What Age Do We Start Teaching Them to Obey?

What Age Do We Start Teaching Them to Obey? // jessconnell.com

It’s hard to discern sometimes, isn’t it? Especially the first time we face these things as a mom! Did he really hear me? Does she really understand what I’m asking? How can I know what I should/shouldn’t expect.

When do our children know enough to start obeying us?

For us, obedience starts long before they’re speaking, and long before some people think a child can really understand. Luke, who turns one year old this week, is already obeying us on simple commands in two main areas: not touching things, and not standing up in his high chair.

In our home, the early strands of obedience start about the time they start really exploring the house. To delve into this more, Luke and I (and a few nomadic boys in the background) made two videos for y’all:

VIDEO #1- TEACHING A BABY TO BE GENTLE: One morning a couple months ago, Luke started hitting me, so my mommy radar went off. Immediately, I started teaching him, “gentle, gentle.” Here’s that process, with Luke when he was 10 months old.


VIDEO #2- TEACHING A BABY WHAT’S OFF-LIMITS: Around that same time, Luke began exploring like a crazy man (AKA like a normal baby). When he tried to grab books from our school box, though, I stopped and made a video about it.

{Bonus! In this one, while I’m talking about teaching stuff to babies, you get to see my sweet and silly 5-year-old, Moses, pushing boundaries more and more until I give him a firm command. Some kids struggle with that more than others. I was allowing him too much freedom, and my early instructions to him (as you’ll see) aren’t clear enough. He needs more structure, and does fine once it’s there. But man, there’s no small amount of irony in that I’m talking about obedience here, and my 5-year-old is pushing it. :)

Just let his adorable-faced, testy pushing-of-the-bounds reassure you that none of us have perfect, robotically-obedient children.}

People ask this question a lot, and I just wanted to share something to encourage moms with young ones who aren’t certain–

My almost-one-year-old knows “no, no” and obeys. He has known it and done it for at least a solid month. Today, multiple times he went for a cabinet, and then I said, “no, no”, and he would turn and do something else.

At one year old, he is, already, in his little way, learning to heed mommy’s voice & listen.

{NOTE: I do not (and would not!) spank my one-year-old, but my point is that by consistently not allowing him to ignore my words (i.e., it started w/ saying “no, no” and physically removing him from the opportunity to keep doing whatever he was doing), he now consistently listens to me and immediately stops doing whatever he’s doing if he hears me say “no, no”. I want to be clear: I’m not talking about spanking here.}

I’m just talking about consistent, day-in, day-out, loving instruction and follow-through from mom. And for us, that starts around the time that they start crawling and exploring (usually around 8-10 months is when my kiddos are really actively exploring the home).

Our children understand more than we give them credit for, and I think that is increasingly true for our society. Society wants to say a 16 year old “didn’t really understand” what he was doing when he murders. Or that a 10 year old “doesn’t really know” about bullying or that it’s wrong. Or that a 4 year old “didn’t really hear mommy” and so shouldn’t be disciplined for not obeying.

This self doubt, combined with a society-wide lack of general familiarity with children, makes us question ourselves about what they know, when they know it, and how deeply they actually know.

They know. They know far earlier, and far deeper, than we give them credit for.

Discipline (faithfully teach and train) your child while he is young. Discipline him/her as if his/her soul depended on it, because it really IS that significant. Press on. Be consistent. Keep going! Don’t give up. Don’t attach an excuse or a label to it, and let them keep getting away with disobedience and sin.

Teach your young children through faithful, daily, consistent observation and instruction.

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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast (momonpurpose.com). I write and wrangle kids.

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13 Responses

  1. Kender says:

    Thank you for spelling out your beliefs (the Why behind your choice) and the the Method (the What that you chose). Most days, I think we’re doing pretty well with the one child we have. She’s 18 months and she definitely came by her independent, goal-focused, determined nature naturally. We can see very quickly when we’re not being consistent and we strive to correct ourselves as quickly as possible. My issue stems from certain extended family members (specifically all the great grandparents, and my husband’s parents) who undermine and correct US when we’re dealing with our daughter. I understand that certain people have a “Grandkids are to be spoiled & doted on no matter what” attitude. I, personally, am struggling to find the balance between teaching our child(ren) respect & obedience while still showing respect myself. Can you offer any advice? Even just how to explain to people who don’t think toddlers can obey that your child can be expected to obey without being bribed.

