Q&A: “Obeying” With a Rotten Attitude?

 

Q: my son Caleb, who will be 6 next month. He is an extremely outgoing, active, almost hyperactive, little boy who talks non-stop and (perhaps because he’s the oldest; perhaps because that’s how he’s wired), is obsessed with the idea of being “the boss.” Overall, he’s actually a relatively compliant child, but lately I’ve noticed this attitude creeping in where he might outwardly do what I’ve asked, but not until he’s first told me why he doesn’t think what I’m asking him to do is a good idea and, telling me, “But my plan was…” I stop him and talk about how “God has placed mommy in authority over you right now, and you need to submit to the authorities that God has put in your life,” and yes, he does comply, but looking at him you can tell that in his heart he’s still fuming because he didn’t want to wear that shirt, or didn’t want to be required to taste that food, or didn’t want to do his handwriting right now, etc. and will be sure to make my life miserable even while *technically* doing what I’ve asked. I know that the state of his heart is even more important than his outward actions, but where I’m confused is, how do I respond to it? We talk about it, but the attitude remains. Do you advocate spanking for it? Or time-out? Or practically speaking, what have you found that works? I’d welcome thoughts from any readers too by the way, not just Jess, if you have any biblical and useful thoughts for me. :) I’m kind of befuddled!

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A:So what you’re seeing is that he’s starting to try to “stand up on the outside but sit on the inside” and as believing moms, I think we need to call our children out to live in honesty.

So many places in the Word talk about our outside matching our inside… living in the light… not churning… having a calm and quiet spirit (like waters that are not roiling and bubbling under the surface even while appearing calm on the top). So once you’ve said something like, “God has placed mommy in authority over you right now, and you need to submit to the authorities that God has put in your life,” when you se him still fuming or still inwardly grumbling, that’s an opportunity to not only guide his outside, but start to guide his inside.

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Something like:

“Hey buddy, I can tell that your heart isn’t in this… and you are still angry at mommy. Do you remember that God cares about our hearts too, and not just our actions? I don’t want you to grow up to be a man who does his job but hates his boss, or who follows the speed limit but is fuming at the police officer. Even more than that, I don’t want you to be a man who outwardly does what God says is right but inside is mad and thinking that the rules are stupid.

“When God tells you to do something, it is for your good. When mom tells you to do something, it’s because I believe it is for your good. When you grumble, that’s your heart raising up and thinking you know better, and mom doesn’t know as much as you. Is something like that basically what you’re thinking?

“I’d like for you to do this with an attitude that is not grumbling or questioning. Philippians 2 tells us to do all things without grumbling or questioning so that we will shine like lights in a crooked generation. One of the things God wants from us is for our insides to match our outsides, and I want that for you. Can you take a minute, go wash your face, or whatever you need to do to help settle down your body and have a better attitude while you finish your handwriting?”

(side note: you know your son, mom, so consider what will quickly help him to settle down physically… some moms use things like 10 jumping jacks, some moms physically instruct their child in facial changes… “I want you to lift up your eyebrows, now uncross your arms, now I want you to look at my face and make your eyes stop looking *this* way, and start looking like *this*– mimicking the change in expression you’re wanting to see–, now lift up your shoulders and stop shuffling your feet…”)

I have sometimes found that ^^^ helpful, and sometimes not, so that is a discretionary thing, just a possibility for you to think about if it would help your child. Sometimes, especially with younger children, it can really help them to put the inward and outward parts together. But I’ve also found it to “work” for older children who may genuinely not know how to change their posture and attitude.

Also, then, I address the specific thoughts.

“Instead of thinking, ‘this is dumb. I don’t want to write this word.” I want you to think, ‘Mom doesn’t ask me to do things that are beyond what I can do. I’m going to do the best job I can. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but I’ll do what I can because she asked me to.’ Because, darlin, that’s the truth. Mama really does think you can do this. So just do the best you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but I do want you to write it as neatly as you’re able to do.”

Regardless, my goal is to help the inside and outside match and help them, as much as possible, to have a willing heart to listen to mom & dad. 

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Though I’ve heard some people teach it, I don’t teach that they have to be “cheerful” or “happy” or “smiling” (although I might remind them of things, like, “let’s focus on what we are thankful for… aren’t you thankful we get to stay home together, that we have money to buy the pen and paper and can learn these things, and that daddy works so hard so we can do this?” (Or whatever applies to the thing we’re doing that is less than pleasant.)

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The reason I do this is because this is how I counsel my *OWN* heart.

When I don’t want to do another load of laundry, my perspective can change if/when I focus on what I’m thankful for (“thank you for letting me get this skirt I love that fits me perfect at Goodwill;” “thank you that I get to stay home with my kids and do this and don’t have to do this load after a long day of work;” “thank you that she left this nice washer and dryer set in the house and the dryer dries faster than the old dryer we had.”, etc.)

I may still not be *smiling* and the most joyful I’ve ever been, LOL, but it does help me to change my inward part to be more content, and helps me to not grumble or complain while I do something that is needful. So since that is how I counsel my own heart to stop grumbling, that is how I counsel my children’s hearts to stop grumbling and have their insides at rest.

