each other when they started complimenting each other more:

She was once asked to visit a family with an eleven-year-old boy called Steve who was deliberately breaking rules, getting involved in petty theft, and generally behaving objectionably at home.

Expressing angry feelings

First, she listened for some time to the parents expressing their anxiety, upset and anger about Steve's behaviour. She was always sympathetic to such families, since they'd often been provoked and let down a lot by their child. So she listened for some time to them telling her about the boy's bad behaviour and showed them she understood how upsetting it was for them. This served the purpose of helping them get their emotion off their chests so they felt calmer when it came to planning ahead and deciding what to do, and also it showed them she would be supportive and was willing to listen and take in what they wanted her to hear.

After they'd finished, she asked them what they liked about their son. This line of conversation ended up helping them become a bit more optimistic that things weren't all bad and might change for the better.

At first, they couldn't think of anything. But gradually, his mother remembered he did occasionally give her a bit of help around the house. Then Carole gently taught the parents to show appreciation whenever the boy did something helpful. One piece of advice she'd found helpful and passed on to them was the idea of making a daily diary of anything the child had done or anything about their attitude that they were able to praise or compliment them on.

She says sometimes, parents would find the idea of giving their child praise and encouragement as a way of altering their behaviour very difficult, sometimes because they were so unused to it because they'd received so little of it in life themselves, and sometimes because it seemed to them like a form of bribery, and they thought on the lines of, "children ought to behave properly anyway". But often, nothing else they'd tried had worked, so in desperation and with Carole's encouragement, they were willing to give it a try. She says they were often surprised by how effective it was.

Steve's parents tried praising him more, and found that every day during the next week, they had something they could write in their praise diary:

Washing up

On the first day his mother thanked him for giving a hand with the washing-up;
On the second day, she told him he looked good in his new shirt;
On the third day, Steve changed a plug, and his father told him he'd made a good job of it;
On the fourth, Steve played in a football match, and his father went to cheer him on;
And on the fifth day, his mother was touched to find a birthday card and a box of chocolates from him when she came downstairs.

When Carole visited a week after her first visit, she could compliment them with real pleasure about the increase in kindness and consideration of each family member towards the other.

Once they were used to showing more kindness towards each other and complimenting each other more and things were going better, (though she asked that the diary writing should still be kept up), it was possible to talk about specific things that were still problems, but in a much more calm and optimistic atmosphere than before.

She says it was essential to support the parents in continuing to give the boy encouragement and show appreciation for the things he was doing that pleased them so he'd know they were grateful and be glad they were, and the good feelings the compliments gave him would make him want to continue doing nice things for them.

She says it's often surprising how much consistent and sincere encouragement can bring about positive change in families and personal relationships.

In the Book of Proverbs, the Bible says:

Proverbs chapter 28 (NLT)

7 Young people who obey the law are wise; those who seek out worthless companions bring shame to their parents.

Proverbs chapter 13 (NLT)

1 A wise child accepts a parent's discipline; a young mocker refuses to listen.

Proverbs Chapter 27 (TEV)

17 People learn from one another, just as iron sharpens iron.

In another chapter of her book, Carole Sutton writes about how children's behaviour is often an imitation of their parents' behaviour, so when parents change theirs, children will copy.

Shouting at someone

She says the saying Do as I say but not as I do is a recognition of the fact that people would often like others to behave better than they themselves behave, and the fact that actually people will often imitate the behaviour of authority figures like youth leaders, parents and teachers. If a mother's untidy, for example, her daughters probably will be as well. If the father smokes and drinks heavily, why shouldn't his sons? Swearing in children is not usually approved of, but not only do parents often swear around their children, but they fail to stop themselves laughing in delight when their toddler starts, so the toddler feels encouraged to swear more. And yet the parents complain that they're doing it.

So she says parents should consider whether their child's behaviour is an imitation of theirs: If the child yells, do other members of the family yell at each other? If they do, is it surprising that the child does? If the child's cheeky to his parents and they think he "brings it home from school", do they tell him that imitating such behaviour isn't acceptable, and constantly behave in a different way themselves? If they behave in a different way, the children may very well come to imitate their own behaviour.

In the Book of Proverbs, the Bible says:

Proverbs chapter 20 (TEV)

7 Children are fortunate if they have a father who is honest and does what is right.

In the New Testament, the Bible says to Christians:

Ephesians chapter 6 (NLT)

1 Children, obey your parents because you belong to the Lord, for this is the right thing to do. 2 "Honor your father and mother." This is the first of the Ten Commandments that ends with a promise. 3 And this is the promise: If you honor your father and mother, "you will live a long life, full of blessing." 4 And now a word to you fathers. Don't make your children angry by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction approved by the Lord.

The main Bible pages on this site:

Bible Bible Part 1: Bible Quotations, The Holy Spirit, People And Their Stories
Bible Part 2: The Lives and Suffering of the Ancient Israelites
Bible Part 3: The Bible, Articles About Alleged Inaccuracies in it, And Stories of People who Became Christians.
Or go directly to the next in the series: Violence, Anger, Jealousy, Arguments, And Living In Peace With Each Other.

The selections of Bible quotations have been put together by Diana Holbourn.

Throughout this series, wherever the initials TEV appear, they stand for Today's English Version (The Good News Bible).

Other initials:

Warning Against Believing Everything you Hear or Read

Don't be afraid to question the truth of what a religious authority figure tells you, or even the Bible or other holy books themselves, or certain people's interpretation of them. Nothing to do with religion or the supernatural is so well established in fact it shouldn't be questioned. To find out why caution is a good idea, visit:

The Beauty of the New Testament's Moral Teaching and Other Important Pages on this Website

Are you up to trying the challenges of the New Testament's moral guidelines, and would you like to know more of what it says about the love of Jesus? Here are some links to Bible quotes about the beautiful ideals the New Testament encourages Christians to try to live up to:

There are a lot of pages on this website with quotations from the Old Testament on them. Many of these are unfortunately rather gruesome, since the main theme of the Old Testament is warnings and stories about how it says societies were punished for mass lawless and hurtful behaviour, even to the extent of having war brought on them by God, that seem to have been designed to scare societies where crime and violence were rampant into behaving more ethically. In case there is any misunderstanding, it should be understood that this website does not endorse war as anything other than a last resort. The position of the website owner can be gleaned from the articles:

Fancy some light relief or laughter therapy? Then go to the first of our jokes pages:

If you have a problem affecting your mental health or well-being, like depression, a difficulty with life-damaging worry, panic attacks, phobias or OCD, marriage problems, an addiction, an eating disorder, recovering from the trauma of sexual abuse or domestic violence, coping with bullies in the workplace, or bullying and teasing at school, trying to lose weight, raising difficult teenagers, caring for someone with a disease like Alzheimer's, wanting to recover from anorexia or self-harm, or grieving for someone you were close to or feeling lonely, and you'd like some ideas on coping or getting past it, visit our Self-help series.

If this is the first page you have visited on this site, this is part of Broadcaster.org.uk, a website about social and psychological issues, what the Bible says about social problems and other topics, and how they affect people's lives today.

Go to the Broadcaster.org.uk home page to find out more.....