Orthodoxy Today
Smart Parenting XIII. Tools for Smart Punishing

When the intelligence is truly operative, we can properly be called human beings (St. Anthony the Great, Philokalia I).

Intelligence, the Church Fathers point out, is one of the chief characteristics that illustrate the biblical teaching that man is created in the image and likeness of God. It is important to state there is a difference between intelligence as used by those who make the object of their study the material world and view it the ultimate meaning of all things and those who study and use the material world as understanding and using the world God created both to glorify Him and follow our Lord's commandment to " ... love your neighbor as yourself." (Mt. 19:19).

Natural and Spiritual Knowledge

It is in the spirit of St. Gregory Palamas, that a distinction is made between natural and spiritual knowledge. "The way we achieve knowledge ... with regard to the laws of nature, and ..all knowledge acquired from the perception of particulars ... no such knowledge can ever be called spiritual, for it is natural, things of the Spirit being beyond its scope (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14) (Philokalia IV p. 354). Clearly St. Gregory is affirming natural knowledge of God's creation can be attained. What the saint is saying is that the higher and ultimate knowledge is "to know God truly in so far as this is possible is incomparably superior.." to understanding the laws of nature. With this we absolutely affirm: "this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe. '

Genesis records that God made man in His image. "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion...over all the earth ..." (Genesis 1:26). McGuckin (2004) notes that several Greek Fathers defined the term "image" by relating it to Adam's naming of the animals, thereby linking an attribute of the image of God in man to "mankind's dominion over the created order." In other words, the patristic exegesis highlights the different characteristics that man possesses over the animals such as understanding, rationality, and intelligence to conclude that these characteristics define in some measure the term "image of God."

Blessed Augustine drew another distinction that reached the same conclusion about the intellect as the Greek Fathers. He taught that man's soul displayed the image of the three persons of the Holy Trinity in a three-part function of memory, understanding and will.

Natural intelligence is the Practice and Requirement of the Church

These patristic views then maintain that since the rules that govern the world are written into the very fabric of creation and discerned by the intellect, they can be used for the healing purposes of God. The sciences and it and its applications are not static, but dynamic and ever changing, that is refined, as scientists get better at doing the "work of science." Its roots are ancient and continue to grow. The sciences applied to healing in the Early Church were crude in contrast to what we know today, but they were present nonetheless. The Church Fathers understood this well. St. Gregory of Nyssa said: "Medicine is an example of what God allows men to do when they work in harmony with Him and with one another." Basil of Caesarea said: "God's grace is as evident in the healing power of medicine and its practitioners as it is in miraculous cures" (Demakis 2004). Note both St. Gregory and St. Basil were using he science of their day to understand creation, participate in healing and glorifying God at the same time. This does not obviate the Church and it's holy mysteries in healing, in fact use of natural clinical science is enlivened only in Christ. As St. John of Damascus tells us we are worthy of Christ only : " ... having conformed ourselves to Him through good actions and become imitators of all who have ever been faithful servants of Christ" (Philokalia II pp.341-2).

Neglect of Behavioral Science is Sinful

It is from Church teaching then, found in scripture and the church fathers in their writings and practice that can be inferred that parents are to use their intelligence in raising their children as an obligation (Morelli, 2004, 2006b). Based on this it obvious that it is sinful to have knowledge of what promotes productive and/or destructive human behavior, both socially and even more important spiritually and not apply this knowledge. Our Lord's strong words may be recalled: "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Mt. 18: 5,6).

What Behavioral Science Tells Us About Punishment

Punishment is a behavioral tool to decrease behavior. There are two forms of punishment: positive and negative. There is much confusion over the meaning of positive and negative. In scientific study and clinical application the term positive is synonymous with add, and the term negative with subtract. Punishment is to be applied after a behavior that is deemed inappropriate (Morelli, 2005, 2006a). Unfortunately, parents and others sometimes punish good or appropriate behavior.

