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Parents: The Punishment Must Fit The Crime, Part 1 [Video]

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When disciplining our kids, we can learn something from the court system. The punishment must fit the crime.

In the court of law, there are 3 levels of criminal behavior:

  • Infraction: something like a parking ticket, a speeding ticket, or making too much noise. We don’t send a person to the electric chair for parking in a handicap spot.
  • Misdemeanor: disorderly conduct, reckless driving, or marijuana possession. We don’t send a person to prison for life for reckless driving.
  • Felony: the most serious crime, like murder, rape, or sexual abuse of a minor. We don’t fine a murderer $1000 and let him go free.

In each case, the courts have worked long and hard to make sure the punishment fits the crime.

Added to the mix is the issue of intent. The questions to be answered are:

  • Infractions: did the person intentionally refuse to abide by the no-parking signs and refuse to pay the fines, or did the person not know about the no-parking zone and never received the fines through any notification?
  • Misdemeanors: did the person intentionally get into a brawl in the bar because he was in drunken stupor, or was he sober and defending a woman who had been physically abused by her boyfriend?
  • Felonies: did the man commit murder or was it manslaughter? It is manslaughter when a pedestrian darts out across the street and is run over and killed by a driver who could not avoid hitting him. It was unintentional. It was without deliberation, premeditation, and malice. The court decides there is no crime. That differs from an individual taking out a gun and shooting the pedestrian who crosses the street in front of him when the light turns red. That’s murder, and the guilty person receives life imprisonment.

So how does all of this relate to parenting?

As the idiom says, “The punishment must fit the crime.” Actually, I do not like the word punishment because it sounds punitive, as in, “Because you got off track, you will suffer!” I use the word correction, since it is more positive and puts the child back on the right track.

Even so, the idiom works for the purpose of making a point to parents that they must neither over discipline nor under discipline. And in all of this, it is important to determine the child’s intentions.


When it comes to kids, there are social rules and moral laws.

A social rule would be:

  “Do your homework before you go out to play.”

  “Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”

  “Read your Bible before you go to bed.”

A moral law would be:

  “Do not be a cheater when playing games.”

  “Do not steal things from other people.”

  “God commands you not to lie.”

Punishing a child for failing to say “thank you for dinner” by sending him to his room for the rest of the evening and having no dessert is punishment that does not fit the crime. It is comparable to killing a fly with a shotgun. We call it overkill.

However if the child folded his arms in defiance and refused to say “thank you,” and this has become a pattern, then yes, the punishment might fit the crime. But when a child innocently forgets to say “thank you,” this does not constitute open rebellion. The child lacks social politeness, but he has not violated a moral principle.

This leads to the second major area: intent. As with the courts, what is the child’s intention? Children do things intentionally and unintentionally when it comes to the social rules and moral laws.

What do I mean?

With regard to social rules, there are unintentional responses and intentional reactions. In both instances, the children annoy us. They can be thoughtless and rude. However, the child is not morally bad, per se. The child lacks social etiquette, but he has not done something innately wrong.


A four-year-old boy does not sit still nor keep his voice down while attending a school play. Though his mom reminds him to quit wiggling and moving and to be quiet, at four years old he doesn’t think about the social rule as he should. He has no ill-will toward mom as he jumps to his feet and shouts, “There’s Johnny!” He’s just excited about his brother up on stage in costume.

Though the social rule is to remain still and quiet, at four he is a bit mindless! He is unintentionally annoying, but only because he is socially thoughtless! Remember that 1 Corinthians 13:11, “when I was a child, I used to think like a child.” What does that mean? Children do not think like an adult, which means they don’t always think! For this reason, no harm, no foul. The son need not be punished since there was no crime.

A twenty-six-year-old son forgets his luncheon date with his mom, who finds herself quite upset. However, it honestly slipped his mind. Yes, he is very annoying, but he did not intend to irritate or displease his mom. He was careless and unmindful, but not seeking to be offensive. Proverbs 14:9 states, “Among the upright there is good will.” When a son is an upright guy, he has goodwill and should be treated accordingly. He should not be punished as a social criminal out to offend mom.

