Q: what happens when I honestly want to learn how to make my 2- and 4-year-olds obey? How do I know what’s realistic…when every book and every parents gives opposite, yet “biblical” advice on the subject?
What happens when I’m at the end of my rope over tantrums from the younger one like I never faced with the older, and an independent streak that I didn’t expect for another ten years from the older? When nothing I’ve tried has worked, and I can’t remember what I haven’t tried?
A: Well, when talking about what’s “biblical” then we need to go back to the source.
IMPORTANT BIBLICAL THEME #1: OBEDIENCE
So, first– look to what was expected all the way through… from the OT, and affirmed in the NT– that children “obey.”
Also, biblically, we need to consider: until they are saved, your children are NEVER going to “want to” obey, because none are righteous, no not one. And if they do seem to, it will be because they are learning to please man rather than to please God, which is not an attitude we want to promote in our children.
Additionally, your children may NEVER get saved, or not get saved until adulthood. Do you think, then, that God’s command for them to obey their parents does not count, or that we only should wait for them to want to?
It’s important that we really get clear on this.
Here’s what I think:
We are not waiting around for our kids to “want to” obey.
When they start punching their younger baby brother in the tummy, they need us to stop them and make them obey us, even if their heart desire is to keep punching. Even if they are feeling “big feelings.”
We don’t wait for them become Christians. We stop it and teach them what’s right.
When they start to run into the street, they need us to see to it that they don’t, even if they really really “want to.”
They have been given parents for a reason, and in those moments, they need us to make them obey us.
And it is not only punches or cars that can kill. Corrupted character can kill. A stubborn heart that refuses to yield to authority can kill. A sneaky heart, convinced it can get away with anything, and treat anyone around them any way they please, will kill the soul of your son or daughter, and many people around them.
Our children DO need us to “make them” obey.
I think that when we encounter “Christian” advice that downplays obedience, this kind of thinking is not from Scripture, but from a confused culture that has infected Christian thinking. I’d urge you and others who are thinking this way to reject this thinking and consider that God told Israelite children to obey their parents– even without Christ in their hearts.
The Apostle Paul repeated these instructions, though he certainly knew that it’s not guaranteed that Christian parents will have only Christian children. It is God who saves, and so it’s not the Christianness of our children that child-to-parent obedience depends upon.
We are not waiting for them to “want to” and we are not waiting for them to “get saved” before we teach them right from wrong.
Our Christianness propels us to hear the commands of Scripture and enforce them in our homes, seeing to it that our children– Christian or not!– learn to honor their father and mother, obey their father and mother “in all things, for this pleases the Lord,” etc.
IMPORTANT BIBLICAL THEME #2: THE HEART
This is a tricky concept we all think about as we go about our job as mothers:
what CAN we, and what CAN’T we, produce in the lives of our children?
In truth, on our own, as parents, our efforts & instruction can only “produce” good citizens who brush their teeth and know deep inside they should NOT hit people and SHOULD wear clean socks each day.
But only Christ can save them and actually change them in the inner places: their thoughts, desires, and delights.
We do the best we can, but we have to remember that “the best we can” is nothing eternal, unless He intervenes and changes their hearts. So even while we provide structure and discipline, we point them to the One who CAN change them.
We discipline from the outside to help constrain our children toward right living, while continually pointing them to the Savior who can change them from the inside!
IMPORTANT PRACTICAL ELEMENT: WATCH THE FRUIT
Next, and this has been a huge way that Doug & I have learned and grown as parents over the years— I’d look to godly families you know whose middle & older children are pleasant to be around. Start asking how they did it. Look to parents who have kids 5-10 and 10-15 years ahead of yours.
The biblical principle here is sowing & reaping. We need to be careful with it, because it’s not an absolute, but it’s still an overarching principle that matters as we weigh parenting advice.
- Sometimes godly parents have foolish, ungodly children.
- And sometimes foolish parents who have done a rotten job, end up with children who turn to Christ despite their parents’ parenting.
- But in general, look at the long-term fruit of the parenting of the person you are listening to and learning from.
It’s tempting to look at online “gurus” or authors… but the proof is in the pudding and unless the author is dead, and you are able to research the quality of relationships and character his/her parenting produced, this is something that you can’t always be certain of. Instead of looking to supposed-experts, look to parents you know in real life. Think of families you enjoy being around, families who have raised productive & kind adults, and families whose relationships with adult children are still intact. Invite them over for dinner and ask them questions!
Try to zero in on what their approach and parental decision-making looked like.
And PAY ATTENTION. Pay attention to what you like. Pay attention to what you don’t like. Pay attention to things that you may desire to adapt slightly, so that they’ll fit for your family.
Notice what annoys you. Notice what behavior is off-putting to you, to your husband, and to others when they are around your children. Think through your big goals in parenting and whether your approach, or the approaches you’re considering, could actually reasonably be expected to contribute to and achieve those goals.
Here are some resources I’ve written to help moms sort these things out.
- 4 QUESTIONS TO HELP YOU EVALUATE PARENTING ADVICE
- My book: ONE THING: Top Tip (From a Mom of 6)
- HOW TO HANDLE TANTRUMS
SPECIFIC INPUT FOR THE MOM WHO FEELS LIKE “NOTHING I’VE TRIED HAS WORKED!”
Based on the way you’re asking this question, I would guess that your first child was relatively compliant (or quietly/not noticeably rebellious), and your second one is giving you a run for your money.