A positive punishment example. Inappropriate behavior: Johnny throws his paint on the living room wall. Punishing consequence: Johnny is made to clean and re-paint the entire wall under parental supervision. Note the cleaning and repainting is added (like the plus [+] sign) after the bad behavior. In this case we are going to presume Johnny finds the cleaning and re-painting unpleasant. In calling this type of punishment "positive" we are not describing how Johnny (or his parents) feel about the punishment. It only describes the consequence that was "added" after the bad behavior was performed.

A negative punishment example. Inappropriate behavior: Mary hits her brother Billy while they are watching television. Punishing consequence: Mary is told she cannot watch her favorite television show which is coming up next. Note the watching of the television show is subtracted (like the minus [-] sign) after the bad behavior. Once again we are going to presume for this case Mary (and her parents) will find this unpleasant. Again we are not describing how anyone feels about the consequence. It only describes that a consequence that was "subtracted" after the bad behavior was performed.

How to Apply Punishment

It can be seen from these punishment examples that the punishing consequences either added or subtracted are activities. Based on the research clinical literature, activity punishers (Chance, 2006) are the quite effective in most behavioral situations a parent is likely to encounter in a home, or teacher in as school. What is not stated but is of critical importance, is that parent child interaction must be completely devoid of inappropriate emotions such as anger. Anger is usually communicated by tone of voice, yelling, screaming shouting and by choice of abusive, blasphemous, demeaning, and/or scatological words. It is imperative the anyone interacting with children and adolescents -- and all persons may I add as we are all made in God's image and called to be like Him -- be under total emotional control (Morelli, 2006b,c).

How Does Punishment Work?

Theoretically punishment decreases the behavior it follows. In most family or school situations the effects of punishment are at best temporary. Punishment will suppress a response (either a good or bad behavior) while it is being applied. When removed, most behaviors will go back to their original rate of occurrence. In the example of Mary and her brother Billy above, as long as the parent continues to shut off the TV whenever fighting begins, the fighting level should stay down. Once the fighting is ignored, the number and intensity of fights between the brother and sister would usually go back to previous levels.

Based on reviewing the research literature (Bandura, Chance, 2003; Masters, Bursh, Hollon, & Rimm, 1987), several general considerations in delivery of punishment can be made:

  1. Introducing punishment at full intensity of punishment increases its suppressive behavior effect. The very important practical implication of this factor will be discussed later.

  2. The greater intensity of the punishing stimulus the greater the suppression of behavior. This factor is related to the above and the implication will also be discussed later.

  3. The more immediate the punishing stimulus in applied after behavior the greater its suppressive effect.

  4. Consistent Continual punishing is more effective in suppressing behavior than intermittent (occasional) punishment delivery.

  5. Reinforcing alternative (good) behaviors as soon as possible after delivery of punishment will maximize the effects of punishment and at the same time increase desirable (good) behaviors.

Does Punishment Work?

The research literature also lists problems with punishment. These are problems rudimentary and were uncovered shortly after behavioral research began. (Skinner, 1953). Such problems lead psychologists such as (Baldwin and Baldwin, 1998) to note "alternatives are available that work better than punishment in many situations."

Among the less serious an important problem with punishment is:

Punishment only works on a temporary basis. Behavior remain suppressed as along as punishment continually accompanies the occurrence of the wanted or unwanted behaviors (being punished). On practical level this means the individual's behavior would have to be monitored and punishment delivery continuously maintained to keep up permanent suppression of behavior. Because of this difficulty punishment is at best a temporary solution. For example if an unwanted behavior a child is performing is lying, at best parents may only catch a few of many occurrences. Lying is sure to continue.

Among the more serious problems with punishment are the following:

Observational learning during punishment is always taking place. Bandura's pioneer work (cf.1987) shattered the myth that punishment prevents learning. In conditions in which children observe any behavior being performed, either by themselves, (self observation) or others (whether rewarded or punished they are learning what they see. Whatever is learned can be performed later under appropriate incentive conditions.

If the punishment delivered is aggressive, children are learning aggression. When punishment is delivered in an angry, nasty, loud tone of voice, children are learning to talk in angry, nasty and loud voice. If punishment is accompanied by scatological 'cuss like words' children are learning to use these same words in daily life. (cf. Morelli, 2006c). Physical punishment especially, has been related to bullying behavior. It is intertwined by a complex interaction of family, biological, psycho-social factors (Teicher, Samson, , Polcari, , McGreenery, 2006).

