Gospel-centered Timeouts

The gospel changes everything, my pastors often say. I wrestle daily with exactly what that means, especially how the gospel changes my parenting style. I’ve written before about the difference in discipline and punishment. Christians and non-Christians often use those two words interchangeably, but the Bible doesn’t, and that is the focal point for me of what is and what is not gospel-centered parenting. I cannot believe the gospel changes everything and then continue to punish my children (read the article to which I previously linked for a Biblical defense of that statement). However, I can and must disciple them. I proactively train them in righteousness and reactively guide them in how the gospel equips them to reconcile with the one to whom they have done wrong. Christ bore all their punishment (payment of sin) on the cross, and there is no condemnation for those who are in Him. I can’t believe the gospel is sufficient for my children and then heap shame and condemnation on them in punishment for their sins. Yet, I cannot disengage either. God has tasked me with the responsibility of training them.

These are all nice words on paper, but they mean little until I apply it practically in the mud pit of daily life. I’ve found Give Them Grace (and all of Elyse Fitzpatrick’s writings) helpful on this topic. [Although I will say that I have some push-back on the chapter from Give Them Grace on spanking. I’m working on an article on that topic, and Elyse has been gracious to interact with me on the issue. When I finally get my article written, I’ll post her response as well. I am looking forward to that edifying discussion. Here’s an older post on the subject.]

In my ongoing attempts to apply the gospel to the discipline of my children, I’ve found that a simple tweak to the Super Nanny style timeout better fits my doctrine than traditional timeouts. Please don’t feel constrained by my practical application, though if it’s helpful to you, that is great. The simple change I’ve made is that I no longer put my sons in timeout for a specific amount of time. In times past, if they didn’t obey me on a specific issue, my temptation was to punish them with a 5 or 10 minute (or longer) timeout, depending on their age and the severity of what they did. But that reminds me of a punitive jail sentence. “You took your brothers, toy? Verdict: guilty. Your sentence is to sit in that chair for 10 minutes.” But the gospel teaches that Christ took their guilty verdicts on the cross and bore the punishment for every last one of them. I struggle then with punishing them a second time. It makes Christ’s punishment seem irrelevant, and I sure don’t want to teach them that. Yet, as I said before, I have to disciple them through it! 

In light of that, time-outs have become a tool for getting my boys’ attention so we can DEAL with the problem. Many times (not always), the way this looks is that I put one or the other in time-out until they have calmed down and are ready to deal with the problem. I’ll sometimes say, “when your attitude has changed and you’re ready to talk to me respectfully (or repair with your brother, or clean up your mess, or whatever the issue is), you can come find me.” Sometimes, right then, they’ll say, “I’m ready,” though it’s obvious they aren’t. In that case, I repeat my instructions with some additions (when you are no longer angry, or when you have finished crying, or when your tone of voice has changed). Then when they come find me and I can tell they really do seem ready to address/fix the problem, then we start talking about it. I ask them, “What did you do?” Because if they don’t understand or admit what they did wrong, we won’t have an effective discussion about fixing the root issue (what a big problem this is among grownups too!). Once they admit the real problem, we can start addressing the solution. What does God say to do? Usually, we start with the greatest command and golden rule. True to how Jesus addresses the greatest command, most every other issue they have in life stems from its root. Next, how does the gospel equip us to deal with this problem? Well, it enables us to receive forgiveness from God, and God’s forgiveness equips us to then forgive the next person (Eph. 4:32). From there, what can do we do to repair the problem? That question often takes some thought, yet it is a crucial point of reconciliation. I enjoy watching my boys try to answer that question and love those moments when they sincerely face the problem and genuinely start caring about fixing it. Repairing and reconciliation are beautiful things to witness.

The discussion of discipline verses punishment has to address both negative punishment and positive reinforcement. Consequences and incentives. I don’t want my consequences to be punishment. But I don’t want to set my boys up for failure, which is what I do if I don’t address problem areas in which they tend to sin and disobey. I’ve found a simple tweak in how I communicate consequences to my children to be particularly helpful in practically applying my beliefs. We now talk about consequences as more about removing stumbling blocks than punishing behavior. For instance, I won’t take them to the playground if they can’t listen to my instructions and keep other kids safe. It’s not a punitive jail sentence. It’s removing a stumbling block for them until they’ve grown some on the issue. We have a particular problem with morning negativity when it’s time to get ready for school. One of my sons likes to play games in the morning and had a very negative attitude when it was time to stop for school. So we took time off from playing those games in the morning. I didn’t talk about it as punishment against him in retribution for his attitude. But I was clear that playing these games was causing him problems in the morning, so we were going to stop for a while because it set him up for having a bad day. After a few weeks of that, he asked if he could play them again, and we had a good discussion about it. He recognized that we had stopped because it caused him to have a bad morning when time to get ready for school. We discussed if he could now do it but have a good attitude when time to turn them off. And we talked about needing to stop playing them again if they became a problem for him that caused him to have a bad attitude. It’s just a minor change in how I communicated consequences to my son, yet I have much more peace about the consistency of this with what I’m trying to communicate to him about the gospel, grace, forgiveness, and repentance.

