How to Set Your Kids Up for Obedience

How to Set Your Kids Up for Obedience //

I was recently at an event where I was, for days, in a stationary vantage point of watching a wide swath of parents interact with their children amidst stressful circumstances.

One mother stands out to me. Unfortunately, not for good reasons.

She stood by watching as two of her young children destroyed part of the building. She feigned shock and concern, before laughing at them (yes she laughed), and hiding the evidence of their destruction in an out-of-the-way place.

Later in the day, she bawled out an older son, humiliating him in front of an onlooking mass, because he (while left alone with the cooler without instructions) ate her food. She set him against the wall, told him to wait there and not move, and went to a different room and apparently forgot him there. Over 90 minutes later, the crowd was helping her look for her son because, “he got mad and ran off.” Truth was, he got forgotten and got bored, and like (most) 8 year old boys could reasonably be expected to do, after over an hour had passed, when someone came by talking about basketball, and his mom still hadn’t come back for him, he ran off to play.

For hours, she expected her children to instinctively know how to act, as, all the while she only, ever, parented reactively.

But let’s not get on a high horse and act like this woman is a rare anomaly among mothers.

Instead, let’s consider ourselves, and our own mothering:

  • Have you gone into a store before realizing you failed to give instructions to your children about how they were to behave?
  • Do you sometimes find yourself overcommitting, so that you lack time for behavioral/attitude prep-work and follow-up-work from events?
  • When you’re in a church group or group of ladies, are you apt to get distracted by conversation and let your kids get into a position where you have no idea where your kids are and what they are doing?
  • Have you ever found yourself seeing your children AS a distraction to your real purpose, rather than seeing them as your primary purpose?
  • How many times have you been irritated with your children for how they’re acting, before realizing that you hadn’t given them enough/adequate instructions to prepare them for the situation?

Sadly I see those tendencies in myself, all too often.

When I’m with friends, I want to be able to visit undistractedly. Too many times, especially when my kids were younger, I headed into a store without adequately prepping them for that next 30-60 minutes of life. And it’s easy to get overcommitted and let the kids be the thing that takes the backseat to all the busyness of life.

Without proactive parenting and training, we can all be like this mother I observed. It is not enough to perpetually spank after the fact, or to only tell your children what they shouldn’t have done.

We need to be mothers who anticipate the challenges of a situation, and proactively instruct and train them in what our future expectations will be (at various events/locations).

No one– not the onlooking world, not her wide-eyed humiliated child– is impressed with a mom who bawls her kids out for doing what they were poorly instructed about. It is not worthy of respect to inconsistently punish children for doing the childish thing when they have been given no other direction.

It wasn’t respectable when she did it; but more importantly for you and I, it’s not respectable when WE do it.


  1. Accurate Anticipation- We have the responsibility to reasonably think through what our children will encounter in upcoming situations. Are there temptations natural to their age/stage? What potential dangers/unknowns do we anticipate? They need us to think ahead on their behalf!
  2. Faithful Instruction- Our children need to hear from us what we intend for them to do. (This sounds like: “You will keep your hands inside the buggy.” “I want you to always stay in the room with mommy and not run to different rooms while we are at the so-and-so’s house.” “Do not ask for candy or treats. This is not the time for that.” “We will go to the park after the restaurant. You are to sit still while we eat and you will have a chance to play afterward.”) We have to consider what they already know to do/not do, and explicitly say the parts that either: -A- they don’t yet innately know, or -B- is not yet second-nature for them.
  3. Near Watchfulness over the Unproven Child- For children who are not trustworthy when out of your presence, they should be near you, and you should be watching them, guiding them, and pulling them back when they are foolish or sinful. This is our job as moms. They should not be running around outside of your field of vision and ability to hear them. Leaving children to themselves sets them up for the rapid overtaking of their own foolishness and sin (not to mention leaving them open to the effects of the foolishness and sin of others).
  4. Grace for Childishness- (including sickness, tiredness) Do not punish your children for being overtired when you have opted to extend your day rather than making it a priority to get home for nap time. They shouldn’t be punished for curiosity or even foolish mistakes (like eating what was in the cooler because it was past lunch time and the child was hungry and had been given no instructions about which parts were/weren’t for them). On Memorial Day this year, we decided to take a family hike for the better part of the day, which meant that our 3-year-old would be skipping his nap. When he was grumpy from time to time, I wasn’t surprised, and I didn’t get angry. I coached him through what to do, and he and I talked about outright rudeness and having an angry attitude. But I knew– our choice to skip his nap was directly affecting his ability to choose self-control, and so throughout the afternoon I coached, rather than disciplining, him through his attitude. Certainly, after acts of childishness, there should be instruction about what to do next time, but we should not be surprised and angered by our children acting like tired, sick, hungry, or naturally curious children.
  5. Prompt, consistent discipline and follow-through. Every time. Your discipline should be faithful, consistent, dependable, so that your children see your teachings as a normal “boundary” of life. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, you’re tired. Yes, it seems like it’s not “working.” Or like it never stops. But you keep on, not because it is easy or because you are made of boundless energy or because it all perfectly works out every time, but because you are committed to being a mama who fiercely loves her kids by taking your role as teacher and disciplinarian with sobriety and commitment. 