Unfortunately there is a link to suicide as well. Thus one of the more tragic consequences of aggressive punishment. Mona O'Moore, Ph.D, finds "There is a growing body of research which indicates that individuals, whether child or adult who are persistently subjected to abusive behavior are at risk of stress related illness which can sometimes lead to suicide."

Punishment, especially intense punishment produces neuro-psychological excitatory effects. This effect is mediated by the Sympathetic Nervous System with the activation of several neuro-transmitters, one important transmitter being norepinephrine. This results in a number of effects including constriction of blood vessels to the skin and digestive tract, dilation (opening) of blood vessels supplying the heart and skeletal muscles dilation of the lung sacs, bladder relaxation, and cognitive confusion.

These are also the same effects of what is known as the "fight or flight" response also known as stress, the sequel of which is either a behavioral defense (fight or running way) or behavioral rigidity or inhibition of even desirable behaviors. This latter effect is also sometime referred to as general response suppression. It is a form of psychological avoidance of what would be considered appropriate behavior, because it may be associated in some way with punished behavior. Shyness, inability to speak up or be assertive, give suggestions when asked, avoid leading would be some examples of this subtle outcome.

Punishment inclines individuals to avoid both punishment and those who punish. Because punishment is for most children (and anyone) to be quite unpleasant they are negatively reinforced to behave in a way to avoid punishment (Morelli, 2005, 2006a). A good example is the lying behavior children frequently exhibit. If the consequence of telling the truth is so unpleasant it is avoided by lying. Children who are punished for telling the truth, learn to lie because the consequence of lying perceived and felt as more pleasant than telling the truth. Punishment for lying may temporarily suppress the lying behavior, until a way of being more cleaver and sophisticated in lying is discovered and employed. Children also avoid the agents of punishment, police are distrusted and avoided , truancy from home and school. Thus those who should be the major guides of desirable pro-social behavior and spiritual Godly behavior have less influence.

Punishment of an activity generalizes to related activities. A child who is punished for being clumsy with household craftsman repair, may have the unpleasant emotions become associated to any household repair projects and tools associated with such projects: nails, hammers, saws, pipes, painting sanding etc. Criticism of one project may lead to being associated with similar projects.

The Special Problem of Corporal Punishment

Many sincere well meaning religious individuals believe corporal punishment is mandated by Holy Scripture and if they be parents they would be negligent in not employing corporal punishment in their families.

Let me say this upfront: This view is absolutely wrong! It is objectively sinful. I can never judge an individual, only a behavior based on Christ's teaching given to His Body the Church. Just as abortion, adultery, fornication, so called gay marriage etc. is sinful, so too, corporal punishment is intrinsically sinful. I pray, in my heart, in all sincerely the well known prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian: "Yea O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother." In the spirit of St. Paul (1Cor. 2:15) my purpose is to follow his counsel: "The spiritual man judges all things." I judge corporal punishment, not 'those' who desire or perform corporal punishment in thought, word or deed. The judgment of individual persons is for God only.

In order to understand why the usual so called "biblical" arguments in favor of corporal punishment is wrong but the scriptures and the teachings of Christ, the Church and the saints have to be investigated.

Usual Pro-Corporal Punishment Scriptural Arguments

Typical is the verse as reported from the book of Proverbs: "Spare the rod and spoil the child." This is actually a misquote from the actual scriptural passage: "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him" (Proverbs 13: 24). There is actually another passage from the book of Proverbs that can is usually quoted in support of corporal punishment: Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from Sheol" (Proverbs 23:13-14).

Scripture Passages to Ponder

If scripture is to be followed literally, without the Holy Spirit inspired Body of Christ: the Orthodox Catholic Church, it is without the Holy Spirit. Consider biblical literalists applying the instruction from Deuteronomy (21:18-21). "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.' Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones [emphasis mine]; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear." I cannot imagine any well meaning persons who call themselves "followers of Christ" applying this passage literally and stone their children when they become stubborn or rebellious. There are few children who have not been rebellious at sometimes in their lives. If this law were followed literally there would be far less Christians in the world.