    • Jess Connell says:

      Well, what you’re talking about is not unusual, but it certainly is a challenge!

      My belief is this: You have a responsibility given to you by God to train up your child in the way she should go. You also have a responsibility to honor your parents and grandparents.

      Given that those 2 things are in conflict, I would personally talk to the grandparents and let them know: “We believe we are doing right by our child. We will not get everything right, but we are the ones who will bear the deepest consequences if she goes unrestrained and uncorrected in these early years. It is incredibly difficult to parent well with other people continually looking in and calling out conflicting orders from the sidelines.

      Something like the following would be a good basic statement to memorize and refer back to over and over: “My husband and I have determined that this is what we think is best. If you’d rather not support us, we may not be able to be around as often.”

      Much of this depends on how often you are around these people. When you see them for a few days at Christmas, and a few odd hours here or there, this may not be as stressful. But when you are in daily or weekly regular contact, it becomes more challenging. Part of this, I think, is the “cutting of the strings” and the beginning of a new family unit.

      Yes, you are to honor your parents, but no you can not NOT teach your child to obey you, nor can you allow other people to undermine your parenting. So you will have to determine how to walk that fine line, communicating what you and your husband have decided about the way this child needs to be raised.

      Hebrews 5:5-12 is probably my favorite passage on raising children, as it contains so much practical wisdom for us as parents… it says:

      “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
      nor be weary when reproved by him.
      6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
      and chastises every son whom he receives.”
      7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 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.”

      But the verse that is particularly relevant for you is the first half of verse 10: “they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them.” All parents, on some level, are doing “what seems best to them.” We are all commanded TO discipline our children. And the Bible gives methods for doing that– verbal correction, teaching/instruction, physical presence (seeing them and correcting them through life), spanking, and more. But there are some things that are not “spelled out” and in those cases, we are all doing “what seems best to us.”

      In this case, I would consider (if your parents are believers) sharing this passage with them, talking about the pain, and harvest of peace, that comes from discipline… and then that you guys are doing “what seems best to you.”

      I would also encourage you to share that if they have concerns about what you are doing, you welcome hearing that from them, but not in front of your child, and not at the moment you are doing it. That they are to be supportive, or leave the room, or else you will not be able to be around them as often, or for as long of visits, during this intensive season (I’ve found that from about 18 months to 3/4 years old is the most discipline-intensive season) of disciplining your daughter.

      Does this help?

  2. Melissa says:

    Thanks, Jess! I had zero experience with kids before my daughter was born, so posts like this are incredibly helpful for me. I feel lost when it comes to how to discipline in age appropriate ways. When do you think kids are able to understand extended consequences like taking items away for a period of time? (i.e, “If you throw that toy again, you do not get to play with it any more today.”) My daughter turns 2 this week, and I’ve been experimenting with those sorts of consequences, but it’s really hard for me to tell if she gets it, and if it makes any lasting impression on her.

    • Jess Connell says:

      Wonderful; you are exactly the sort of mom I have in mind when I make a video like this– someone who doesn’t know, but wants to learn how to discern these things.

      As far as consequences, for us, it has been rare that a 2 year old can comprehend, consistently, the loss of privilege/access to something. (i.e., they can understand, “oh, you threw rocks, so we’re leaving the park.” but losing a toy, or access to a particular thing is a little more abstract.) For me, the guiding principles of discipline have come from scripture. I especially find Hebrews 12 beneficial when thinking through what makes for effective discipline.

      Especially v. 11—> “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.”

      * short-term pain
      * short-term sense is that it is not pleasant
      * later, pays off in a harvest of 2 things– PEACE & RIGHTEOUSNESS

      So for me, as I think through various methods, I try to consider if they meet those criteria. That helps me discern what is effective.

      It should (in the short-term) feel painful.
      It should not be something they can (remotely!) laugh off or enjoy.
      In the long run, it should produce PEACE. And RIGHTEOUSNESS.