If this sounds like an easy system or method, don’t let the simplicity of a short blog post confuse the complexity of any given situation in real life. I’ve outlined my best case scenarios, targets I only rarely hit myself. And again, please don’t read this and feel constrained to discipline your children the way I do mine. But if this encourages you to think more deeply about how the specifics of your discipline techniques reflect the gospel to your kids (as it has for me), then that is a good thing.

18 Responses to Gospel-centered Timeouts

  1. Nelle March 7, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    I love this! Thankyou for moving my mind to this today – I think I parented much better for it, working to teach values and not just rules. I also differentiate between discipline/teaching and punishment – but often default to punishment out of…well probably a whole lot of reasons. I really appreciated your examples of what this looks like for you in those moments of brilliance.

  2. Prasti March 7, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    “I don't want my consequences to be punishment. But I don't want to set my boys up for failure, which is what I do if I don't address problem areas in which they tend to sin and disobey.” – this is such a challenge for me sometimes, because defaulting to punishment seems to be the easier option in “resolving” the issue.

    our time out approach is actually quite similar to yours. we've noticed that sometimes they just need some time alone to calm down and re-focus before addressing the issue at hand. quite frankly, even as an adult, i still benefit from “time outs” where i can re-focus if i am struggling or frustrated with something.

    thank you for this clear and concise post on discipline as it relates to our children!

  3. Johanna March 7, 2012 at 3:16 pm #

    Thank you for this article. I just read Give them Grace and I am very eager to hear your article on the issue of spanking/disciplining. I find it frustrating that so many people use those words interchangeably. We approach discipline very similarly, but this gave me more food for thought. Thanks!

  4. Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    Thank you for this article Wendy, I've been thinking and talking with people about what it looks like to parent with the gospel. I am still somewhat confused on how this plays out day to day, as I feel like I deal with a few older children who seem to be very angry. Even when I try to work these “time outs” in for them to calm down before we talk, they still seem very angry, and after sending them back to their room multiple times, I never get to the point of them not being angry enough to talk and work through it. Are there any good books on anger? I am a homeschool mom, and I don't know how feasible it is to set school aside and work on this since, like your game time, the anger manifests itself most during this time.? Thanks.

  5. Wendy March 7, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

    War of Words is a good resource on how our words reflect on our hearts. It's not particularly about discipling children with an anger problem, but it is good about making us think of the heart issues going on behind our words and tone. I think the key is not dealing with anger like anger is the issue but dealing with anger as the symptom of the real issue. What is going on in their heart that is coming out in such anger? Something is going on that transcends whatever specific smaller issue made them angry.

    Anyone else have a recommendation of helpful books on anger?

  6. Leslie March 8, 2012 at 2:06 am #

    Thank you so much for this! My child is still a baby, so I don't deal with these specific issues yet. But I've really been thinking lately about how much we in Christian culture tend to set up a very law-based system of discipline with children and then expect them to just magically “get” grace once they're older. I suspect it's in reaction against permissive parenting, but I think it often ends up being just as harmful… if we teach children to do what I say, or else, how can we lay the framework for understanding how God deals with us as our parent? I also am really looking forward to further thoughts on the spanking issue. 🙂

  7. K March 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    I am eager to hear your thoughts on spanking as well. We are licensed foster parents. Spanking is not permitted by the state and, for good reason, is not a great idea when it comes to kids who have been victims of abuse. I am often discouraged when spanking seems like a mandatory method of discipline in Christian parenting books. For our boys (who we have now adopted), it seems there must be an alternative since spanking is not an option in our house. With more and more Christians adopting, I am hoping there will be some direction on this from the Christian community.