The Bible in Orthodoxy: Scripture in Tradition

The Church

Christians trace their founding to Jesus Christ, by His sending (decent) of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost on His apostles and disciples. Following St. Paul, we know that the teachings of Jesus were understood by Christians by them being sanctified by this same Holy Spirit. St. Paul did much to spread the teachings of Jesus throughout the Roman world. To one group he wrote: "To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Consider the very important passage from St. Paul's 2nd letter to the Thessalonians (13-15): "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter." And St. Paul writing to the Corinthians concerning the teachings Jesus passed in tradition to His Church: "I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you" (1 Corinthians 11:2).

Jesus the Cornerstone, the Apostles and their Successors the Foundation

St Paul told the Ephesians "you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone..." (2: 19, 30) St Luke told his readers: "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [bishops], to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son (Acts 20:28) St Peter written during his Rome imprisonment to former gentiles and pagans tells them: "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Following St. Paul, these traditions, oral first and then written, were passed from the apostles to their successors, the bishops and priests (2 Peter 1: 20-21). The revelation of Jesus is known therefore through the oral tradition and practice of the church and through the written scriptures. The written scriptures compiled by St. Athanasious the Great in c. 328 A.D., and New Testament Synod of Laodicaea (381 A.D.) and both ratified by a continuation of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (3rd Constantinople, 682 A.D.), also known as the 2nd canon of the 2nd Trullan Council in 692 A.D. (Pelikan, 2005), by the same overseers (Gr. episkopi) whom the Holy Spirit inspired to care for the church by maintaining the "traditions." This is important because the synergy of Christ's teaching (and application to spirituality and psychology) must be both true to Christian teaching in tradition, practice and scripture and modern scientific psychology.

The Church often through the prayerful understanding of the "Church Fathers" were not teaching anything new but merely discovering what Jesus had taught and passed on to the apostles and their successors the bishops as inspired by the Holy Spirit (McGuckin 2004) has expressed this very succinctly: "the perceived duty of those attending the councils ("overseers" as in St. Luke [Acts 20] above) was to "recognize," by comparison with past precedent, the faith of the church, and having recognized it acclaim it in the spirit." Fr. John Breck (2001) has labeled this as a "circular approach." Fr. John tells us: "To the patristic mind, what makes this seemingly circular approach not only possible but necessary is the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who guides the Church and her inspired authors both to preserve and to transmit the essential element of Tradition." This is to say Scripture "can only truly be understood and expounded from within."

An interpreter must be in personal union with the One, Holy, Catholic Apostolic, and Orthodox Church (Breck, 2001). The person who is given the gift of understanding is one who live a life of repentance, metanoia (change of mind and heart to God), unceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) deep prayer of quiet, and asceticism leading to the indwelling of Christ in the center of their hearts. Then the person in union with Christ, His Body the Church, and enlivened by the Holy Spirit is able to hear the word of God. This is told to us by Christ Himself, who told His Apostles: "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables" (Mark 4:11).

Our Holy Father St. Diadochos of Photiki warns: "The unilluminated should not embark on spiritual speculations nor, on the other hand, should anyone try to speak while the light of the Holy Spirit is shining richly upon him. For where there is emptiness, ignorance is also to be found, but where there is the richness of the Spirit, no speech is possible." Later St. Diadochos continue: "Spiritual knowledge comes through prayer, deep stillness and complete detachment, while wisdom comes through humble meditation on Holy Scripture and, above all, through grace given by God."

Interpretation by Non-Apostolic Christian Communities or Individuals

To respect that Christ never coerced anyone, He invited, but never compelled: He counseled. Thus I speak for myself only. I pray I am united to His Body the Holy, Catholic Apostolic and Orthodox Church, but no one including me, I pray, is interested in my view of scripture unless as it conforms to the Spirit inspired understanding of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Orthodox Church. In the Kingdom of God, His creatures have free will. We are all called to be in His Kingdom, but must cooperate by our free will to follow the call by chosen only of "For many are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14).


