Put the Disciple into Discipline

Parenting with Love and Limits


By Erin MacPherson

By Ellen Schuknecht

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PUT THE DISCIPLE INTO DISCIPLINE gives parents the tools they need to truly disciple their kids through their most trying discipline situations.

What do you say when your kid has really messed up?

How do you respond when your three-year-old is throwing pennies at other carts as you walk through the aisles at Target? Or when your eight-year-old daughter rolls her eyes in a dramatic fit of preteen angst? Or when your sixteen-year-old son is lying as he attempts to go somewhere that he never should be?

These are the tough moments in parenting.

But they are also the moments that will define your kids.

We want to give parents the tools they need to truly disciple their kids through their most trying discipline situations. With these tools, parents can guide their kids’ hearts towards the God who loves them deeply, and survive those pull-out-your-hair parenting moments. We pray thatPUT THE DISCIPLE INTO DISCIPLINEwill help parents to connect with their kids in a heartfelt way so that their kids, in turn, can connect with the God who created them to be truly and imperfectly His.



Discipline That Disciples


I HAVE ELEVEN GRANDCHILDREN, all under the age of ten.

Joey, the oldest, is passionate and curious. Kate is kind and generous. Jude is analytical and pensive. Haddie is outgoing and creative. Greta is witty and engaging. Will is exuberant and courageous. Isaac is brave and hilarious. Asa is compassionate and assertive. Elsie is meticulous and loving. Alma is determined and friendly. And Beth Ellen is joyful and tender.

I could go on and on about each of them for pages… but it's clear in just one paragraph: Each of my grandkids was given a unique, God-given personality. Each of them has incredible strengths—character traits that I pray God will use to truly impact his kingdom. And each of them has some weaknesses—attributes that they must learn to control and overcome if they want to grow into healthy, productive adults.

Yes, each one is different, from the top of their red-or brown-or blond-haired heads to the tips of their sparkle-boot-or soccer-shoe-clad toes. And I know that God created your kids uniquely wonderful, too, each with a special purpose, special plan, and special gifts to boot. Yet, while I think every one of us recognizes these innate differences in our kids, when it comes to discipline, so many of us try to fit our kids into a prescribed plan.

I'll just come out and say it: That doesn't make sense.

I've come to believe that many of the parenting experts got it wrong. I'm not saying that their ideas and tools are wrong—I often refer to my tall stack of parenting books when it comes to discipline—but so many of the common parenting books and touted parenting methods lack one thing: They forget about discipleship. They tell you how to demand obedience and honesty and good behavior but don't cover how to teach our kids to truly desire right and how to show them the love that God so readily (and mercifully) pours out on us.

Erin and I want to change that.

We're not telling you to throw out all of your discipline books. We're asking you to consider the idea that maybe discipline is a bit bigger than what you've thought it was. While it may take a bit more work, by focusing on discipleship and heart connection, you can create a lasting bond with your kids that runs deep—and helps your kids to truly see Jesus's love in a tangible way. Maybe when your kids mess up, it is a chance for their hearts to be refined by God and moved toward Him.

Before we get to the good stuff—we're going to take you through several real discipline scenarios from real parents—I thought it would be a good idea to lay a foundation for this type of discipline. If I'm being honest, this type of discipline (or shall I say nondiscipline) is much harder than any discipline you have ever tried before. Why? Because it requires you to carefully consider a variety of factors and pillars instead of simply following a simple 1-2-3 process or doling out a specific punishment to fit the crime. It's hard, yes, but it will also pay big dividends as your child grows. A little hard work now for huge rewards later seems worth it, right?

Therefore, I want to spend a bit of time talking about what I consider to be the four pillars to this book: discipleship, not discipline; desire, not obedience; connection, not control; and growth, not assistance.


Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another, and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.


I had just done the unthinkable: I told a woman to stop disciplining her son.

I was speaking at a Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) group and a young mom—we'll call her Susanna—raised her hand and told the story of her four-year-old son, James. James was really pushing his limits. He was running through her house, throwing balls at windows, smashing Lego towers built by his older brother, and then screaming when anyone told him to stop.

She told me she was at a loss.

That the time-outs and spankings and lectures she'd tried—tricks people had told her were sure to work—weren't working with her wild, strong-willed son.

That she didn't know where to turn.

That she was worried there was something wrong with her parenting and, worse, that there was something wrong with her son.

