When Children Behave Badly

Important tips and principles for disciplining children in a small group

On its good nights, the small group resembled an engaging extended family party—ten couples of varying ages filling the church with animated discussion, laughter, friendly debates, prayer, and the exuberant sound of children of all ages playing together. On its not so good nights, the small group resembled a reform school filled with overworked, overly stressed parents whose bickering offspring had run amuck through multiple children's classrooms, leaving a trail of tears and toys in their wake.

For Little Village, as this group became known, the issue of discipline threatened to break up the happy "family" whose full intergenerational roster numbered almost 50 members.


Respect is the number one issue for intergenerational small groups to address when it comes to discipline, and it starts with the small-group leaders. Leaders need to take the bull by the horns and be upfront and honest with their group members from the very beginning, facilitating a conversation among parents about how and when discipline will take place.

Common ground. Scott Smith, MA/LCPC of Chicago Christian Counseling Center, has some good advice: "Have the adults talk about it first. What is acceptable behavior? How much discipline can another parent (or a babysitter) have over someone else's child? What are acceptable boundaries? Verbal or physical reprimands? Time outs? Being asked to leave the group? You need to establish the ground rules."

"Your group needs to have shared standards for big issues that may arise," adds veteran Christian educator Karen Maurer. "Those would probably include things like damage to the house or church, bullying of other children, and mistreatment of animals (if meeting in someone's home). Kids respond to authority. If they don't know where the limits are, they'll keep going."

These limits, boundaries and ground rules can be formally established in the small-group covenant that is discussed and/or signed by all group members at the initial meeting. For any new members who come along later, the leaders should be sure to make them aware of the discipline guidelines that the group has agreed to follow.

Talk it up. Once the parents in the group decide on boundaries and limits, they need to share that information with their children. If possible, this sharing should be done in a group setting with all parents and children present so it is obvious that all households are on the same page. In addition, parents should remind children before each meeting what behavior is okay and what is not.

"You can't over-communicate enough," says Smith, who is the elder overseeing small-group ministry at his church. "Group members need to make it clear to their children: 'This is who is in charge. These are the rules. This is what's acceptable.'"

Kristi Laney, small-group leader at Village Christian Church in Minooka, IL, says: "I know in my home, I've had to remind other kids of the rules, ask them to share, help clean up, or ask them to stop doing something. But if the behavior is to a certain level, I will direct them to the parent. I think in certain situations it can be difficult because you don't want to offend the other parent if their child is doing something wrong, and you don't want it to affect a relationship."

We Are Family

Which brings up a very good point. Small groups often begin to feel like family, especially intergenerational small groups where parents and children are mixing and mingling with other households. This relationship building is a blessing, yet the road is paved with potential pot holes because people are—well, people. And oftentimes the informality that develops in family-like friendships can lead to not following formal procedures very closely, which means the leaders need to watch for (and try to prevent) accidents waiting to happen.

"The old saying 'It takes a village to raise a child' is a good one, and it's an advantage of groups where parents and children are present together because they'll have the opportunity to learn from each other," says Maurer. "Not only is your group benefitting through its formal fellowship and study, but also from the parent-to-parent support and informal parenting education that's going to happen as families get to know each other well."

Lisa Parker, a member of Laney's small group at Village Christian Church, would agree. When those small-group bonds begin to feel like family ties, parents will often jump right in to correct any child's behavior, not just their own. However, Parker offers a bit of advice when offender's parent is standing right there in the room. "You may want to point out to the parent in a respectful way why the current actions may not be safe. Sometimes the parent may just not notice what's going on until it's pointed out," she explains. Giving the parent a chance to correct things leads to fewer toes being stepped on and fewer tempers fraying while giving the message that families support each other and help each other out.

"We are called by God to come alongside each other," Smith shares. "We all have a responsibility to help other parents communicate to their kids what is okay. If there's an issue, address it. Don't let it fester. Address it in a timely and loving manner."

All My Brothers, Sisters, and Me

But sometimes discipline is not the issue at all. Something may be going on with the child in terms of developmental delays or medical conditions—issues that may not even have been professionally addressed yet. Group members need to tread carefully along this road, walking alongside the parents and using Ephesians 4:14-16 as a guide.

Speak the truth in love. "I am a strong advocate of 'I' messages," Maurer says. "It's inhumane to have a public conversation with the parents if it really appears that there is something more serious going on with a child's behavior. The group leader can take the parent(s) aside and say something like, 'It looks to me like you're at your wit's end with George. You tell him something and he ignores it. You tell him again, and he ignores it again. Do you need help?' Then you have the possibility of a redemptive 'village' where all the residents come together to help raise this child and support the parents in their challenges." That help may include praying for or with the parents, seeking further advice from the church's pastoral staff, and/or working with the parents to find appropriate medical treatment or counseling.

"It's certainly good," Smith adds, "to know up front whatever special issues are present in the group." Parents of special needs children should be open with group leaders about how their family handles social interaction and discipline, and group leaders should communicate that to the other families so that both children and adults can be welcoming and inclusive to those with different needs.

Confronting a brother. For situations that have moved beyond the small-group leaders' diplomacy skills and counseling abilities, Smith relies on Matthew 18:15-16 as a guiding principle.

So when a discipline situation has become a discipline problem and the leader speaking privately to the parent(s) has not resolved things, the next step is to go to the church governing board and/or staff and ask for them to meet with the parents. "One of the worst things you can do is let it go," says Smith. "It feels like that may be the easier route, but it will lead to bigger problems."

Newton's Third Law of Motion says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. While Newton was a physicist, his principle certainly applies to group dynamics in intergenerational settings. There have to be natural and logical consequences established for every potential discipline situation, and that applies to the adult reactions, as well. Groups would do well to establish those ground rules early and stick to them, allowing their members to grow up into Christ and build their groups up in love.

—Rachel Gilmore is author of The Complete Leader's Guide to Christian Retreats and Church Programs and Celebrations for All Generations.

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