I know this could feel really touchy, so I want to say it carefully. But one thing the mom who feels like she’s “tried everything” probably hasn’t done is deeply think through what she believes is right, and then stick to her guns for 4, 6, 8, 12 months. When I hear a mom of little ones say she’s “tried everything” it often means that there have been inconsistent efforts, branching in varied directions, trying this approach, that approach, these words, that consequence, 2 solid weeks of ignoring bad behavior, a 6-weeks sticker chart with mom trying to reward the good, etc.
But the average disobedient kid needs one thing: consistency.
- He needs to know that every time he hits his little brother, he’s gonna get a swift response from mom.
- She needs to know that every time she refuses to do what mom says, she’s not gonna win the skirmish.
A WORD ABOUT TANTRUMMING 2-YEAR-OLDS
What you need to do in those moments is to tell yourself to outlast. You only have to stick it out one time longer than your tantrumming child.
Right now it feels like forever, but you have a choice to make–
- outlast your child and be more stubborn than they are,
- or prepare yourself for years of misery and an ever-increasing strength of will that will believe you can be worn down on any and every decision from here until they’re out of your home (and beyond).
A WORD ABOUT 4-YEAR-OLDS WHO TRY TO RULE THE HOUSE
It sounds to me like your 4-year-old has made the common 4-year-old transition from the toddler/preschool phase into a more independent/thinking phase. Don’t let him/her suddenly be wise in their own eyes and master of their own domain.
Your 4 year old is still only 4.
I know (especially when they are your first child), when they are four, it seems like they are SOOOOOOO old and mature but I promise promise promise you will look back on these pictures one day and think he/she was still nearly a BABY. Now that I have a 17 year old, 4 seems so much younger and less mature than it did when that 17-year-old was 4.
It’s always this way with the first one; it was for me, and I see it in virtually every parent around… we all think our oldest is SO much older than they really are.
So, toe the line. Insist on obedience.
WITH ALL KIDS: PROJECT IT FORWARD 10, 15, & 25 years
With each attitude you see that is not what it ought to be, multiply it forward into what it could look like 10, 15, 25 years in the future.
Project that independent streak and attitudes forward into teenage years, marriage, work life with their boss, etc. Be forward-thinking.
- Take this same exact heart attitude (“I know what’s best for me, and I don’t have to listen to my authorities”) into the future.
- Imagine a know-it-all who’s not just 5, but 25. She’ll be miserable to be around!
- Imagine, instead of the raging 3-year-old in front of you, picture a raging 16-year-old, unable to control himself and convinced that YOU are the problem, NOT HIM.
- Instead of a 7-year-old who screams unless he gets to play video games, imagine a husband who won’t help his wife with their new baby and rants at her unless he gets his video game time.
By doing this little mental exercise, it can help us see that some of the negative things we see in our 2, 3, 4 year olds, (and older) if not faced, will lead to heartbreak, broken friendships, lost jobs, divorce, to great sin, to jail, and even to death.
With tantrums and attitudes, project it forward 10, 15, 25 years… and you should have sufficient motivation to deal with them rightly.
A WORD ABOUT *YOU*
A truth about mothering that can be both wonderful and scary is this:
YOU will be revealed in the process.
- Who you are.
- What you care about and cling to for comfort.
- What makes you angry.
- What “rights” you feel you are entitled to.
- What brings you to the brink of fear, rage, anxiety, and hopelessness.
- Where you have set your hope and joy.
These things are going to happen no matter what you do. The godliest, best parent will still have her misplaced hope exposed, and will still be pushed to the very edges of her own anger. The most attentive, consistent mother will still hit difficulties she does not anticipate and have her heart-idols exposed over time.
We all hit this. This is not a matter of making the right “choices.” Every mother reaches the end of herself– BY DESIGN– so that she will turn to the Lord. So that is not dealt with by choosing a “right method”– that part is dealt with by dealing honestly with what we find in our own hearts.
- When we find a defeated, hopeless heart, we turn our hearts from hoping in our kids and seek strength from God to do what is right before Him.
- When we see our own rage, we confess and repent (to both God and humans affected by it).
- When we crave comfort and quiet above doing what is best for our children, we confess that and repent of it and make new choices.
- If our temptation is to turn them into little robots that serve as living, breathing trophies to show that we deserve the “Best Mom In The Christian Universe” award, we confess and forsake that, and turn our hope toward Christ.
- If we are fearful of disciplinary efforts because we see our own anger when we attempt to deal with their actions, we instead choose to deal with our own hearts first… and then learn how to faithfully discipline with a kind heart of love toward our children.
Christian Mom, these things are biblical and true:
- God means for your children to obey you.
- He means for you to be the one to teach them to obey.
- He designed motherhood so that it would push you to see your weakness and need for Christ.
- As you faithfully go about your role, fight your own anger, pride, and wicked responses to their wrong-doing.
- Be faithful, and do not grow weary in well-doing.
And God will help you! He sees you and cares for you and gave you this very opportunity of mothering THESE children!
These are important questions you’re asking; I’d be DELIGHTED to dialogue more with you about it, here or via e-mail [ jess (at) jessconnell (dot) com ] . Keep pressing in and don’t just throw your hands up and give up. There are biblical, peace-giving solutions to the questions you’re asking.
Grace and Peace,