How can I get my children to obey me?

Lauren is a smart, articulate mom of four – including twins. She is not only a writer but also an editor for a magazine about children. I first “met” her through a parenting article in the Washington Post. I was impressed by her candidness and honesty as she expressed her frustrations in raising her four children.

“My kids don’t listen to me. Or, rather, they listen to me, but rarely the first time and rarely without protest. Everything, it seems, is up for negotiation in our house … How do you command respect as a parent? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently, because I am increasingly convinced that I don’t.”

Wow. I could relate. I think she captured the frustration of hundreds, perhaps hundreds of thousands of well-meaning parents.

She goes on to say, ““My mother has long believed that for young children to listen to their parents they need to fear the consequences. I yell at my kids when they get out of hand, and to my own ears I sound like a banshee, but it doesn’t necessarily scare them into submission.”

Like Lauren, as a young father I wondered why my kids would often force me to get angry before they would obey. Why won’t they just do as I ask because they love me and know I love them?

At that time I was serving as Principal of a Christian school and I had a wonderful, seasoned teacher explain it to me. It turns out Lauren’s mother is right!

Sadly, all of us are motivated more by fear of consequences than by more sublime motives. In school, did you do your homework because you craved knowledge or because you feared an “F”?

Do you drive the speed limit (if you do) because it’s safer or because you don’t want to pay a fine. I wouldn’t even mind getting the ticket if there was no fine attached. It’s the consequences that motivate us as adults. Why are we surprised when our children are the same way?

Would you obey the speed limit if the only consequence was a letter in the mail suggesting you slow down? Probably not. Certainly not when you’re in a hurry – which for most of us is always. We drive slowly because the fine is painful.

Our kids obey when disobedience hurts more than obedience.

It’s a pain to obey. It “hurts” to have to do what you want me to do instead of what I want to do. If I ‘m three years old, thirteen or thirty, it hurts to realize I’m not Lord of the universe and captain of my own destiny.

If it’s less painful to do what I want to do then I’m going to do what I want to do. Only when I know the consequences of disobedience will be more painful than obeying AND I have no doubt that I will suffer those consequences, do I actually submit my will to your will and obey.

Mom’s screaming might be a painful enough for a few sensitive kids. But for most kids, when we yell, “I’m not going to tell you again!”, they think, “Good, cause I’m tired of hearing you.”

It’s not rocket science but if you wanted to reduce it to a formula – an “if/then” statement – it would be something like this:

  • If pain of disobedience > pain of obedience = I obey.
  • If the chance of parents actually carrying out their threat < the joy I get from doing what I want, I’ll gamble parents won’t follow through = continue to disobey.

The level of pain, discomfort or unpleasant consequences that a child needs to experience to motivate obedience is different with each child and even differs with the same child at different times. All kids go through testing times where they are trying to discover ‘Do mom and dad really mean it? Are my parents tough enough to carry through or are they just full of hot air and idle threats? Do I really have to obey?”

Here’s another key. If we’ll apply the consequences early, before we lose our cool, it doesn’t even become necessary to yell and scream. After all, yelling didn’t do any good anyway. It’s fear of unpleasant consequences that produces obedience – like Lauren’s mom advised.

So, like Lauren, we can scream our guts out but most children don’t care. They know we’ll eventually shut up and they can continue to do what they want.

So what will work? What is “unpleasant” enough?
To know what will be effective consequences we need to study our kids. The Bible says it this way, “know the condition of your flock”. That can also involve some trial and error where we keep ramping up the “pain” of disobedience until it is eventually greater than the pain of obedience in the child’s mind.

I’m not talking about abuse here or even necessarily spanking, though that definitely needs to be an option that is considered. I am talking about making it as easy and rewarding as possible for your child to obey and extremely uncomfortable and miserable to choose to disobey and go their own way.

Make obedience the path of least resistance.

The way of the transgressor is hard. Proverbs 13:15

PS – I appreciate the fact the Lauren’s mom said the children need to fear the consequences, not us, their parents. As parents we need to communicate our love for our children even as we inflict any necessary consequences for their behavior. We can grieve with them at the “pain” because, though we may be the one inflicting it, it is their behavior that made it necessary.

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