A mom might write to her son saying,

"Remember how it felt to be stood up on a date, well how is it to be stood up on a lunch date by your own 26-year-old son, and to top it off, he sees you four days later and doesn't mention it at all. This is where I have to remember the "good-willed" principle and really exercise obedience to be merciful and forgiving. He, as a man in my life, did not intentionally get up that Wednesday morning and decide that he wanted to hurt me and ignore his promise to dear old mom. I have to CHOOSE to not say what is going through my mind, nor plot some stinging rebuke to his next attempt at making this lunch date…"

Unintentional annoyances are still annoying! We can feel dishonored because we have told the boy to hush a half dozen times, and the adult son should have a calendar on his mobile phone with reminders dinging an hour before the luncheon. Technically, these two should not be thoughtless, but they are. Even so, neither possesses ill-will, and for this reason a parent should just keep moving forward. Proverbs 12:16 may apply here, “A prudent man conceals dishonor.”

Tomorrow is a new day, keep moving on. Yes, keep coaching. A mother of a four-year-old will still need to tell him to use his inside voice, and a mother of an adult son could recommend a better calendar system. But there is no felony here, and a parent must not react as though their children have evil intent and have crossed the line morally. There should be no punishment if there really is no crime.

On the other hand, consider this.

A four-year-old yells, “I don’t want you to be my mommy.” He knows that what he says is wrong, though he is immature and does not fully recognize the pain that comment might inflict on his mommy; nonetheless, he has become old enough to know how to use words to hurt his mommy. He may not know what the word “rude” means, but he knows how to be rude.

However, to classify his rude comment as an immoral comment is excessive. That’s comparable to classifying a legal infraction as a legal felony. The boy intends to manipulate, not be mean. He wants a toy that he sees in the store, and mom says, “No.” He wants her to feel sorry for him and give into his wishes, so he announces, “I don’t want you to be my mommy.”

Yes, mommy is hurt by his words, but should she be offended? He’s a kid, and 1 Corinthians 13:11 states, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child,” which includes discovering how to use words to get what I want.

Mommy must not personalize his words but instruct him,

“We don’t talk this way. We call that rudeness. Such words are mean, and they hurt people. We use such words to trick people into giving us what we want or to hurt them for not giving to us what we want. That is wrong. You will go to your room for a time out. You come back to me when you have made a decision that you will not say those words.”


A sixteen-year-old girl does not want to have dinner at the nearby restaurant with her parents and out-of-town relatives. Angry at the inconvenience and upset by being with adults for a boring evening, she dilly-dallies in getting ready for the purpose of making mom and dad late. Then when seated at the table, she does not engage her relatives in any meaningful conversation. The daughter intends to be rude and achieves her aims. Though this is due more to immaturity, not immorality, since she had a fight with her boyfriend earlier that day. Though that’s not the crux of the matter, nonetheless she annoys and even offends her parents by her discourteous behavior.

There are two aspects here. This rudeness must not be rewarded by ignoring it. She is old enough to know better. She needs to encounter consequences to her immature behavior. For instance, taking her mobile phone from her for 5 days sends a strong message.

At the same time, parents must be spiritually mature on the heels of feeling disrespected. Proverbs 10:12 provides a warning and a challenge to drop it and move on. “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions.” A parent should overlook some of this due to the boyfriend problems.

But what about morality, reckless behavior and even rebellious behavior? How is a parent to respond to these? In Part 2, we will discuss how best to handle unintentional and intentional misbehavior that some view as immoral.

-Dr. E

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. Do you find yourself punishing your children for unintentional social thoughtlessness?
  2. How do you handle your children’s behavior when they are being socially rude?
  3. Do you make sure that your punishments fit their crimes in these situations?
  4. Do you take their intent into consideration when disciplining your children?