When a Child Disobeys

Six Steps for Healthy Correction

Correcting children can be a matter of babies and bathwater. How do we preserve the phenomenal God-given potential these children possess, without condoning the defiance that boils over from the cauldron of their sinful little hearts? How do we love the baby well and hate the dirty bathwater?

While Christian parents know it is necessary to correct young children (Proverbs 22:15), good and wise parents also earnestly desire to guard themselves against crushing their spirits (Proverbs 15:13). We don’t want to destroy the morale and mettle of these potential heroes who currently happen to be packaged in the appearance of unholy terrors.

Our aim is to redirect them, not squash them. But when little Johnny has done it again — disobeyed, defied your instruction, sassed, thrown a hissy fit — what’s a mother to do? How can she respond to this naughtiness without abandoning tenderhearted love? How can she hate the sin (it is sin) and love the little sinner? And how can she avoid over-reacting? How can she build up a child who disobeys?

Affirm, Then Correct

Before tackling how to do it, recognize the indispensability of understanding why we must first lay down a foundation of affirmation. Why affirm a child who has just mouthed off, blatantly defied your instructions, willfully disobeyed you, or stubbornly stunk up the house with an attitude that reeks of selfishness?

First, because if you don’t make “commendation of the commendable” a way of life, you lose your child. That is, he tunes you out. You don’t mean to push him away, but you do. He eventually doesn’t listen to you anymore, because you’re always on his case. He gets the impression he can’t please you. So, make it clear that he does please you when he obeys promptly, or when he demonstrates the slightest echoes of Christlike character such as kindness, generosity, alertness, or sensitivity to others (Philippians 4:29).

Don’t overlook this tactical advantage: your even-handed kindness and willingness to objectively acknowledge in your child’s behavior and attitude whatever is good, true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8) will gain you a hearing. Children (of all ages) are more willing to listen to those who praise them. So, if it’s worthy of praise, then, well, don’t omit the praise! You gain a hearing.

The interplay between correction and affirmation is like a checking account. Be sure to make ample deposits (affirmations) before drawing on the account (corrections). Corrections bounce when the account is overdrawn.

God Is Doing Something

The second reason to correct in an atmosphere of affirmation is that God is always doing good things everywhere. Some call it “common grace.” Of all the good he is doing, some of the good is in your child, even at the precise moment your child defies you. God gets more glory when we point out what he is doing, and he is always at work, even during the tornadic tempest of a child’s tantrums.

What exactly is God doing? For one thing, God is restraining your child. Even as sinful as a child’s heart is, the tyke does not carry out all the wicked plans that are conceivable. In fact, the child doesn’t even conceive all the wickedness that’s conceivable. God hasn’t let him. God has not allowed your toddler to kill himself, or launch a nuclear strike, or commit the unpardonable sin. Praise God. Seriously, give God explicit honor for the specific good he is doing in the moment. Name it. Tell God you see it, and thank him.

Keep in mind, each sin of your child doesn’t obliterate all the other developmental progress he or she may have made up to that point. Just as one misspelled word doesn’t imply the child has to learn the alphabet all over again, one display of defiance doesn’t mean all is lost.

Six Steps for Healthy Correction

So, what can you do when a child disobeys? When your child defies you, first pray. Ask God to move the heart of your child (Romans 10:1).

Second, focus on the heart. Good and wise parental correction is not a matter of finding the right formula, as though it’s a mere mechanical operation. The right kind of thinking and practicing requires the right kind of heart. Ensure that you love your child with God’s love. This is different from human sentimentality or possessiveness. Our children don’t belong to us, but to God. We are to treat them as God would have us treat them. In order to treat children wisely, to love children (or anyone) well, we need continuously to be filled by the Holy Spirit who produces the fruit of love. Failing to be Spirit-filled jeopardizes the entire enterprise.

Third, precede correction with a diet of affirmation. It should be obvious by now that I commend commending the commendable. Then, correct. The correction is best when it has taken place in a broad context of steady affirmation. “We affirm good things around here” is a good banner to hang over a home. And it makes correction more palatable (Colossians 3:21). But don’t wait too long to correct, when pressure builds to unmanageable proportions and you explode, or so much time has elapsed that the child does not make a tight connection between his misbehavior and your correction.

Fourth, put a pause between the affirmation and the correction. Separate the two. “You told the truth to me about breaking the lamp by throwing the ball, and that honesty is so commendable. I thank God for your integrity. Now (pause) we have to address the clean-up, maybe restitution, and appropriate consequences for this misbehavior when you were clearly told not to throw a ball in the living room.”

Fifth, ask how God affirms us while correcting us. Answer: he receives us as his own children. Hebrews says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). Describe for the child how God corrects you. Explain that he does it because he receives you as part of his family. And you correct your children because you receive them in your family: it establishes belongingness, which is so important to healthy development.

Lastly, humbly persevere (Colossians 4:2). Practice consistency in the strength God supplies, and be ready to lovingly correct for the long haul.