The American Heritage Dictionary (1994) defines discipline as: "Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement." Looking at the origins of the word discipline the Dictionary informs us it is related to: di-dk-ske-. DISCIPLE, (DISCIPLINE), from the Latin discere, to learn. PANDECT, SYNECDOCHE, from Greek dekhesthai, to accept; and DIPLODOCUS, from Greek dokos, beam, support.

It certain is the duty of every committed Christian to discipline their child. It is their duty to have an effective "training program" to enable their children to learn accept and support Godly-Christ-like behavior.

Our God given Intelligence by scientific method has shown us not only does corporal punishment not do make Christ-like behavior but models the ways of the "evil-one", and often produces his works. It behooves Christian parents to follow the characteristics of the physician-healers of the Church working in the monastery-hospitals established by such saints as St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom. This list from Demakis (2004) and discussed by Morelli (2006d) should be a model for the ethos of Orthodox Christian parenting today:

  1. They were committed to Christ and were holy men before they became healers.

  2. They lived as deeply committed Christians in personal prayer, meditation, fasting, and actively prayed for their patients.

  3. They were outstanding physicians often "first in their medical school class." Medical science was regarded as a serious academic discipline (emphasis mine).

  4. They had a "deep and abiding love" for mankind and strove to see "the image of Christ" in every patient. This was shown in their actions including long working hours, refusal of any payment, turning their homes into hospitals, and the personal care they showed toward their patients ("fed and cared for their patients personally").

  5. They attributed their healing skills and medical successes to God.

Effective punishment, properly administered is but one tool of effective Godly discipline.

Smart Orthodox Discipline

The principles of Cognitive-Behavioral Management, discussed and referenced above applied in a loving, kind and firm manner is smart Orthodox parenting. These discipline techniques must be embedded solidly in the foundation of Christ and His Church.

Christ is the physician and teacher of us all and His Church is the hospital and school of salvation. The teachings of the Church Fathers, prayer, the holy mysteries, (Confession, the Eucharist etc.) combined with scientific psychology are the medicine, curriculum and bedrock of Christian parenting.

Jesus said, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." And he laid his hands on them and went away (Matthew 9: 14-15).


American Heritage Dictionary. (3rd ed.). (1994). Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Baldwin, J. & Baldwin, J. (1998). Behavior Principles in Everyday Life. (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Chance, P. (2006). Learning and Behavior (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth.

Demakis J. (2004). Historical Precedents for Synergia: Combining Medicine, Diakonia and Sacrament in Byzantine Times. In S. Muse (Ed.). Raising Lazarus: Integral healing in Orthodox Christianity. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

Masters, J.C., Bursh, T.G., Hollon, S.D., & Rimm, D.C. (1987). Behavior Therapy. Harcourt

Morelli, G. (2004). Christian Asceticism and Cognitive Behavioral Psychology. In S. Muse (Ed.). Raising Lazarus: Integral Healing in Orthodox Christianity. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting Part 1. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.

Morelli, G. (2006a, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, March 25). Smart Parenting III: Developing Emotional Control. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting3.php.

Morelli, G. (2006c, September 24). Smart Parenting IV: Cuss Control. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting4.php.

Morelli, G. (2006d, December 21). The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHealing.php.

McGuckin, J.A. (2004). The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology . Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press.

O'Moore, M. (2008). Anti-Bullying Center Trinity College, Dublin http://www.abc.tcd.ie/publications.html Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (1981). The Philokalia, Volume 2: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth .. London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1986). The Philokalia, Volume 3: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth .. London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1995). The Philokalia, Volume 4: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth .. London: Faber and Faber.

Pelikan, J. (2005). Whose Bible is it? : A short history of the Scriptures. Newark, NJ: Penguin Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and human behavior. NY: Macmillan.

Teicher MH, Samson JA, Polcari A, McGreenery CE. (2006) Sticks, stones, and hurtful words: relative effects of various forms of childhood maltreatment. American Journal of Psychiatry. 163, 6, 993-1000.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: June 10, 2008

Copyright © 2001-2021 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. Follow copyright link for details.
Text size: A  A  A