  8. Katie Wade March 8, 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    I respect your blog very much and appreciate how you think through things. I've never commented but have been wrestling with this topic and am confused about it so I thought I'd just ask. I do both spanks and time out. I don't consider spanking as punishment, but discipline, for many reason but one being that it shows them that sin is painful and to rescue them from making choices that would lead to a sad life. We always have the best talks about the gospel and my love for them after we have to go through the spanking process and they always run off with smiles on their faces. I agree wholeheartedly that I do not want to unintentionally teach my children that Jesus' punishment is not enough, so I am trying to figure out my motivations behind spanking and how to connect the gospel to that area in a real way. What are your thoughts on how God disciplines us? There is a lot to discuss here and feel free to let me wait and read your next blog on spanking from the book, b/c I read “Give them Grace” as well.

  9. Wendy March 8, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    Thanks, Katie. I will definitely think through your question/comment as I work out my thoughts on discipline for the future post.

  10. Luma Simms March 9, 2012 at 12:54 am #

    Yes, I have a recommendation for a book: ” The Heart of Anger: Practical Help for the Prevention and Cure of Anger in Children” by Lou Priolo. I've read it twice. Even though it's for helping children through anger issues, I found it very useful for myself when I was heavily struggling with anger (which had been a deep stronghold sin for me for many years).

    I also found “Anger Management” (Adapted and Paraphrased from Baxter's Christian Directory) by Richard Baxter from The Banner Of Truth Trust, helpful.

    I also highly recommend a book edited by Elyse Fitzpatrick with contributions by many authors. It's called: “Women Counseling Women” I love the entire book but the chapter on anger is excellent.

    I just want to say that I know what it's like to parent out of anger. It's devastating. There is a deep sorrow in my heart for the years I parented my oldest out of fear and anger. But for the grace of God, where would I be. I hope this helps those struggling with anger.

  11. Wendy March 9, 2012 at 2:15 am #

    Thanks, Luma!!

  12. candy March 10, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    A good recommendation is Parenting With Love and Logic by Fay and Cline. You can also look up the website. It is not Christian per se, but is a very practical, common sense guide that uses teachable consequences, somewhat like your goal to use time outs as a teaching tool to get your kids to think through the issues and solve the problems in ways that do not cause problems for others. I worked as a house parent with at risk kids in a Christian facility, was a foster parent, and an educator, and Love and Logic was such a helpful resource. P.S. using some of the methods in the book can help with anger issues, in that we hand the problems back to them and it reduces our frustrations as they take responsibility for their own actions.

  13. Wendy March 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

    Anonymous, I don't know if you are still reading, but someone left me a recommendation of a book that I thought might be good for your situation too. Just the title alone has intrigued me. The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children. Wow!!! Here's a link to it on Amazon.

  14. Zipporah Bird March 24, 2012 at 1:53 am #

    This is really helpful. I might try it with my 4yo son. He's younger, and his particular problems are whining to get his way, so I'm not sure how it will look at our house, but it's a really practical application of biblical wisdom.

  15. Zipporah Bird March 24, 2012 at 1:57 am #

    As far as material on anger, Tim Keller's sermon from 4/1/2008 called “The Healing of Anger.”

  16. Ben April 24, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    In regards to:

    I put one or the other in time-out until they have calmed down and are ready to deal with the problem. I'll sometimes say, “when your attitude has changed and you're ready to talk to me respectfully (or repair with your brother, or clean up your mess, or whatever the issue is), you can come find me.” Sometimes, right then, they'll say, “I'm ready,” though it's obvious they aren't. In that case, I repeat my instructions with some additions (when you are no longer angry, or when you have finished crying,


    One of the big changes that we have made in regards to our disciple/ time out strategy is that we're really careful about sending out kids away in what we consider their “unacceptable” state. This could be crying or unwillingness. We've realized that our Father always accepts us exactly like we are and doesn't say “Come back to me after you're calm”. When we are sending our kids away every time they are in a certain state I feel like we are teaching them that that is how God is. We noticed that we did this for 2 reasons. The first is that we were not comfortable with their state. The second was that we were leveraging the intimacy of our relationship as a tool to try and teach them. The more I've examined this, though, I believe that this is NOT what the Father does with us.

    Thanks for your thoughts. I intend mine to add to yours not contradict.

  17. Wendy April 24, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

    Ben, that is a wonderful point. Thanks for adding!

  18. Emily December 30, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    Hi Wendy,

    I was just revisiting your parenting posts since I need frequent reminding to wrap my head around the gospel in this area. Anyway, I just wanted to ask whether that post on discipline/spanking was still in the works! =)