      When I ask myself (and sometimes it’s different for each kid, especially before and around age 2) what fits the bill of these, I usually have a better sense of what the child needs in terms of faithful discipline.

      • Melissa says:

        Thanks for your reply! Coincidentally, Hebrews 12 was part of my daily Bible reading plan for today, so I enjoyed reading it with the new perspective you gave. It was definitely helpful, and it’s something I’ll continue to think about as I try to work out the best discipline methods for our daughter.

        If you ever have the time/interest to write about it, I’d love to hear how you teach first-time obedience, and how your expectations and methods differ by age. I find myself saying throughout the day, after my daughter ignores a command, “If you don’t _____ right now, you’re getting a spanking.” Of course, most of the time it works, but I worry that I’m encouraging her to wait until a threat to obey. Then the other half of me thinks it’s crazy to expect a 2 yr old to always obey the first time, and it’s fair to warn her. I’d love your perspective on that topic!

        • Jess Connell says:

          I can’t believe I didn’t reply to this! Just now seeing your question–

          Yes I think from the beginning, you should teach obedience to your words, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that, and to stop “warning.”

          The way you phrased it above, makes it sound like you are expecting to teach each rule of life along the way, and have her learn to obey each rule separately.

          Instead of– “don’t hit brother”, she reaches to hit, then you warn “you’ll get a spanking if you hit”… etc. Or, “no shoes on the couch”, she lifts up her feet to put the shoes on the couch, then you warn, “if you do that you’ll get a spanking.”

          What it should be is that you are (in an overarching way, through these individual issues, but not focused on the issues so much as the overarching principle) teaching her to obey your voice, no matter what.

          The first point at this link does a great job explaining this– http://www.raisinggodlytomatoes.com/ch03.php

          Hope this helps, and sorry for my very-tardy reply.

  3. Jenn says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! We have 3 little ones (3,2,and 5 months) and we struggle so much with practically disciplining and training and what that looks like at these young ages.

    I would love to see more of these examples!

    • Jess Connell says:

      I will try. When they are little, it is all very rote, but as it gets older, those examples become more personal to the child and thus, less acceptable for public consumption. But I will try to do this when I can. Thanks for the feedback!

  4. Diana says:

    Hi, Jess! I haven’t had time yet to read the comments and your responses, so I will just add my own – sorry if it’s repetitious.

    THANK YOU for these videos. They are just what I need! My eldest is nearly ten, but still, I have such a hard time with the basics. You’ve mentioned repeatedly on your blog about the problem of losing a societal knowledge of children, and I heartily concur. The end result of my childhood (no siblings, no cousins, no neighbors with children, etc.) was an absolute cluelessness about children. I don’t think it NEEDS to be this hard. When women grew up surrounded by young children being parented, it’s learned – at least a bit! – by osmosis. When we’re raised in child-free environments, bad things happen on a widespread societal level. My level of cluelessness being what it is, I love your videos! So helpful. Sometimes it’s so hard to extrapolate from parenting books, even the best ones like “Raising Godly Tomatoes.” Videos are very helpful.

    I love your style, and I love how you combine strictness with affection.

    Have a wonderful night!!

  5. Stevie Koehn says:

    Hi Jess!!!

    My name is Stevie Koehn and I have an 8month old baby girl, Aniya. This is super helpful as that Aniya was doing this and I have started to do as you suggest in the video of Gentle hands and WOW what a tremendous difference.. but she has both top and bottom teeth and has begun bitting I don’t think she does it on purpose but thinks it a game or idk what but it reallly hurts and has cut through my skin more than once I feel like I’ve tried everything. So I’m looking for if you could help with some pointers?

    Thank you!

    • Jess Connell says:

      Yes, when they start to do that, I firmly press on their gums, down-down-down (with the soft tip of my finger), while saying, “no, no, no” in a firm, straightforward voice. I make a displeased look with my face, and look them in the eye. I press down hard, but not in a painful way. Just enough to give a firm, clear impression that this is a no-no.

      I’ve found that doing this routine once or twice, if they bite while nursing, will often have the desired effect. Anytime after about 6 months, they have the mental capability to learn from this sort of repetitive impression/reminder.

  1. March 21, 2017

    […] What Age Do We Start “Training” Our Kids to Obey? — Jess […]

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