The first verse we ever had our children memorize was John 3:16. The second was Ephesians 6:1, which states, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right." Children being raised to love God and His Word learn from this verse that obeying their parents is something God commands them to do.
From that beginning they need to be taught that obedience means obeying immediately. Our children need to hear about the people in the Bible who immediately obeyed God or those in authority over them. Four biblical heroes come to mind.
Noah was told to build an ark in Genesis 6. There is no record of his questioning God or waiting for a "better" time. He began after God gave him the plans, and worked diligently to complete them.
Abraham was commanded by God to do several things: leave his country (Genesis 12) and sacrifice his son (Genesis 22). In both instances the very next verses show Abraham obeyed immediately.
Ruth and Miriam both obeyed other people. Miriam obeyed her mother by watching her baby brother Moses (Exodus 2), and Ruth followed the counsel of Naomi in approaching Boaz (Ruth 3).
The truth is that children can be trained to develop self-discipline to obey their parents immediately and cheerfully. The harder truth is that this demands self-discipline and self-sacrifice on the part of the parents. It demands knowing your child, establishing routines -- especially with preschoolers -- and thinking before you speak.
Too often we train our children to disobey.
Let me give you an example. Mom wants to run some errands. She tells Johnny to put his toys away so they can go, and then she works to collect all she needs to take with them. Johnny is having a great time with his toys and doesn't want to quit playing -- so he doesn't. In a few minutes Mom tells him again to put his toys away and keeps working on her own concerns. After this is repeated two or three more times Mom's voice begins to rise, and she finally yells at Johnny to obey now!
Johnny is very smart, and he has learned his mother well. He knows just the level of loudness that his mother's voice will get to before she finally intervenes with his behavior in a way that is unpleasant to him. (Some mothers prefer to count, but their equally smart children know just what fraction of "two" is Mom's real disobedience limit.) He will usually "obey" just before she gets to that level.
In essence, his mother has trained him to disobey until she gets to that magic loudness level. This is unpleasant for Mom and not helpful to Johnny. So what is the alternative? It begins with Mom, developing her own self-discipline and then re-training her son.
Mom, when you tell your child to do something, you need to be prepared to drop whatever you are doing to deliver consequences if you are not obeyed immediately.
You also need to learn to assess your child's situation to see that you are creating the best possible environment for him to be able to obey. Let me explain. It is very hard for me to pull myself away from something I am enjoying without warning, so I have great empathy for the child who is suddenly told to pick up his toys in order to do something else. He may do better if he is told that he will be running errands with Mom soon, that he has 10 more minutes to play and that then Mom will ask him to put his toys away. This lets him wind down his play a bit and be ready to obey. We used to set a timer for 10 minutes before our oldest child had to put his toys away for bed, and we found this made a huge difference in his willingness to obey and his happiness in doing so.
Some children do not obey because they do not seem to "hear" when their parents give them directions. If you have one of those children you need to be very careful to make sure that he has heard you -- the first time. This may involve getting him to look at you while you give him directions. It may also mean you ask him to repeat the directions back to you, so you know he has heard and understands.
Children have a harder time obeying cheerfully when they are hungry or tired. Just seeing that your children have meals and snacks at routine times and that they get adequate rest during the day and at night, goes a long way toward helping them to obey without whining or fussing. Knowing these needs are being managed will keep Mom from excusing disobedience by saying that he can't help it, poor thing, because he is tired or hungry.
The truth is, children need to obey even when they are tired and hungry, and if you have developed the habit of obedience in them already it will be easier for them to do so at those times. They do not need to be taught that there are excuses for disobedience.
"But I've been doing this all wrong," you say. "My children don't do what I say until I yell at them. How do I change this?"
First, you need to ask God to forgive you for training your children to disobey. Then you need to ask Him for wisdom and self-discipline to change your behavior, so you can help them to change theirs.
With younger children, this begins immediately. With older children, you may need to sit down with them and confess that you have been allowing them to disobey. Then explain the Bible says they need to obey, so you are going to do things differently and help them learn to obey God by obeying you. Clarify that this means obeying the first time. Then you need to be prepared to drop everything to carry this through consistently. The first couple days may be rough, as your child learns that you mean what you say. It is hard work, but your child is worth it.
There is joy in obedience, in ours to the Father and in your child's to you. Praise your child lavishly as he is learning to obey you the first time. Brag on him to Dad, and to grandparents, about how well he is doing in learning to obey. Play obeying games (a modified Simon Says) with lots of laughter and even silliness.
The end result will be an obedient child who may find it easier to obey God as he gets older because he has learned to obey his parents in his youth. It will be a Mom who doesn't have to yell. And it will be a home where the loudest noise is laughter.
Elizabeth Owens is in her 18th year of homeschooling and is the mother of four. Her husband is Waylan Owens, dean of the school of church and family ministries at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This column first appeared at BiblicalWoman.org, a blog of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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