My heart broke for Susanna—and for the hundreds of other moms who have sat in my office with similar stories—but I also felt a glimmer of happiness as I heard her question. Because I know there is hope for kids like James.

And it starts when their parents stop disciplining them.

It's shocking, I know, but let me explain.

I am fully aware that if Susanna just stopped disciplining James, their entire household would crumble into a big, sticky, Lego-strewn mess. But I also know that the typical discipline strategies that all parents talk about just don't work for kids like James. Kids who know what they want and know how to get it. Kids who need Jesus, not a bunch of rules and boundaries.

Which is why our mind-set when it comes to discipline needs to change: Instead of disciplining them to behave, we have to disciple our kids' hearts to want to behave! Our kids don't need us to control them, to break their will, to punish crimes, or to teach them to obey. They need us to show their hearts what it means to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

And that comes from adding a whole lot of discipleship into our discipline.

The truth is that our kids don't need to be fixed—which is what discipline often feels like. Instead, they need to be understood and to be valued in the process of correction—which is what discipleship is all about.

It means letting the Bible, rather than a surefire discipline method, guide our conversations with our kids. It means being nimble enough to give our kids justice, mercy, and grace when they need it. And it means stopping to consider our kids' hearts at every turn before jumping in and inflicting another consequence.

Discipleship is the key to our kids' hearts.

And it's the key to stopping misbehavior as well.


Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

PSALM 37:4 (ESV)

The most—let's call them passionate—reactions that I've gotten to our book Free to Parent have been around the concept of replacing obedience with desire. And I get it. Parents have been conditioned for years to look at obedience as the ultimate sign that our kids are being raised right. Don't get me wrong, obedience is important. In the Bible, God calls each of us to obey his commandments in multiple verses (e.g., Romans 1:5 and Hebrews 13:17), and in Ephesians 6 children are instructed very clearly to obey their parents. Plus, practically speaking, how are our kids going to learn to obey teachers and bosses and even (gulp!) the law if they don't learn to obey their parents first?

I hear you, just as I've heard all of the other parents who have brought this same argument to me. But I stand by my original assertion: Obedience isn't the answer to this problem. Instead, the solution is to teach our kids to desire what's right.

My husband has a ninety-pound Labradoodle named Rufus. Please notice that I said my husband has a dog named Rufus. Rufus is not mine and has never been mine, and in fact, if it were up to me, Rufus would go live on a nice farm somewhere in Nova Scotia where he could chase little Canadian prairie dogs to his heart's content and stop squirming his way under my table to nip at my fingers while I eat. Suffice it to say, Rufus and I have a tempestuous relationship. Partly because he's big and drooly and can't keep his paws off my furniture, but mostly because he has an obedience issue: He has absolutely no desire to follow our house rules unless it results in a Milk-Bone.

Rufus has an excuse for this type of behavior: He is a dog.

You laugh, but in all honesty, I sometimes wonder if we are raising our kids as if they were Labradoodles. "Come here, kid! I'll give you a cookie if you obey me the first time!" While this sort of stick-and-carrot discipline can result in obedience—kids will do a lot to avoid punishment or gain a reward—I believe it does little to teach our kids to truly obey God in their hearts.

I think we need to rethink our definition of obedience. If our kids only obey us in order to avoid a consequence or to gain a reward, then are they really obeying? I don't think so. Instead, our goal as parents has to be to teach our kids to genuinely desire what is good, true, and beautiful; what is right, honest, and virtuous; what is godly and kind.

The truth is, obedience is simply not enough. When our end goal is to help our kids truly desire God, concepts like "first-time obedience" and even "consistent consequences" start to fall flat. These concepts—while useful as parenting tools—can teach our kids to have head knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. But going far beyond that, our kids need to learn how to direct the desires of their heart on a foundation of connected faith so they will understand how to truly desire what is good and right and beautiful and then reject what is evil.

There is a catch: Desire is much, much harder to teach our kids than simple obedience. Even Rufus can learn to obey—when he wants a treat. But teaching our kids to desire what is right is a lifelong process, one that will certainly be fraught with ups and downs, with failures and victories. But it is worth it: Because instead of teaching your kids to follow rules, you'll be giving them a glimpse into what it means to seek God with their entire hearts.


But I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.

PSALM 32: 8–9 (ESV)

It's so easy to try to control our kids.

Notice I didn't say it's so easy to control our kids—that's downright impossible—but it's really easy to fall into the trap of trying to control our kids' thoughts, emotions, and behaviors so they can turn out exactly how we want them to turn out.

