[I’d like to say a big thank you Katie Westacott of Mrs West Knows Best for designing my smashing new header.]

The concept of teaching a child ‘to obey’ has always left me a little uneasy. It sounds unfairly one-sided, with all of the responsibility being placed squarely on the shoulders of a small child. But holding it next to my own understanding of God’s role in Christian obedience I have started to see things differently.

Obedience is, in fact, the responsibility of the adult. And I think we all innately know this and that’s why we get so frustrated when children disobey us – we feel we have failed and, not knowing how to help the child obey, we place the blame on them. But obedience is a HUGE and difficult concept to learn and we’ve done society a disservice in convincing ourselves that it should either be something that children automatically do OR something that can only be drilled into them through an elaborate system of disconnected rewards and punishments.

I believe there’s a better way to help children obey.

Oddly enough, I haven't taken many photos of disobedience (but it does happen!) So instead, here's a nice one of E in her summer skirt.

Oddly enough, I haven’t taken many photos of disobedience (but it does happen!) So instead, here’s a nice one of E in her summer skirt.


What it looks like: When a child is given an instruction (e.g. It’s time to brush your teeth.) she refuses or ignores.

Mistaken for: Naughtiness, sinfulness*

Why she does this: Reasons for disobedience are quite varied and depend greatly on age but let’s stick with a toddler example since that’s what I’m currently most familiar with. Toddlers (and teenagers) can particularly struggle with obedience because they’re hard-wired to push limits as they explore the world (including relationships) around them. However, there may also be other factors in play, such as:

Expressing feelings – She may be scared, frustrated or discouraged by the suggested activity. Although these feelings seem silly to adults, they are no less real for the child. She probably doesn’t like dealing with them any more than we do!
In the Zone – When a child is engaged in play she can become totally absorbed – it is everything to her in that moment. This kind of focus is an essential skill to develop but it doesn’t mix well with interruptions from well-meaning adults.
Out of control – If a child is feeling particularly powerless she may try to assert her own control. She may do the same if it seems like no adult is in control.
Tired/hungry – The wonders of healthy sleep and nutrition never cease to amaze me.
Other – Even the best of us have days when we wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

How to support: I believe that appropriate support is the key to making obedience work for both adults and children. Recognising disobedience is easy but knowing how to help a child obey is much more tricky. Here are some ideas:

Remind yourself that…

  • learning obedience takes time for all children and lots of time for some.
  • limit-pushing behaviour, although frustrating in toddlers and teenagers, is also common to world-changers.
  • this is a HUGE and complex concept to learn – don’t expect it to happen overnight.

Acknowledge feelings
I can’t stress enough how effective this is in all situations! Often all it takes is a little empathy for a child to be able to move on. And if not, here is your opportunity to help her find appropriate ways to express her feelings.

Whenever you can, explain why she must obey (i.e. You need to hold my hand so I can keep you safe). This builds trust for the times when you can’t explain.

Demonstrate control
Try to remain calm and unemotional (i.e. not impatient or flustered by her disobedience) no matter how severe or unexpected the disobedience. If it is clear that a trusted adult is in control she will be less likely to try and assert her own control in the first place.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind
Sometimes when faced with disobedience we realise that the situation is not a battle worth fighting; however, withdrawing from the battle feels like surrender. As long as you clearly communicate your change of expectations there’s no reason for a child think she’s won this battle. And your flexibility will only build trust as she learns that you don’t ask for obedience if it isn’t important.

Know your audience
Learn to recognise times when it is especially difficult for your child to obey (transitions, when focused on play, tired, hungry) and adapt your expectations and support to match.

This is a big concept. Seeking to map it onto Christianity makes it easier in some ways (God gives us an unparalleled model of grace in the Bible) but more challenging in others (understanding the role of sin in childhood). I’d be honoured if you’d join the conversation either in the comments section or on Facebook.

*The concept of sinfulness in children is complex to say the least and I certainly don’t claim to have a solid grasp on it. But I do believe that often times children’s methods of learning are mistaken for disobedience. We must spend more time trying to see things from a child’s perspective before we jump to the conclusion of disobedience. And even if it is a matter of disobedience, God has given us the ultimate example of grace in taking full responsibility for our disobedience through Jesus Christ. Should we not be able to offer grace to our own children, doing whatever it takes to help them obey?