Marriage Issues: How Will We Discipline Them?
Dr. Ronald Koteskey
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Remembering the pain when his father whipped him with a belt, Stan resolved
never to use anything but his own hand when punishing his child. He knew that
the Bible said that the man who “spares the rod” hates his son, so Stan was
“careful to discipline” the son he loved (Proverbs 13:34). He spanked only with
his own hand so that he could feel how much pain he was giving.
Remembering that her mother would remind her that “God is love” even when she
disobeyed, Beth resolved that no one would ever hit her children. She could not
imagine Jesus giving a child a spanking. Her mother had always emphasized that
Jesus would forgive her if she just prayed and said she was sorry.
As husband and wife Stan and Beth now have their own small children. They
have had many discussions about differences between the families they grew up
in, differences in the way they looked at Scripture, as well as differences they
had about disciplining their children. They had come from diverse family and
church backgrounds, but after talking with their pastor they finally came to
some agreement about disciplining their children. They are glad to have that
behind them now that they are planning to serve overseas. Or is it behind them?
Will these issues come up again
In Families on the Move, Marion Knell tells the story of a child attending an
international school. One day the boy came home from school and told his parents
that a teacher had touched his private parts. The distraught parents immediately
went to the school to investigate. They found out that touching a small boy’s
private parts to discipline him was the cultural norm in their host culture. The
teacher could not understand what the fuss was all about—she certainly had no
intention of abusing the boy or of harming him in any way.
Just as families differ in their view of punishment, so do cultures. In some
cultures the only ones allowed to discipline a child are the child’s own
parents. In other cultures any responsible adult present is expected to
discipline a misbehaving child. Some cultures use corporal punishment; others
use shame or time-outs; and still others use little punishment at all. Even
cultures which use physical punishment about equally may differ in the kind of
A 2007 comparison of Japanese and USA college students found that about 90%
of the students in both cultures reported experiencing physical punishment.
However, students in the USA were more likely to report being hit with an object
than those in Japan. In addition, USA students were most likely to be hit on the
bottom and the hand, but Japanese students were most likely to be hit in the
face or on the head.
Thus, as expected, people from families and cultures not using punishment may
be appalled at any punishment given to their children. Even people who come from
families and cultures which use punishment may be appalled at their children
being slapped in the face by relative strangers or having someone touch their
children’s private parts. These situations are most likely to occur in the
context of household help, nearby national neighbors, or nearby expatriates.
When wages are much lower in their host countries than in the passport
countries, missionaries often hire people on a regular basis to work around
their homes. Some of these people are essentially nannies, there to care for the
children. Of course, people should be aware of major cultural differences and
screen the nannies carefully to find out not only the cultural means of
discipline they use but also their family’s means of discipline.
In addition, other nationals who are there primarily to cook, clean, do
household maintenance, or yard work also come into contact with children. They
may also discipline your children, especially when you are not present. All of
these individuals will also impart other aspects of their culture to your
children, a part of making them TCKs.
As parents it is your responsibility to learn enough about the culture and
your household help to assure that what your children learn from them meets with
your approval. Since these people are your employees and work in or around your
home, you can influence what they do with your children. Even then your spouse
and you may disagree on what to do about such discipline.
Assuming that you live in a “neighborhood” with nationals living all around
you (rather than in a “compound” with only people from your agency), your
children will probably play with national children who live nearby. While
playing together your children are likely to spend time in homes of these
national children where they will encounter parents and other extended family
members. These adults are likely to step in and discipline your children; after
all, your children are in their homes.
In this situation, you have much less leverage to question the families and
much less control over what they do to discipline your children. You can still
learn about the culture, but you have to rely on general conversation and
observation of everyday behavior to discover their family norms for discipline.
In this case you will need to make judgments about the relative value of your
relationship with these people and the influence of their discipline on your
children. This may lead to marked disagreement between husband and wife. One
spouse may think of broken toys as an indication of lack or respect for
another’s property, and the other may see those broken toys as evidence of a
lack of materialistic influence.
Unlike parents in their passport country, people living in a host country
have a relatively limited number of people from their own culture to talk with.
Some parents live in rather isolated (from other expats) conditions where they
have few people with whom they can discuss disciplining their children. In fact,
some people live in small villages far from anyone from their passport culture.
Other parents live in urban areas where they have access not only to other
parents from their passport culture but also parents from other cultures who
speak their language. Having others from back “home” nearby may be a real help,
but asking parents from other cultures (even ones who speak the same language)
may result in even more confusion since that brings in other cultural
If other families live nearby, children playing together and visiting each
others’ homes may bring conflict not only between spouses, but with nearby
expats about how children should be disciplined. Issues on the value of the
relationship with these expats and the morale of the mission community need to
Here are several things to keep in mind as you discuss disciplining children.
- There is no one best way to discipline children. They grow up and become
members of society after being disciplined in a wide variety of ways.
- Parents must present a united front. They need to have core values
agreed on before marriage if possible, or with a counselor after marriage if
they did not do so before marriage.
- Always intervene in cases of abuse. Do not give your silent approval if
you see physical, sexual, or emotional abuse such as name-calling or other
- Be careful of what you do that is motivated by guilt. Some parents try
to “atone” for what they have “put their children through” by taking them to
live in another culture. Though you may want to be compassionate for a short
period of adjustment right after arrival, do not hesitate to discipline when
that time is over.
- Agree on the role of children and refine your view of their role as they
mature. Are they also “missionaries” while in the host country with you?
They may enjoy this role while children but come to resent it as
adolescents. Likewise, they may think it is “neat” to sing in the national
language to help you raise funds during childhood, but they may despise
doing it as teenagers. Allow them to play these roles, but be very careful
about force or shame to get them to do so.
- Remember that you are very influential in your children’s lives. In a
large study of adult TCKs (specifically missionary kids) one question asked
was, “Who was most important in your life as you were growing up?”
Two-thirds of the respondents named their parents: 32% said father, 28% said
both parents, and 6% said mother. The other one-third was distributed among
houseparents, teachers, siblings, friends, and others.
What does Bible say?
As noted in the introduction, the Bible mentions a variety of means of
discipline, ranging from the rod to love. No one method fits all children at all
times. It is clear that even the children of spiritual leaders go bad when not
- Sons of Eli, the priest. God told Samuel that he would judge Eli’s
family because of the sin Eli knew about and “he failed to restrain them” (1
- Sons of Samuel, the prophet. “But his sons did not walk in his ways (1
- Adonijah, son of David, the king. Adonijah proclaimed himself king. The
Bible says that “His father had never interfered with him by asking, ‘Why do
you behave as you do?’” (1 Kings 1:6).
Ronald Koteskey is
Member Care Consultant