I know I did that with my oldest daughter.

I grew up in a very difficult family—a place where control and fear seemed to rule us and where a heart connection was hard to be found. I remember when I won a spot at the district track meet in the ninth grade. I desperately wanted my dad—who had never attended a single one of my school events—to come see me run. I brought home the flyer for the district meet and presented it to him one night at dinner.

"Dad, would you like to come to my district track meet?" I held up the flyer, staring at my dad's eyes, hoping he would see my desperation, my heart. "I'll be running the 880."

"Ellen." His voice was gruff. "I just don't have time. But maybe if you are really helpful around the house and behave well I'll be able to find the time."

I smiled. I could be helpful. I could behave. And so I set about to do the best I could. For two weeks, I volunteered to do dishes and to watch over my brothers and sisters. I filed paperwork for my dad at his office and did all of my homework without being asked. I was polite and kind and behaved the best I could.

Yet on the day of the meet, my dad didn't show up.

I was heartbroken.

Fast-forward twenty years to when I had my own kids who had their own sports events and recitals and art shows. From day one, I made it my vow to never let my kids feel the way I did at that track meet. I was going to attend every single event they ever had. I was going to cheer them on no matter what they did. I was going to be involved in their every move. I was going to give them every opportunity. I was never going to let fear of disappointment rule them.

I was going to… control their every emotion.

I learned this when my own oldest daughter was in middle school. She had a track meet on the same day as her sister's swim meet and I was desperately trying to figure out how I could drive across town in seven minutes flat so I could watch Alisa's hundred-meter butterfly without missing Erin's relay. And Erin stopped me.

"Mom, it's fine. You can watch Alisa today and watch me next time."

"But then you'll think I don't care and that I don't want to be part of your track career and that I care more about Alisa than you…" I'm sure I sounded desperate.

"We'll talk about it later, Mom. I know you care. I can tell by what you do every day."

And there it was. I can't control my kids' schedules or outcomes. I can't control my kids' behavior or thoughts. I can't control whether they finish their homework or chores or whether they love gymnastics or music or football. But I can be there for them. And connect with them on a deep level that shows that I care about them in a way that goes beyond simply knowing what they do.

Because I can know their hearts.


For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 PETER 1: 5–8 (ESV)

I probably don't have to remind you, but you are an adult. You have already navigated the lessons of childhood and you have moved on to adulthood. You know how to manage your money. You have learned about things like respect and friendship and compassion and empathy. You have passed the fifth grade.

And that means that even if your kid is asking you for the tenth time for twenty dollars for gas to fill up his car because he spent his last dollar on chewing gum, or telling you how every girl in the entire grade is being mean to her, you can't solve these problems for your kids. They have to figure it out for themselves.

Which is why as you read this book, you'll find that we often encourage parents to let their kids solve their own problems, to come up with their own consequences, to work through their own issues. This isn't because we're being mean or lazy or because we don't want to fork over twenty dollars, but simply because we know that kids learn more when they are forced to grow.


I realize this chapter is very pie-in-the-sky—that I've just introduced some major, heart-changing ideas and then given you very little practical advice to help you understand how to implement them in your life. And whether you're saying, "Okay, I'm going to try this" or "I'm not so sure yet," I have a feeling that you are a bit confused on what to do next. And how to make this work for your family.

Don't worry.

We're going to get there. For now, I wanted to give you a big picture overview of what we're going to be talking about as we share real discipline stories with real parents in the coming chapters. In the rest of this book, you'll find real-life practical tips on how to put these concepts into action as well as ideas on how these pillars can help you to connect to your kids in a meaningful way.

So if you're feeling confused, overwhelmed, unsure, or anything else right now, hang with us.


Six Quick Tips to Get the Most Out of This Book


But before we dive in, we wanted to give you a quick guide that you can reference as you read to make sure you get the most out of this book.


If there is one thing I (Erin) have learned from those times when my kids are embarrassingly, awkwardly, and mortifyingly misbehaving, it's this: You never know what parenting is going to throw at you. I never expected my (usually) sweet nine-year-old girl to get into a fists-out brawl with her little brother over a dog toy. I never expected to get a call from the school that my child had stood on his chair and danced during class. And I never expected my first grader to come home from school using the F-word. I used to think that I was exempt from these sorts of things because, well, I'm a good Christian mom who takes my kids to church every Sunday and feeds them organic carrots for lunch. I should be off the hook, right?


