Alternatives to Punishment Part 2: How Does God Discipline His Children?

This is part 2 of this series. If you missed part 1, catch it here.

In part 1 of this series we established that God’s definition of punishment seems to be different from man’s definition. And then I asked, “so how does our Heavenly Father discipline us, His children, if He doesn’t punish us (i.e. intentionally cause us pain out of retribution)?” Before I answer that, it’s important to note that the word ‘discipline’ comes from a word that means ‘to teach.’ So how does He teach us?

He allows us to choose and then He allows the consequences of our actions (both positive and negative) to teach us. He does all in His power to connect with us and help us feel His love so that we will desire to follow Him. Through prophets and the scriptures and the Holy Ghost, He continually and patiently teaches us the truth and the way to be happy and return to His presence. He gives us guidance and teaches us through the Spirit, helping us find answers to our problems. He requires certain things of us, certainly. And He expects us to repent (turn to Him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit) when we sin, but He is unfailingly loving and patient with us when we do stumble. Repentance is not a punishment, like we might sometimes think it is, but rather, it is a tender mercy, a gift from a loving Father and His loving Son.

If we are to become like our Father in Heaven (as parents, and in general) and gain all that He has, then we must develop and cultivate a character like His. What is His character like?

We might sometimes think that God is harsh because He is bound by justice (and because the scriptures sometimes portray Him that way), and that only Christ is merciful and kind. But Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in a talk titled The Grandeur of God, says that the Savior came to show us God’s character. (This is an incredible talk, and everyone should read it. I can’t recommend it highly enough!) Jesus only did that which He had seen the Father do (John 5:19). Why do we think God sent His Son in the first place? He desperately wants to show us mercy, to welcome us all back home, but He can’t if we don’t make use of His Son’s atonement and repent. Elder Holland says, “In word and in deed Jesus was trying to reveal and make personal to us the true nature of His Father, our Father in Heaven.”

1 John 4:8 says that “God is love.” Elder Bruce R. McConkie explains that “God is also faith, hope, charity, righteousness, truth, virtue, temperance, patience, humility, and so forth. That is, God is the embodiment and personification of every good grace and godly attribute—all of which dwell in his person in perfection and in fulness” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:398).

Elder Holland continues, “So feeding the hungry, healing the sick, rebuking hypocrisy, pleading for faith—this was Christ showing us the way of the Father, He who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, long-suffering and full of goodness” [from Joseph Smith’s Lectures on Faith]. In His life and especially in His death, Christ was declaring, “This is God’s compassion I am showing you, as well as that of my own.” In the perfect Son’s manifestation of the perfect Father’s care, in Their mutual suffering and shared sorrow for the sins and heartaches of the rest of us, we see ultimate meaning in the declaration: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).”

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Christ, who showed us who our Father is, never condoned sin, but He was full of mercy and compassion and tenderness. I love the story of the woman taken in adultery, wherein Jesus showed us a perfect example of setting firm limits with empathy and kindness. He understood how this woman must have felt to be publicly shamed for her sins, which would not actually prevent her from sinning further (because we can’t do better by feeling worse), and so He diffused the situation, connected with her in a merciful act of love, and then admonished her to “sin no more” (see John 8:3-11)


Some might still argue that God does punish the wicked, that sometimes His actions can be considered as inflicting punishment. Even then, though, I don’t think He would ever act with the desire and intent to cause pain and suffering, but rather so that His work can move forward and so that He can save as many of His children as possible. I believe He desires to help and save all of His children, but He will not force us. So in this sense, His actions still would not be considered punishment as we know it – retribution, or getting back at us for wrongs done – but rather, simply, the effects of purging sin, the result of justice.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say God does use punishment, at least sometimes. If He does punish His children, I will leave that to Him. That’s His call, His judgment to make. If I can successfully lead and guide the hearts of my children like we have been taught and counseled to do, then why even consider harsh punishment or “tough love” – especially when we know it doesn’t actually teach or change people? God has the final say, the last judgment. His ways are always just and merciful – but of course His mercy extends only as far as we are willing to accept it by our repentance. “The Lord will forgive whom [He] will forgive, but of [us] it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10). We have been commanded to show love and kindness to all mankind (and this certainly includes children). See James 1:19-20. God has shown us how (by and through His Son) we can be firm in our limits and boundaries and also kind and gentle and compassionate. Regardless of whether or not God is ever the one who actually inflicts punishment on His wicked children, I feel strongly that when disciplining our own children, He would have us be kind and gentle, and to discipline in His way, which is to “lovingly and patiently teach” them (see this wonderful talk by Elder Lynn G. Robbins).