  • In the past, how have you set your child(ren) up for disobedience?
  • How do you work to set them up for obedience?




A Child Left To Himself… // Practical Biblical Parenting Advice //

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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 ( I write and wrangle kids.

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7 Responses

  1. Kondwani says:

    I am encouraged that I am not the only parent who needs to give specific instructions for things like going into a shop or visiting a friend. My question relates to just how often we need to give such instructions – surely there comes a time when we don’t need to say precisely how to act every single time? I get a situation where a son will say, ‘But you never told me not to’, about something which I feel confident that he does know full well not to do. I don’t want to punish unfairly, but when do you reach the point where you go into a situation without being so specific? I hope the question makes sense?

    • Jess Connell says:

      Yeah I think that’s when we need to watch and know our own kids and assess what we think they actually have internalized, and then hold them accountable to that.

      I’m learning this many years in that I DO have to repeat myself more often than I thought I did. More times of instructions, more repetition… less losing my patience… less expecting them to get it. I guess, more than ever, I can identify with God’s irritation with the Israelites… “you foolish wayward people– do I have to tell you AGAIN not to do that?” LOL

      Such a familiar attitude in parenting, huh?

      I don’t know how to give specifics on this one, but I think it’s a combo of knowing/watching our kids WELL to really fully understand what they know/what they’ve internalized… and then also being more than willing to repeat ourselves, patiently, and realize that they need many reminders and experiences for things to stick.

      God have mercy on our poor first few children with whom probably expect far too much and instruct far too little!

      • Kondwani says:

        Yes, maybe it does teach us a lot about how God must feel when we make the same mistakes, even having promised not to do that again! Maybe that’s a helpful way to think of it (a bit like the parable of the unforgiving servant, that we have been forgiven SO MUCH that we need to make sure we are not unforgiving towards our children).

        I’m having a tired season here! (So is my husband) and we’ve both had days which have focussed intensely on character building. But there are glimmers of fruit from this labour, and like I said before, knowing that other Christian parents find it hard, tiring, frustrating and so forth brings a kind of encouragement!

  2. Katrina says:

    This post was a great reminder!! It can be so easy, especially during the summer months with all the activity and outdoor work, to forget how much shepherding our children need. I remember feeling frustration at extended family members during get-togethers, whose children ran wild while they talked. But it is easy to get distracted while talking! One thing I have never allowed (my oldest is 4) is for my children to go off alone into another room with other kids. I just don’t trust other kids, or my own, bc of their innocence and childish ignorance. One,bad habits can be shared while Mommy isnt watching. Two, sexual encounters can happen even between little children. This is a crazy world we live in. I think instructing our children how to react and how to tell in those kind of situations beforehand is essential in this day and age. Love the “Yell and Tell” books by Debi Pearl. Great way to introduce the topic to kids.

    • Jess Connell says:

      I completely agree with your thoughts! Thanks for sharing. I have articles (like mentioned above) — (A Child Left To Himself)– where I’ve talked about those things explicitly (the risks of children left to themselves, especially in regard to foolishness and sexual molestation/play), but I think it is always good for mothers to be reminded of the risks of leaving children by themselves.

      It feels easier for the mom, but could yield a lifetime of regret (if she learns about what happened), or a lifetime of secrets (that the mom never even learns about).

      Thanks for speaking up!

  3. katy says:

    I just wanted to quickly say thank you for your words of wisdom a while back about encouraging a grumpy child to be thankful. I shared that I let my child ‘compose’ himself but that never worked, etc. You told me to not let him be alone – he did not have the skills to correct his attitude. He needed me to lead him down the correct path of thinking. It was a difficult thing to hear, admittedly. But the Lord allowed many situations soon after with this child and I took your advice of keeping him with me, having him come up with things to be thankful for, watching for an attitude change, etc. This goes on almost daily. But the change has been that he is able to get out of his slump, with my help, when before, his bad attitude would persist. So I just wanted to say thank you! :)

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