Big parenting issues happen in all of our kids' lives, at different times and in different places, but they happen to all of us. So we chose scenarios for this book that we believe most parents will stumble across at one point or another in their parenting years. Whether you have toddlers or teenagers, we believe that many of the concepts woven into these scenarios are universal. Kids of all ages can be strong-willed, jealous, angry, impulsive, mean, dishonest, and disrespectful. Kids of all ages can also understand big concepts like redemption, love, kindness, honesty, loyalty, respect, and forgiveness. And so while a particular scenario may not hit you at your current parenting stage, we do believe that it could include a few of the tools you need to truly connect with your kids.


It is very easy to judge other parents.

I think we all do it. I (Erin) remember attending a dance class with my daughter and watching as another child consistently interrupted the teacher. She was off doing her own pirouettes when the other kids (my daughter included) were doing toe touches. When the kids were doing pirouettes, this girl was doing somersaults. I remember grumbling to myself that that girl's parents should probably keep better tabs on their daughter and that they needed to show her some discipline.

Then, last week, I got a dose of my own medicine. I was at a gymnastics class and another mom came up to me and said, "Your son is disrupting the class for the other kids. Maybe you need to find a way to get him under control." I walked onto the gym floor and sure enough, my son was being a total pain. I pulled him out of the class and had him watch until he decided he could listen to the teacher. That said, I felt a bit irritated at the other mom for chastising me. How could she know what I have done to discipline my son? Who is she to say I'm not "finding a way to keep him under control"? Who is she to judge my parenting?

Then I remembered the dance class.

I had done the exact same thing. Okay, I hadn't told the other mom what to do, but I had thought about it. There's a real temptation to think, "That kid is really messing up" or "My kid would never do that" or even "That kid is ruining this for all the other kids." That may or may not be true, but we have to remember something else: We haven't walked in another parent's shoes. We don't know what's going on in another kid's life. And we certainly don't know how God is working in another kid's heart.

So, as you read this, we encourage you to learn, to pray, and to think but not to judge. Sure, your son may never look up hot cheerleaders kissing football players on the iPad. (More on that in the next chapter—it's a doozy!) And your daughter may never run crazy in dance class, ignoring what the teacher has to say. But every kid has something—some place in their heart—where God has work to do. Whether your kid's rough spots are obvious or hidden, they are there. And so I ask you to read with a heart that loves Jesus and wants the best for each of his kids.


If your kid looks up "hot girls" on the iPad, it's about a whole lot more than a simple iPad search. And if your kid lies about brushing her teeth, it's about a whole lot more than a hygiene issue. Every little behavior your child exhibits has undercurrents that mean a whole lot more. As you read these scenarios, we want you to pay special attention to the bigger themes that come out of each situation.

To make this easy, we've put the key words in boxes in each section. As you have conversations with your kids, we encourage you to look for undercurrents of these major themes in the words your kids say and consider how they are affecting your kids' behavior. This will help you to know where and how your kid is struggling and how to springboard conversation.


I have had many, many great conversations with my son in the weeks that followed the hot cheerleader incident. We've talked about marriage and purity and kissing and relationships and even the media's influence on our culture. As you read these scenarios—especially the ones that hit close to home with your own kids—I encourage you to use those major themes as jumping-off points for future conversations.

So, for example, if you face a situation where your child lies to you, deal with that conversation in the moment. But in the weeks following the incident, consider telling him a story about a time you lied as a child. Or talk about a person in your life who has been honest and how you can trust him. You can even talk about things like politics and scandal and trust. As you have these conversations, you don't have to bring up the major issues from before; instead, use them as tools to spark deeper understanding and connection with your kids.


We're preaching to the choir when we tell you that effective discipleship will come when you and your spouse approach your kids as a united front. Share this with your husband or wife. Let them know that this is what you are trying and allow them to share in the joy of discipleship and connection.


Again, we're telling you things that you surely already know, but in order for you to effectively and lovingly disciple your kids, you have to allow yourself to be led by the One who knows your kids' hearts best.

I (Ellen) have kept a prayer journal for more than twenty years now. In it, I record my daily prayers, as well as the many ways God has answered those prayers. These journals have served as encouragement for my kids (and for me!), as I can go back through them and see the many powerful ways God moves through prayer.