When it came to little children, Christ only ever showed loving attention and adoration and gentleness to them. He commanded us to become like children if we want to inherit God’s kingdom (3 Nephi 11:38). He taught us that they are whole and innocent (Moroni 8:8). He loved the children so much that He wept when He blessed them (3 Nephi 17:21-22). Children are precious to Him. Regardless of whether or not He was always merciful and without anger toward grown men, as some will argue and try to use as justification for their harshness toward children, Jesus was always gentle and compassionate toward children. Being gentle and respectful and kind does not mean we allow children to run the show or that we don’t set limits and boundaries for them. It just means that we treat them how we would want to be treated as we do.

discipline lord's way

Surely, in addition to natural consequences doing the teaching, we must also be proactive about teaching our children important lessons. It is imperative that we set and enforce rules and limits with our children. We have a solemn responsibility to teach them correct principles and behavior. So how do we enforce limits and teach lessons when they misbehave without using punishment or control? Stay tuned for Part 3 of this post, where I will go into detail about some alternatives to punishment.

Alternatives to Punishment Part 3: Positive Discipline

This is Part 3 of this series. If you missed Parts 1 and 2, catch them here and here.

In Part 2 of this series, I posed the question, “How do we get our children to behave, and enforce limits and teach lessons when they do misbehave, without using force or punishment?” Here’s the answer.

  • We continually and patiently teach what is right, lovingly reminding our child over and over, just as our Father does with us, until the lesson takes root in the heart (doesn’t it seem that we hear the same messages over and over during General Conference or in our lessons at church?).
  • With lots of empathy and connection, we set necessary limits (to ensure safety and to protect people’s rights and property), and we remain firm on the things that matter (rather than giving in and changing our mind when our kids don’t like the limits we set. They are free to feel however they feel about the limits, but if it’s a limit worth setting, it’s important to remain firm. Allow and empathize with feelings; limit behavior).
  • We offer choices, each of which are acceptable to us, and allow our child to choose.
  • We enlist our child as a partner in problem solving, finding win-win solutions when our priorities and agendas don’t align.
  • We help our child repair and make amends when necessary. See this post to find out how.
  • We use our greatest parenting tool (our “magic wand,” as Dr. Markham calls it) – connection – to influence our child for good. (I love the saying, “connect before you correct.”) When our children feel connected to us they are more likely to comply with our requests.
  • And perhaps most importantly, we model correct behavior for our children, even (or rather, especially) in the way we discipline them. If we don’t want our child to yell or hit to solve problems, then neither can we. If we want them to listen to us, we must listen to them. If we want them to treat others how they would want to be treated, then we must empathize with them and treat them how we would want to be treated.

Some of these things are things that need to be done on a consistent basis to prevent misbehavior as much as possible, and some of these things are things we can do in the moment when our children do misbehave. It can be really helpful to have a specific go-to plan in the heat of the moment when our children misbehave so that we don’t simply resort to punishment. So let’s look at a few of these guidance and teaching tools in a little more detail.

Setting and Enforcing Limits with Empathy (AKA Kind and Firm)

After the limit has already been set once: “The rule at the park is that the sand stays in the pit. It’s not for throwing. Throwing sand hurts people. Right now it seems it’s too hard for you to leave the sand in the pit, so we’ll have to try again another time. It’s time to go home now… I know this is hard, Sweetie. You wish you could keep playing. We’ll come back and try again another time. Now, would you rather race me to the car or jump on my back for a piggy-back ride?”

Isn’t this just a consequence? In a way, yes! The consequence of leaving the sand in the pit is that everyone is safe and able to enjoy playing. The consequence of throwing sand is that it gets in people’s eyes and hurts them, which means that the parent (whose job it is to ensure safety) must step in and enforce the limit (that sand stays in the pit and is not for throwing) so that everyone stays safe. Enforcing the limit means that the parent doesn’t allow the child to continue a behavior if it is dangerous or destructive or harmful. If the child is able to stop the negative behavior with just a reminder of the rule, or limit, then that’s enough. If not, as in this example, then enforcing the limit might mean removing the child from the situation. Removing the child is not a punishment because it’s not being done out of retribution or to cause pain or suffering, but rather to keep everyone safe when the child is unable to maintain safety himself. This is enforcing a limit with empathy. (Don’t forget the empathy! In fact, this may be most effective if the parent were to begin by joining with the child and seeing the situation from his perspective, such as, “Wow! That sand came down like rain! And Sweetie, I can’t let you throw sand because…” (Note the “and”… I’ve heard it said that when we use “but” rather than “and,” everything before the “but” sounds like a lie or like it’s really not important to you. “And” is much more effective when setting limits with empathy).

Won’t this just encourage more sand throwing? Not if we calmly and kindly set clear and firm limits and give reasons why the behavior has to stop. And if possible, it’s very effective and always a wonderful idea to offer an acceptable alternative – we can’t throw sand, but we can throw the dead leaves up and watch them rain down).

