What’s REALLY Behind Kids’ Misbehavior?

Have you ever noticed that some kids argue more persuasively than others? Or that some kids’ schemes are actually quite creative? Or that some kids’ resistance to our requests is so persistent that we actually give in to them sometimes? This persuasiveness, creativity, and persistence is evidence that something else is at work. Their misbehavior is not just about their sin. It is also about the unique ways God built them. 

This understanding is critical, because in our haste to punish our children’s misbehavior, we may miss an opportunity to affirm and encourage God’s gifts in them.

If we are to move away from discipline that simply punishes misbehavior toward discipline that “disciples” our kids in God’s plans for their lives, we must work to pass up the “quick-fix” and engage our children patiently and gracefully. Consider the differences in the following discipline situations:

Scene 1 – Typical Discipline:

“Johnny, it’s time to clean up your toys!” his mother Karla instructs. But Johnny grows defiant and lashes out, “No, Mommy! I don’t wanna clean up!”

Karla looks Johnny in the eye and firmly says, “Johnny, you obey me right now or you’re going to lose those toys.”

Johnny knows Karla means business, so he reluctantly decides to clean up his toys. He’s learned that Mommy is still more powerful than him and that he’d better do what she says.

This is not a bad lesson to learn. But it is merely discipline and NOT discipleship. Here’s how his mom might respond to Johnny with a spirit of discipleship.

Scene 2 – Discipleship Opportunity:

“No, Mommy, I don’t wanna clean up!”

Karla looks Johnny in the eye, and with a hint of a smile says, “It’s hard to obey sometimes isn’t it, Johnny? You are one creative and strong-willed little guy!” She pauses and prays silently, “Lord how will you use these gifts in him?” This orients her toward the purpose of all God’s discipline, which is to “share in His holiness” (see Hebrews 12:10).

Karla makes this offer, “Johnny, I love how God wired you to be so creative and persistent. Before you put those away, show me the coolest thing you made today.” Because she feels safe to him, Johnny is eager to please his mommy. He quickly grabs one of the little structures he has assembled and shows her. “That’s a cool one Johnny! Very unique way to make a truck! Do you want to put it away with the rest of them, or do you want to keep it out?” Karla is now Johnny’s trusted guide and encourager in the cleaning and obedience process. He may still remain defiant and lose the toys, but Karla’s heart has been transformed from that of a discipliner to that of a discipler.

Do you catch the difference between scene one and scene two? In scene one Karla’s goal was quick discipline, and she engaged with a posture of control. A controlling posture typically creates either a sense of fear or defiance in kids. On the fear side, these kids become compliant and often insecure, and on the defiance side, they become obstinate and rebellious.

In scene two, Karla was still conscious of the immediate situation, but she had a spiritual eye toward the future, and engaged with a posture of grace. A graceful posture feels safe for kids. It helps them feel responsible for themselves and reminds them that God’s purposes are part of their lives. It also encourages the gifts behind their misbehavior instead of just punishing the misbehavior.

This week as you interact with your children, keep a watchful eye for opportunities to disciple rather than just discipline. We continually pray that parents may be guided more by their heart to disciple their children than their desire to control them.

Frustrated by constant discipline challenges? Take 15 minutes to read our free ebook 4 Messages All Children Long to Hear: A Discipline That Connects Overview.