When Tim Kimmel was 13, he and his friend decided to break into a nearby clubhouse to play on the jackpot machine inside. The two boys were feeling bored and cooped up by the long winter, and thought they’d get away with it—after all, they reasoned, they wouldn’t actually be stealing anything.

In fact, they lost all their pocket money at the machine. Carefully unplugging the machine, they crept out through the back, trying to avoid leaving any sign of their entry—right into the arms of two waiting policemen. The cops had been alerted by a passer-by.

The police called their parents. The father of Tim’s friend, a policeman himself, asked the station to let his son go. “I’ll deal with him myself,” he told his colleagues. Aware that he wanted to save face, they agreed, knowing that the irate father would punish his son severely for embarrassing him.

“Kids don’t need perfect parents. They just need imperfect, grace-filled parents.”

Tim’s father, however, just asked the police what they would do with his son. When they replied that they would keep him for a while for some questioning and send the case on to the juvenile court, Tim’s father calmly said, “Okay, just call me when you’re done.”

“The police proceeded to really scare me,” recalls Tim. “They tried to link me with other recent crimes. Then they said they’d let the judge decide.”

When the interrogation ended and Tim got home, he expected a second round from his father. To his surprise, however, his dad didn’t yell at him. He just grounded his son and listed out all the chores that would keep him occupied and out of trouble.

Tim’s case eventually came before the court. Glaring at him fiercely, the judge gave him a good tongue-lashing, then told him he’d let Tim go on one condition: that he never saw the teen in court again.

“I never did anything stupid again,” says Tim.

His friend, however, has since been in and out of prison several times. In worrying more about his own image than allowing his son to face the right discipline, his father had missed out on giving the lesson that really mattered.

The Difference Between Punishment and Discipline

Today, Tim is a well-known author of many books on parenting, including Grace Based Parenting and Grace Filled Marriage. He is also the founder and executive director of Family Matters (familymatters.net), a US-based ministry that helps families in the journey of restoration and reformation as they learn to draw from God’s grace.

He will never forget appearing in court as a young teen, nor his father’s calm response. “My dad was not worried about his own image, he was far more concerned that I didn’t grow up to be a fool. He didn’t take it personally, he let me suffer the consequences of my actions so that I wouldn’t suffer in the future.”

That, says Tim, is the difference between punishment and discipline. While punishment is exacting a price for a wrong with no concern for how this impacts the perpetrator—which the law of the land does in the name of justice—discipline is something done out of love, and is based on a desire to make a person better.

“The consequences of discipline and punishment may look the same,” he adds, “but the way they’re carried out by the parent and the influence they have on the person receiving them are quite different.”

Punishment involves shaming and condemnation. It doesn’t care how the consequences impact the child.

But that is not how God deals with His children. Tim reminds us that John 3:17 teaches us that God wants to rescue the world from their sin—not by putting us in our place, but by saving us from the mess our lives have created. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

“We don’t need to deny our emotions, but when it’s time to come to a decision about consequences, we need to use the truth, facts, logic, and common sense—and we need the Bible to guide us on that.”

Says Tim: “Discipline is a form of grace. When our kids make mistakes, we punish them. But God doesn’t punish His children—at least not any more. That’s because He sent His Son to take our punishment for us. Now, all God does is discipline His children with the goal of making them better people. It’s what love is all about. Love is a commitment of my will to your needs and best interest, regardless of the cost to me.”

This truth is captured in Hebrews 12:4–6: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Why You Shouldn’t Discipline with Your Emotions

One of the biggest challenges for parents when a child misbehaves, says Tim, is reacting with their negative emotions—such as anger, rage, and condemnation—and doling out guilt and shame.

“We don’t need to deny our emotions, but when it’s time to come to a decision about consequences, we need to use the truth, facts, logic, and common sense—and we need the Bible to guide us on that.”

“But emotions cannot think, they can only feel,” he points out. That’s why reacting with them may cause parents to act with the wrong motivation. “We don’t need to deny our emotions, but when it’s time to come to a decision about consequences, we need to use the truth, facts, logic, and common sense—and we need the Bible to guide us on that.”

Or, parents may respond angrily because they feel their kids have embarrassed or shamed them.

This, notes Tim, may arise from their own perception of their children as an extension of their own ego, as the father of Tim’s friend felt. Again, responding with such emotions will lead to the wrong motivations for discipline.

Some parents also believe in teaching their children a lesson by shaming them. But this, argues Tim, can disconnect parents from the heart of their children and humiliate them. “Why do we do that to our kids?” he says. “We need to treat our kids the way God treats us.”

Discipline Doesn’t Mean Not Correcting A Wrong

At the same time, discipline doesn’t mean not correcting a wrong and letting a child suffer the consequence of misbehaviour.

The end result of discipline, says Tim, can look just like punishment, but the motivation is different. It is to set a child right and teach him a lesson, not to get even with them, show them who’s boss, or humiliate them.

Drawing from the truth of Hebrews 12:11—“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it”—Tim and his wife Darcy have been strict in enforcing the consequences of rules broken.

While punishment is exacting a price for a wrong with no concern for how this impacts the perpetrator—which the law of the land does in the name of justice—discipline is something done out of love, and is based on a desire to make a person better.

When their youngest son Colt went to high school, they let him have the use of an old car. On the evening of the same day they passed him the keys, two policemen turned up at their door to tell them that their son’s car had been used as the “getaway” vehicle by some youths who thought it fun to “rearrange” some Christmas decorations in someone’s yard. The two policemen said they’d rather leave it to him and Darcy to deal with Colt themselves.

When Colt turned up later, Tim told him, “You’ve been having fun at someone else’s expense, we need to go talk with them about it and see what you need to do to make things right.”

Tim took Colt over to the house he and his friends had pranked, where Colt addressed its owners, a couple, saying sheepishly, “My name is Colt Kimmel, and I’m an idiot.”

Tim then let his son get a well-deserved dressing down from the man’s wife. After his son promised to help them with chores as a compensation, Tim drove Colt home.

“There was no scolding. We took away the car keys and said, ‘You’ll get these back in a month’, and it was over. I didn’t shame and mock him. I didn’t take it personally. I wasn’t surprised that my son did stupid things like that, because I did it too when I was a teenager. We just needed to discipline and correct him.”

Parents Need to Admit Their Own Mistakes Too

Just as Tim and Darcy have raised their children to own up when they mess up, they themselves have tried to be accountable to their own children.

Every few months, they would have a “What’s your beef” night, when their kids could tell them frankly things they felt their parents had done wrong.

“Of course, they had to do it respectfully. But we wouldn’t try to explain or defend ourselves. We’d just apologise,” says Tim.

Tim and his wife are able to do this because they know that God—and their kids—will forgive them.

“As Hebrews 4:15–16 tells us, we have a high priest who is able ‘to feel sympathy for our weaknesses’, and we can ‘approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace’. We know we will get it wrong, and the Bible tells us that we should be ready to admit our faults.”

Their own attitude towards their own flaws, and their reliance on God’s mercy, also show their children how much they themselves appreciate God’s grace—and are ready to give it.

“Kids don’t need perfect parents,” he says. “They just need imperfect, grace-filled parents.”