I think it’s important and only fair that we communicate to our children what the rules are, as well as the reasons for the rules and the attached consequences that follow if they break the rules (e.g. “We will only be able to stay and play at the park as long as everyone follows the safety rules.” and then explain the rules). This will help them to know what is expected and to use that knowledge when they choose their actions. This obviously doesn’t mean that they will always choose wisely – they are humans, and immature ones at that. Their impulse control is very underdeveloped. But clear communication is important in peaceful parenting, because it’s the respectful thing to do – rather than simply, “because I said so.”

When Adam and Eve, our first parents, were in the Garden of Eden, God told them explicitly that they may eat freely of the fruit of any tree in the Garden except one. He also told them that if they did eat of the fruit of that tree, then they “should surely die” (see Moses 3:17). We know how the story goes. They did choose to eat the fruit (for which I’m eternally grateful! Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “It was Eve who first transgressed the limits of Eden in order to initiate the conditions of mortality. Her act, whatever its nature, was formally a transgression but eternally a glorious necessity to open the doorway toward eternal life. Adam showed his wisdom by doing the same. And thus Eve and “Adam fell that men might be” (2 Ne. 2:25).” Read his full talk here. Also check out this great talk).

And with their choice came consequences.

The consequences were death – both physical (eventually) and spiritual – as well as the ability to have children, and the obligation to work to provide for their needs. These things could not take place in the Garden, for their transgression meant that they were consigned to a fallen state. The Lord enforced His limit (that they may only live forever in the Garden if they would refrain from eating the forbidden fruit) by sending them out into the world, where they would be subject to pain and sickness and death. This might sound harsh, but I believe it was done with love and tenderness, with the promise of divine help.


(This example is a little different from most in that, although Adam and Eve did transgress the limit God had set, it was not a sin, but rather the choice they made in an impossible situation. No matter what they had done they would have broken a commandment (either partake of the forbidden fruit or never multiply and replenish the earth), and so they sacrificed their security and chose to keep the more important commandment. Heavenly Father understood this and knew what needed to happen, but He still had to follow through with the limit and allow the consequences, in order for the plan to unfold.)

So Heavenly Father set the limit (eat all the fruit you want except for this fruit, or else you will die), He allowed the natural consequences, both good and bad (hard work and pain and death, posterity and the continuation the plan, etc.), and He enforced the limit with love (requiring their departure from the Garden and their subsequent separation from Him, with the promise of a Savior and the opportunity to repent and return to Him (see Moses 5:9)).

It’s also important to note that when setting the limit He allowed them their choice – which is our next tool.

Offering Choices

“You didn’t mean to spill your drink, I know. Accidents happen. And the rule is we always clean up our messes. We’ll do it together. Would you like the blue rag or the gray one?”

Humans are autonomous beings. As we grow out of infancy we innately feel the drive and the need to do things for ourselves and to make our own choices. We also naturally push back against force and control. Maybe we remember on some level how important the gift of agency is.


But of course we know that we can’t let our young children make all of their own choices, because that wouldn’t be safe or responsible. We can, however, give them as many choices as possible. We can relinquish control over the things that don’t really matter (which cup they use, whether their outfit matches perfectly, etc.). And even with the things that do matter it is often possible to find a way to offer choices and give our kids some say (“We need to go home so I can start making dinner. Should we leave now, or in three minutes? Three minutes? Okay, when the timer goes off I’ll race you to the car.”). This is especially important and helpful when parenting strong-willed childrenThe key is to only offer options that work for you, so that everyone will be happy no matter what the child chooses. Then, when you need make a decision and you need your child’s cooperation, you will able to say, “I let you make lots of choices, don’t I? Now its my turn to choose. Thank you for understanding, Sweetie.”

Problem Solving

“I see that we have a problem here: I hear you arguing because Kayla wants to play with dolls but Addie wants to build with blocks. I wonder how you could solve this problem so that Kayla is happy and Addie is happy… What ideas do you both have? …Building a house out of blocks for the dolls is a great idea! What else?”

problem solving

Teaching children the skill of problem solving and finding win-win solutions is something that will serve them well their whole lives. (Check out this article for more ways to prevent fighting between siblings.) Problem solving works well in the parent-child relationship too — just because we’re bigger and older and it’s our job to teach our kids, doesn’t mean that we need to order them around or leave them out of finding solutions.

For example, “You want to get back to playing right now, and that doesn’t work for me because I need you to clear your dishes from the table right now so that I can do the dishes. I wonder how we can solve this so that I can get to the dishes and you can get back to playing right away? What can we do so that you’re happy and I’m happy?”

These tools work – if we are calm and kind when we use them. Calming ourselves when our children are uncooperative or misbehaving is always the first step. Pick one of these tools and try it! (For more alternatives to punishment, see this article. There are several different ways to guide and teach, because different tools work best at different times for different people, and it can change with age or circumstance. So don’t feel like you have to use all of them, all the time. Just find what works best for you and your child, and try different tools as necessity arises.) This certainly requires more thinking on our part, but I can assure you that the more we practice (including the essential step of calming ourselves), the easier it gets, and with enough practice it becomes second nature.