Resonating Verses: 1:5, 1:20, 2:13, 3:17
This is part of a collection of essays inspired by the book of James as I work to memorize it. My goal is to find daily rhythms that help me put my faith in action more effectively and gracefully, and encourage others who want the same thing.
A Heart Check For When My Child Doesn't Obey
I’ve been reflecting on obedience for the past couple of days, asking myself a question: Where does my desire for my kids’ obedience come from? Do I want their obedience because I want to control them and feel powerful, or because I want an easy life? Or do I want their obedience because I know that things will go well for them if they obey God, because I love them and want to protect them? Unfortunately, sometimes my actions betray the sinful state of my heart, and my demanding of obedience is more of a controlling attitude than anything else. The Bible says something else than what my sinful tendency to micromanage others tells me. It also tells me that I am transformed, a new creation in Christ, so I am hopeful that I can do better in teaching my child to obey, out of love, out of a relationship with our loving God and Father, so that I fade out, and Christ shines in.
I don’t want my child to grow up thinking, “My mom was irritated with me all the time. I never did anything right.” And yet, I’m afraid that if I keep up with certain patterns, and demand obedience in the way that I sometimes have a tendency to do, that he might grow up to think this. At the same time, obedience is important. It’s important to God, so it’s important to me.
It says in Ephesians 6,
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother" (this is the first commandment with a promise) "that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land." Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4, ESV)
I also like how the NIV Bible says this part at the end of these verses: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” I want to know why this last part is addressed to fathers and not to mothers. It seems to me that the author would hope mothers are following this instruction too. Perhaps the men of the day were more likely to be harsh with their kids than the women. Perhaps they still are. For me, though, I am watchful of this in my own life. Sometimes my interactions with my three year old just make a tantrum worse and escalate the conflict. Sometimes I provoke him to further anger, or exasperate him.
Obedience is good and worthy to teach my children. For a Christian, it is a necessary topic. The struggle I face, and I know that I’m not alone here, is something like this: What to do when my child doesn’t obey? Not just, “What should I do,” but “What AM I DOING,” and are those things that I’m doing good things? It seems to be especially difficult when your child is under five and developmentally isn’t capable of the same kind of emotional reasoning and impulse control as an older child or an adult.
Perhaps obedience isn’t just “I said to do it, so you’re gonna do it.” It’s a heart thing, an attitude thing. It’s a responsiveness. Comes out of a knowledge that you are loved, protected, safe. Flourishes into something that produces action out of that beautiful faith that Christ has placed in your heart. Not out of your own doing, but by the grace of God.
So as I work on my attitude (and experience both successes and setbacks) I want to consider whether the wide-ranging expectations I have for my child’s obedience are appropriate.
Are my expectations for my child’s obedience…
- realistic to his developmental stage? (Understanding child development isn’t just helpful for teachers and daycare workers. It’s helpful for all parents.)
- realistic to his personality?
- realistic to his experiences? (Is he just doing something that he saw me do last week? If so, I can expect it will be more of a challenge to get him to obey if I tell him to stop.)
- paying attention to his heart and underlying issues that might cause big emotion in him?
- shared with him in a loving and non-judgmental tone?
I count it as a win when I am neither permissive nor harsh with my children. On my own, I would tend towards both extremes. I can get irritated and it seeps out in my tone, which negatively reinforces the behavior. He’ll do the behavior again because he just wants a reaction, even if it’s a negative one. On the other hand, I also can get overwhelmed and ignore negative behaviors. Then he “gets away with it” and this permissive attitude, just like an irritated attitude, isn’t healthy.
I’m working to find a middle ground. I’m not where I want to be, but I’m hopeful that transformation is happening in my life. Ultimately, I want to live a life that is ruled by love, mercy and grace. I want to have high expectations for my children, and teach them obedience. I want to move into an attitude that invites obedience, rather than demands it. When I demand obedience rather than invite it, it is too easy for anger, irritation, and resentment to seep in.
Some thoughts for personal reflection
- What is your attitude towards obedience? How important is obedience to you?
- Do you feel that obedience is something to be demanded, or something to be invited? What would it look like to invite obedience instead of demand it?
- Where are you on the scale between harsh and permissive? Where would you like to be? Where do you believe God would like you to be?
- “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5)
- “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20)
- “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
- “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17)