Basically, I want to not ever stop with just the outside action… yes, I want to teach our children to obey, but I also want to pay even more careful attention to what is happening in their hearts, and counsel them in ways that will continue bearing fruit even when they’re adults.

Even when they’re adults, if they’re emotionally out of control, going and washing their face with cold water and trying to focus their thoughts on Scripture & on things that they ARE grateful for will be helpful ways to deal with their churning anxieties.

Even when they’re adults being asked to do a job they don’t really in their heart want to do, by reminding themselves that God places authorities over us and that we can submit to them, knowing that we’re ultimately trusting God by doing the thing and doing well, that will STILL be a great way to handle those differences in what they want vs. what they should do.

So I want to instruct my children in biblical ways of dealing with negative feelings/habits/anxieties, thoughts, self-centered thinking, etc.

These little momentary glimpses into their responses in less-than-fun circumstances give us opportunities to not just look at the outside but at their inside, and it helps them to be thinking and acting as a whole person rather than teaching them to segment themselves into “false outward persona,” “actions,” “inward thoughts & churning,” etc. Instead, we’re teaching them how to rightly, biblically interact with authorities, counsel their own hearts with truth, and ultimately how to begin submitting their hearts to something bigger than themselves, which… I pray… will be a blessing to them and enable them to more delightedly and wholeheartedly embrace God’s *PERFECT* Fathering in a way that infinitely surpasses the imperfect but still loving parenting I offer up to them each day.

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Also– (in regard to the idea that it’s somehow wrong for a child to obey “because I said so”) at 6 years old, in the heat of the conflict, obedience is most often still looking like “because I said so.” At that age, here, they already know they *should* obey, and we’ve spent SKADS of time talking through the whys and bigger picture that mom sees more than you do, and is working for your good.

SO for me, with a 6 year old, the heat of the conflict is not the time to answer to the child.

AFTER the conflict, here, would be the time that we would take time (if we truly thought it was a lack of understanding– though, most often, at age 6, it is not understanding; it is defiance) to talk through “the reason we asked you to do X is because of Y.”

Another reason why I go THERE rather than to slow down & explain in the moment is because of the context offered in the “Q” above:

“I’ve noticed this attitude creeping in where he might outwardly do what I’ve asked, but not until he’s first told me why he doesn’t think what I’m asking him to do is a good idea and, telling me, “But my plan was…””

This makes it much more clear to me that this is not an understanding issue, but an authority issue. Also, she said that he is “obsessed with the idea of being “the boss.”

So for me, the teaching and instruction would be happening a LOT, AFTER the heat of the moment of conflict, rather than in the middle of it. I’d be using every real-life example of authority.

  • Daddy at work.
  • Us under the Elders at church.
  • Us stopping for the traffic light.

Anything and everything that points to authority and how we all have it in our lives and have to yield to it, with reminders from God’s Word about authority–

(Classic, simple one is Romans 13:1, but here’s a list of others– http://www.openbible.info/topics/obeying_authority)

Hope this helps explain my thoughts a bit more clearly.

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IN THE COMMENTS: What else would you say to this mom?

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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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3 Responses

  1. Kristie says:

    My children are much younger, only 3.5 and 1.5, so I don’t have much experience with this. However, I think this is a perfect opportunity to talk about how the Holy Spirit needs to change his heart and to pray with your child, asking the Lord to help him obey with a cheerful and happy heart. I talk with my 3.5 year old about this often and we pray together for God to change his heart, since he can’t do it on his own. Basically, he gets frustrated and says he doesn’t want to obey (or not hit his sister, or whatever) and I tell him that I understand, that I don’t always want to do what God wants me to do, and that I need the Holy Spirit to change my heart and my desires. Then we pray that the Holy Spirit would change him and help him to want to be obedient and kind, like Jesus is. I think sometimes we try and think of techniques and ways to talk to our children (which are helpful and good!) and forget to simply pray with our children that God would change them!

  2. Allison says:

    Jess, THANK YOU! I am the original author of this question, and 2 1/2 years later, we are still working on this issue with this particular child. Outwardly, he’s our most compliant kid, but sometimes there’s a subtle heart-attitude problem which can be very hard to put a finger on. His younger brothers, by contrast, are easier to discipline because if they disobey, it tends to be much more outright and non-debatable. For example, if I tell one of my younger sons to do something and they cross their arms and say no, then they have clearly drawn a line in the sand and I don’t have to *wonder* how I ought to address it. Caleb’s sin issues have always been a good bit harder to get at because attitude problems seem characteristically hard to quantify and therefore address. One thing I appreciate about your response is how you focus so much effort on instruction. My tendency has been to focus more on consequences (which certainly are important) to the detriment of instructing him on how he ought to be thinking. I done the thing where I have walked him step-by-step through his body language.and facial expressions, and that has been somewhat helpful. I think I will give the, “Go wash your face with some cold water, settle down, and come back and we’ll try this again,” idea a try. Thanks so much!

    • Jess Connell says:

      Glad it’s helpful.

      Yes, even with “non-verbal” boys, I’ve become increasingly convinced that telling them what they should or should not be doing is not enough. They need the “how” and the “why”– they need us to help them form right thinking, according to the Bible and what it says about our hearts, motivations, thoughts, behaviors, choices.

      Keep going and don’t lose heart! It’s worth it to press on.

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