As you start this discipleship process, we ask you to commit to pray for your kids' hearts on a daily basis. Pray specifically for the areas that you hope to disciple in them and ask God for answers and for true conversation that will lead them toward Him. If you can, record these prayers so you can go back and see how God has moved, and watch as miracles unfold.


The Hot Cheerleader Incident



The five words glaring up at me from my iPad search engine bar felt like a punch in the gut.

I read them again.

A lump rose in my throat and my mind began to race. My ten-year-old son and his friend Braden had been playing what I assumed was Minecraft on the iPad in the living room while I made dinner. And though I hadn't been paying the best attention, I had assumed that everything was fine. They were ten years old, for goodness' sake. How much trouble could they get into on an iPad?

I had clearly assumed wrong.

I did what any mom would do at that moment: I started to cry. Then my mind began to race. Obviously, my son was grounded from technology, chocolate, and fun until he was twenty-six. And the iPad would clearly need to go into the trash. And I would never be able to trust my son around any screened device again for as long as he lived in my house. And…

I stopped myself.

Because while my gut instinct as a mom was to get angry and start doling out punishment, my heart screamed at me that there had to be another way. A way of grace and truth and love and hope. A way where my relationship with my son wouldn't be sacrificed even when his behavior needed to be dealt with in a serious way.

So I called my mom.

Now, before I go any further, I have to tell you a little bit about my mom. She's awesome. And not just your everyday awesome, but she has worked with kids for more than forty years, as an educator, a mom, and a grandma. Because of this, she seems to innately know how our words can help our kids to truly grow closer to God. She has said for years that discipline is so much more than obedience and control and lectures and punishment. Instead, she tells parents that only by replacing obedience with a desire for what is right, control with a heartfelt connection, lectures with truth spoken in love, and so-called discipline with discipleship can parents truly raise kids who love God and others in a heartfelt way.

That's a tall order and something that every parent struggles with. But as I've implemented these principles, I have found that my parenting has changed. And, more importantly, my kids' hearts have changed.

Anyway, back to hot cheerleaders kissing football players.

I told my mom what I had found on my iPad. Part of me expected her to be ashamed or to lecture me about how I had to tighten up my screen controls, but instead she said, "This is good, Erin."

"Good? How can this be good? My ten-year-old and his friends are searching for videos of hot cheerleaders on YouTube."

"I know, Erin, and we'll need to deal with this. But isn't it good that this happened now? Because now you have an opportunity to truly speak to his heart, to walk through this with him when his mind is still innocent and his heart is still willing. In our world, he's going to stumble across things like this, and whether he's ten or twenty-nine, it will affect him. Isn't it good that it happened now when the stakes are still low? When you can still guide him through it?"

She was right. I knew it. But how was I going to guide my son through something like… that?

I stared at those five words on my screen, and a stream of big, adult words with real-world consequences flooded through my mind. Words like pornography, sex, purity, gender roles, addiction, respect, and lust. How do you talk to a ten-year-old about big adult concepts like these when they've hardly begun to scrape the surface of knowing about the birds and the bees?

My mom gave me some ideas. Then she prayed with me.

And I began the long trek up the stairs.

"Joey? Can I come in?" He was sitting at his desk working on homework. He saw the iPad in my hands and his eyebrows rose. "I… uh… found something on the iPad that really worries me."

His eyes widened and he got up and plopped onto his bed. "I know, Mom."

"You do?"


  • "What a treasure for moms! I absolutely love Erin and Ellen's ideas on how to deal with common behavioral issues with children. Their philosophy is compassionate and in-depth; their ideas are practical, peaceful, and unifying for parent and child. Grace and understanding abound. Finally, a book on parenting with love and limits that I can recommend whole-heartedly, without reservation!"—Becky Johnson, co-author with Rachel Randolph of Nourished: A Search for Health, Happiness and a Full Night's Sleep

On Sale
Jun 20, 2017
Page Count
240 pages

Erin MacPherson

About the Author

ERIN MACPHERSONis a stay-at-home mom by day and speaker and author by night. She is a long-time staff writer and editor for major online parenting and educational publications. Erin loves to give Christian women laugh-out-loud anecdotes and Godly, tell-you-like-it-is information. ELLEN SCHUKNECHT has been an educator for over 35 years, serving as a teacher, head of school, family ministries director, counselor and more. She is currently the Director of Family Ministries at Veritas Academy in Austin, TX, where she mentors parents, teachers, and students.

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