Training Young Children to Obey (Obedience, Part 4)

Training Young Children to Obey (Obedience, Part 4 on the Doorposts Blog)

Last week we considered what obedience looks like, and how our own example is an integral part of teaching our children.

Today I want to look more closely at some tactics for teaching young children to obey. My children are still young (ages 1, 3, 4, and 6), and I’m thoroughly convinced that these early years are the prime time to be teaching obedience. (Next week, you’ll hear from my mama, with her perspective on teaching older children to respect parental authority.)

It’s a short season.

Our goal in teaching obedience now is to give our children the self-control and the maturity they will need to take responsibility for their own lives as young adults, when they’re out from under our authority and directly accountable to God. Though we exert tight control in many areas now, we must aim to progressively lift this control and give our children more and more freedom as they grow. Our authority and control will decrease, and their personal responsibility will increase.

Parents of adult children tell me it’s a rewarding process to make this transition from being the authority over your child to becoming his trusted counselor. We can’t and shouldn’t expect our children to obey us for the rest of their lives. This is a short season.

Routines are your friend.

We don’t want to spend all day in discipline mode. If you have little children, you’re already working pretty hard just to keep them fed, clothed, rested, and occupied throughout the day. Establishing household routines helps reduce potential conflict points. When everyone knows that we get dressed for bed, get a drink of water, then read a story on the couch, and then go to bed, the children will know what to expect, and you won’t have to give (or enforce) so many commands. This tactic made a huge difference in our home. Incidents of disobedience decreased as we settled into routines for cleaning up after meals, taking afternoon naps, and getting ready for bed. Children thrive on this kind of structure.

Train proactively.

Have you ever noticed that the situations you most want your children to obey often occur at a time or place that it’s hardest to discipline them effectively?

They act up during the church service, when we don’t want to make a scene, or at bedtime, when we’re getting tired and easily frustrated. At times like these, it’s harder to keep our cool and to know what to do.

Sometimes it helps to set up a training opportunity at a time that’s more conducive to teaching. Children can learn to sit still while you read stories at home before you expect them to sit still in church. They can learn to stay in their beds for a short naptime during the day, and then bedtime will be easier. Reminding them of your expectations before going into church or into the store can be helpful too.

Our children learned to respond with “yes Daddy” and “yes Mommy” when we made a silly game out of it and played that game with them for a few evenings. They loved it, and it helped them get into the habit. Having them respond when we talk to them helps us know they heard us, and it seems to help them obey more cheerfully and promptly too.

Limit their choices.

After reading Reb Bradley’s book Child Training Tips, we realized that giving our young children too many choices throughout the day was making it harder for them to submit their will to ours. If preschoolers are allowed to be self-centered all day, choosing the clothes they will wear, the food they will eat, the stories we’ll read them, and the activities we do with them, it’s not too surprising that they don’t want to stay in their beds at bedtime. Our children seemed to get frustrated and even overwhelmed when we gave them too many choices (which I was doing mostly out of laziness). We had to take back almost all of these decisions until our children became at peace with us being in charge.

Rebellion is the heart issue.

When it comes time to discipline for disobedience, we need to distinguish between rebellion, which is a rejection of our authority (and ultimately God’s), and immaturity, which would include things like accidentally spilling their water or other non-moral issues. Children who make mistakes might need gentle instruction, but not chastisement.

Ask “what?” not “why?”

We want to help our children own up to what they did wrong and apologize for disobeying (if they are old enough to do so). It took me a while to realize that it’s more beneficial to ask “what did you do wrong?” instead of “why did you do that?” (Which, for some reason, is usually the first thought that comes into my head.) More often than not, they don’t know why. Asking “why?” is an invitation for the child to think up excuses instead of taking responsibility. We should help them acknowledge what they did wrong, and then begin to teach them about the “why.”

Help them see their heart.

When our children disobey, we shouldn’t despair. We should be glad for the opportunity to do the real job God has given us. God didn’t say “make sure your children obey cheerfully the first time.” He told us to discipline our children and to raise them up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Our children are sinners (just like us), and their outward behavior reveals what’s going on inside their hearts. Training methods like bribery, punishment, and various kinds of manipulation can produce well-behaved children. But that completely misses the point of Christian parenting. A disobedient child needs to see his sinful heart and the grace, hope, and strength to change that only Jesus offers.This is where we can bring God’s Word into the process, both in pointing our children to God’s standards and then to what Jesus has done for us. Even by age 3 or 4, young children can begin to grasp this.

The place for chastisement.

In the Bible, disobedience and rebellion usually bring God’s children painful consequences. Hebrews 12:6 says “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives,” and Hebrews 12:11 tells us “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” God has ordained “the rod” as the means of chastising disobedient children and keeping them in the “safe zone” of submission to proper authority. Coupled with love and verbal instruction, the rod can help reach a young child’s heart.

For these reasons, controlled spanking is an appropriate part of our parenting toolbox. It is possible to misuse the rod, and so we must be careful not to spank when we’re angry, frustrated, or out of control. We must not spank arbitrarily in an unpredictable way. Spanking must be done carefully, out of faith in God’s instructions, as His agents for the good of our children.

Discipline is corrective, not punitive.

There is a difference between discipline and punishment. The goal of punishment is justice and retribution for a sin or crime. The goal of discipline is repentance, growth, and life. Discipline is designed to bring about change in the person being disciplined. Discipline is concerned with the person’s future and well-being.

Discipline is loving.

As we saw in Part 2 a few weeks ago, God wants us to obey Him because He loves us and knows what is best for us, and we should have the same attitude towards our children. We need to approach discipline in a loving way, or we can send the wrong message. Our own frustrations and tiredness can easily get in the way. At times, it’s best to send the child to one room while you go to another to cool down and pray for God’s help to discipline in love. Here’s what a calm discipline session might look like with a two-year-old:

(In the bedroom, Dad is sitting on the edge of the bed, 2-year old son is in his lap and Dad is looking him in the eye.)

(seriously) “Did you obey Daddy?”

(solemnly) “No.”

“God says you should obey mama and daddy. When you disobey, I have to give you a spanking. We’re going to have two spankings now.”

(bend over knee and give two spankings on the bottom)

(hug until done crying)

“I love you.” —  “Can you say, ‘Daddy, I’m sorry for disobeying’?”

“I’m sorry for disobeying.”

“I forgive you.” (hug again) “Will you obey Daddy next time?”


“Good. Let’s pray that God will help you. Dear Jesus, I thank you for ____ and for making me his daddy. Help him to obey Daddy. Thank you Jesus that you forgive us when we sin. Thank you that you love us. Help us to obey you. In your name we pray, amen.”

(By this point he is back to his cheerful self, and they chat about something else or play around for a minute before leaving the room.)

Run with patience.

I said earlier that this is a short season. But it doesn’t feel like it now. It takes time. Disciplining for the same thing ten times in one day does not mean you are a failure. It might just mean you’re doing your job. Faithful discipline should help our children grow in obedience, but we won’t ever have perfectly-behaved children who never sin. Still, we can trust that God is working through us. God calls us to love, discipline, pray, and trust Him with the results, because only He can change hearts.


Recommended resources:

Note: Some of the suggestions in this post may not apply in the cases of adopted, foster care, or special needs children. In some situations, physical chastisement is  prohibited, and at other times it’s counterproductive if the child has a history of being abused.

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