When it all comes down it, obedience underlies a lot of childraising issues. Obedience (or doing what you’re supposed to) is not the end-all goal of childraising, but it is such an important component. If you can’t get your child to do what you ask them (or not do what you ask them not to do), you are in trouble.

So the next logical question is, how do I do this? There are many ways.

Some children are more naturally obedient than others. Some would test until the cows came home and others seem to accept instruction with no problem. You have to choose a strategy that works for your child/family. Here are some common options:

  • verbal correction
  • consequences (receiving something they don’t like)
  • punishment (denial of a privilege)
  • spanking

And then there are of course the manipulative options like bribes, cleverness, begging. And there are abusive options like the silent treatment, anger, loss of love. None of these should be options but people do them anyway. They get results but cause dysfunction and damage.

So taking stock of the above common options, you have to consider your child’s temperament, what they respond to, what their currency is, what their relationship with you is, and what feels natural for you. Some moms swear by the Time-Out technique and others can’t figure out how to get their children to sit in a chair any better than they could get them to obey in the first place. Some moms swear by spanking and others can’t construe it as any different than hitting. Some moms swear by verbal correction and other moms find it as effective as talking to themselves in the mirror. You have to find out what works for you, for the child, for the age, and for the situation. Use what works!

That doesn’t mean there is no stock wisdom. If you’ve been loathe to implement it, obedience can often be fostered just by setting limits. Setting limits means deciding beforehand what the rules should be, gently but firmly explaining them to your kids, and giving a punishment that fits the crime when they disobey. No yelling, no anger, no frustration… for you or the child. Make the process as simple and unemotional as a police officer giving a speeding ticket. The child catches on quickly when they learn that the punishment (or consequence) will come swiftly, surely, and nicely. They then learn to monitor themselves too. ..No nagging.

There are several keys to making the setting limits approach work. One is, making sure the rules are age appropriate and well-known. You can’t expect your child to operate freely or not test if they don’t know the rules. Or if they can’t understand them or keep them up.

The second key is, the fittingness of the negative consequence. If the punishment is too harsh, it sends the child a personal message that you don’t like them and so they don’t like you in return. No harmony. If the punishment is logical and not too harsh, you get a well-learned lesson. Examples of good consequences are:

  • “Since you can’t wait your turn in Candyland, you need to put it away.  You can try again tomorrow.”
  • “When you’re ready to wear your shoes we can go outside.  I know you don’t like them, but outside means socks and shoes go on.”
  • “Since you didn’t clean up your room like Mommy asked, you need to clean it up now before dinner.  When it’s all done, then you can come and eat with everybody.”
  •  “Since you can’t stop interrupting Daddy while he talks to Grandma, you can come and sit with me in here.  When you’re ready to play quietly, you can go back in there with Grandma.”
  • “Since you’re making a big mess with your cereal, you can pick it all up.  Go under the table with this bowl and get the pieces.  When you’re done, you can go play.”
  • “When you’re ready to share the Play-doh with your sister, you can go back.  Until then, sit here with me and think about how nice it is when you both have fun.”

These types of consequences get the point across without blowing them up more than they need to be.  Children need a physical, active consequence to learn from their mistakes.  They don’t need your anger or their own.  They also need to learn connections between the mistakes they make and the results.  Let them learn that bad decisions cause bad results.

Also, even your preverbal children can learn.  Just toss the big sentences and act lovingly in accordance—put the game away for them, remove them from the room, hand them a bowl to pick up, etc.  But if you are doing this, make sure you aren’t angry or ostracizing.  Keep them near you and your tone light.   As long as they see the logical connection between their wrong emotions and the corresponding action, they won’t be mad at you personally.
The third key is consistency. Fathers are normally better discipliners than mothers not because they are harsher but because they are more consistent. (Granted that fathers can often be more consistent because they spend less time with children overall!) If you choose your battles wisely, and narrowly, you can work on one or two problems at a time extremely consistently until you see results. If you only enforce the rules some of the time, kids (especially twos and teens) will play Russian Roulette to get that one special sneaky chance to do what they wanted. If you don’t pick your battles wisely, you end up too scatterbrained to know what to enforce and your children learn to mind you instead of learning principles they can add to their moral toolkit.

Another aspect of setting limits is enforcing the limits with options.  This is especially helpful with the littlest children.  As soon as you see your toddler getting into something they shouldn’t, you give them a choice between two options you’re already ok with.  It’s not so much a distraction as it is a chance to practice choosing a good thing.  When they get older, you can still use this tool but tweak it to have a disciplinary purpose: “You can either let your brother do some pieces with you or you can go to your room to play by yourself for awhile.  Which do you want to do?”  When they choose the former of course, you let them but institute the latter if they fail again.  In essence, you’re allowing them to discipline themselves.  And you don’t have to verbally or emotionally coerce them.

Which leads to another key to setting limits which is immediate action.  With children, actions speak louder than words.  In fact, actions speak louder than yelling!  Rather than nag the child to take turns or stop cheating, simply give them the option of playing correctly or closing up the game.  If they fail, tell them they have to close the game… immediately.  Don’t get into the trap of hovering, reminding.  Your immediate action will train them to do the right thing next time or suffer the consequences.  No amount of hovering, nagging, or explaining will teach them this self-governance.  As much as we Americans stress moral explanation to our children (and there is purpose in that), it simply does not work.  Actions work.  Words teach, but actions work.  So don’t get emotional, just act.

If I were having trouble with my preschoolers, I would definitely start with setting limits. It is what teachers and daycare workers use because it doesn’t involve bonding or brawn, it just involves logic and creativity. And it gets results with the majority of children in the normal, everyday run-of-the-mill problems. For deeper heart issues like lying or stealing, or for issues confounded with development or family, I might choose different tactics. You know your child best.

But whatever you choose, don’t do them the disservice of skipping obedience even though it’s hard or they are difficult. It is the foundational skill which ensures all others, including critical thinking (because they have to respect what you’re teaching them) and autonomy (because they have to obey laws in order to enjoy societal liberty). Our culture tends to underestimate obedience, perhaps in reaction to those who overestimate it.  But establishing that trust and fellowship with your child, which comes from their reasonable responses to your reasonable rules, is part of developing a prized and meaningful relationship with your child.  Don’t miss out while they are young to experience the joy and delight that can come from this pattern.  They will thank you for it later, at least by the time they’re raising their own children =)


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