FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — Recently I had the privilege of spending some time with a wise young mom and her very cute 17-month-old son. During the course of our conversation she told me that she and her husband were surprised when, at the child’s tender age of six months, they began to notice rebellious behavior. They had not expected to see it so soon, and said they realized that they had to begin early to deal with it. She related that they were finding that they needed to be consistent in handling rebellion.
Bingo! They have got it right. When dealing with rebellious behavior in children, the plan should be to begin early, and be consistent.
Some say that rebellious behavior in our children is a sign they are trying to be independent, and that all we need to do is educate our children, and they will naturally make the “right choices.” They say that people are inherently good, and it just takes education and the right environment for them to choose to do the right thing.
However, one of the keys to dealing with rebelliousness in our children is to correctly identify it for what it is. It seems to be a shock to realize that the sweet-faced little child with whom we have been blessed actually has a sin nature. The Bible tells us that all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and explains that it is because we are born with a sin nature passed down from Adam (Romans 5:12-17). It is only when we recognize our child’s behavior for what it truly is that we can begin to deal with it effectively.
Our goal as parents is to raise children to become independent young adults who are willing to assume responsibility for themselves and to live in submission to God’s authority in their lives. Our work begins when they are babies. We should be training them for independence and obedience almost from the day they are born. Your child needs to learn to submit his rebellious will to the will of his parents, just as we submit our rebellious wills to God. We as adults need to exercise self-discipline to live lives of obedience to God (Romans 12:1, 2; I Corinthians 9:24-27); in the same way we need to train our children to learn self-discipline in order to obey us.
The first time you saw your crawling child reach out to touch an electrical outlet, you probably said “no!” and pulled him away from it. Your child was exerting independence and expressing curiosity, which are both good things. A minute or two later you may have seen him crawl back to it, study it, and then, while looking at you, reach out to touch it again. While your child is again exerting his independence, he is now doing it in a way that is rebellious to your authority. At this point simply pulling him away is not teaching him self-discipline. (You can keep pulling him away from things you do not want him to touch or do, but it will be a lot harder when he is fifteen and weighs 30 pounds more than you do.) Stopping him and “educating him” (telling him about electricity and why it is dangerous) will not keep him from the outlet. At his young age, what will keep him from the outlet is his choice to obey you. He needs to develop his own self-control to not touch the outlet, and this requires training on your part, which may include punishment for disobedience. At the very least it requires time and a consistent approach.
Perhaps, it could be argued, if you would just child-proof your home, you would not have to have these difficult confrontations. While I agree that you probably don’t want to leave irreplaceable or dangerous objects out where a young child has access to them, your child will never learn to obey your authority and develop self-control if there is no reason for it. This is a lesson better learned early, than late.
One has only to watch the news, and the sports reports, to see adults who never learned to respect those in authority over them, and to have self-discipline. Begin early. Be consistent.
When my husband served as pastor, he on more than one occasion had parents come to his office to talk to him about their rebellious 15-year-old. He usually thought to himself, “It would be better if we had had this conversation about thirteen years ago.”
Following are a couple of random thoughts about beginning early and being consistent with children. I learned them as a young mom from wise older moms. (The Titus 2 model is there for a reason — it really works!)
— If it won’t be cute at 15, then it shouldn’t be cute at 2. The smart aleck attitude that you might laugh at in your 3-year-old won’t be funny when he is 15. Be the parent; deal with it when your child is 3. While you may chuckle at the 2-year-old peeking over his shoulder to see if you are watching when he knows that he is disobeying you, it won’t be funny when he is 15. Be the parent; deal with it when your child is 2.
— If you wouldn’t want 12 children doing it, then don’t let one do it. This one I learned from my mother-in-law. So, for instance, if you don’t want 12 children running in and out of the house yelling at each other and slamming doors, don’t let one or two do it. It is much easier to not have to re-train children. Your kids can help their friends know the house rules when they visit. (Let me say here that noise and commotion go along with children to a certain extent, and that is part of the joy of a family. But there is a difference between happy noise and controlled chaos, and children running and yelling thoughtlessly and out of control. Decide on your limits, and train your children.)
The truth is that true freedom comes from self-control and obedience. An adult can function freely if he obeys the laws and has developed self-control. In the same way, a child can be given more freedom within certain parameters if the parent knows that the child is obedient and has a certain level of self-control. Ultimately, our hope for our children is that they choose to submit their will to the Lordship of God in their life, and that the obedience they learned as a child by submitting to their parents becomes obedience to God as they live a life of self-discipline and service to their Savior.
Be early. Be consistent.
Elizabeth Owens is a homeschooler and is the mother of four. Her husband is Waylan Owens, dean of the school of church and family ministries at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This column first appeared at http://waylanandbetsyowens.com. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).