Balancing Love and Discipline

During the teenage years, many parents struggle with discipline. Questions arise like, What is appropriate punishment now that they’re older? and How do we balance love and discipline? Our parents faced these same kinds of questions when we were teenagers. On one hand, they knew that we needed more independence and responsibility as we began to separate from the family. However, increased responsibility can create many new and creative ways to make mistakes. We could fill a book with all the mistakes we made as teenagers. Therefore, as parents, how do we maintain a healthy balance of providing teenagers with freedom and holding them accountable when they make mistakes? My parents were faced with this issue when I (Michael) was fifteen years old.

One day, the three of us had driven to a nearby golf course for some early morning exercise. I had recently received my driving permit and was anxious for an opportunity to drive the car. Since we had parked about 300 yards from our house, my father thought it would be fun if I drove back alone. As I would soon discover, my “fun” would quickly change to disaster.

When I converged upon our house, Greg was sound asleep in the bedroom situated next to the driveway. As I pulled in to park, there were two cars positioned in such a way that I had to squeeze between them. Being my first driving experience, I was extremely nervous because the cars were parked so close together. Suddenly, I accidentally hit the gas peddle instead of the break and crashed into the bedroom wall. Unfortunately, the bookcases against the wall flew off and splattered on top of Greg. Buried under a pile of books, Greg was convinced that a major earthquake had hit and our house was sinking into the ocean.

Meanwhile, my parents were rounding the corner when they heard the thunderous crash. In record time, they sprinted home to find us staring at a large dent in the front wall. I’m sure their first instinct was to yell sarcastically, “Where did you get your license…off the back of a cereal box?” After all, they had given me some freedom and I almost parked the car into our bedroom. Once they calmed down and surveyed the situation, they said something that I’ll never forget. “Boys, no matter what mistakes you make in life, and you will make plenty, we will always love you no matter what!” After hearing those words, I was reminded of how much my parents loved me. But, they also kept me accountable by making me spend the weekend repairing the damage I had caused.

One of the greatest things our parents did was illustrated in those few special words. Our parents tried very hard to make sure we understood the importance of their statement. They consistently reminded us how there was nothing we could do that would hinder their love. By reassuring us of their unconditional love, our parents made it easier to seek their advice when we made mistakes.

Reassuring teenagers of your unconditional love is extremely important during these exciting yet hectic teenage years. It is important to build a foundation consisting of compassion, sensitivity, patience and understanding. This is known as the soft side of love.

This is very similar to Christ’s love as illustrated by the parable of the prodigal son. What happened to the son when he returned home bruised, emotionally wiped out, and completely out of money? The father made a feast in honor of his son. In other words, the father loved his son regardless of how much pain and humiliation he may have felt.

Father Joseph Girzone, author of the book Joshua, writes this about God’s grace and love toward humankind:

Your sins, as humbling as they may be, are all forgiven. They are part of the past, and as such they no longer exist. You are now a new person, a new creation, washed clean and renewed in my Blood. You may still make mistakes. It is human. But I also see your love and I know the many good things you do for others in need. So, do not worry! Do not be afraid! You are a good person and I take delight in you. I love you and I am always by your side. So, do not be anxious, and do not be ashamed. I love you just as you are (Never Alone by Joseph Girzone).

This is a perfect picture of the soft side of love. However, soft sided love by itself is incomplete. Hard sided love is also necessary when disciplining your teenager. The hard side of love is doing what’s best for your teenager regardless of the cost. Held in balance with soft side, it’s the ability to be consistent, to discipline, to protect, to challenge and to correct. It gives you the courage to point out how far your son or daughter has strayed from the Lord. But it is a power that is only harnessed when driven by unconditional love.

It was my parent’s soft side of love that was able to take the time to understand my feelings and listen instead of lecturing. I knew I had made a mistake, but I also knew my parents were going to stand by me. This balance between the two sides of love made a major difference in my life as I left for college. No matter what situations arose I knew that I could go to my parents and count on them to be by my side. Always encouraging me, but always guiding me to the right path.

If you want to love your children in a Christlike way, your love must contain both hard and soft sides. Remember that Jesus was always soft with people, yet hard on their problems. Likewise, as Dr. John Trent notes in the book Two Sides of Love, it is crucial that parents learn to balance hard and soft sides of love every day if they want to communicate the deepest, most meaningful kind of love to their children. Like a rose that has beautiful, soft petals (soft side) and sharp, strong thorns (hard side), the love for your children needs to have both.

How do you balance love and discipline in your home?

Taken with permission from Greg Smalley, Psy.D.  Greg Smalley, Psy.D. is director of Marriage Ministries for the Center for Relationship Enrichment on the campus of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Greg is the author or co-author of eight books concerning marriages and families. Visit Greg at

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