Eli is not quite two. He is the son of a friend that is staying with us. I experimented with him this morning – in a fun sort of way. I was trying to enlist his help bringing dishes to the kitchen from our den. I wanted to learn about what motivates him to obey. Everything I said in the following “experiment” was said in a relaxed, and pleasant tone.
I started, “Eli, bring this empty cup to the kitchen.” He looked at it and shook his head. Normally, when a child disobeys like this, parents tend to deal immediately with the disobedience by implementing consequences, or they keep demanding until a power struggle ensues. At that point they either exert their power, or they give in to their children. But I was experimenting and wanted to try a couple of things to see how they worked. So I then said, “Eli, can you bring this cup to the kitchen?” He looked at it, and just stood there. I then said, “Eli, you can bring this to the kitchen.” He looked at me, looked at the cup, and turned and ran with the cup to the kitchen. He returned empty-handed.
In the corner was a small box containing computer parts. Eli picked it up and shook it. It’s fun to shake because it makes noises. But it’s not OK to shake because it contains fragile parts, so I said, “Eli, put the box back.” He furrowed his brow and said, “No!” I then said, “Can you put the box away?” No response. I then said, “You can put the box away.” He put the box back and left the office.
A minute later I heard his mom in the living room say, “Eli, no! Take it to the kitchen!” A few seconds later he entered the den carrying her cereal bowl. I looked at him and said, “Eli, you can take it to the kitchen.” He immediately took the bowl to the kitchen.
In summary, here’s what happened:
- When commands were given (Eli, do this!), Eli resisted.
- When questions were asked (Eli, can you bring this to the kitchen?), Eli ignored them.
- When encouragement was offered (Eli, you can do it), Eli obeyed.
At first glance, this may all seem pretty simple. And maybe it is. But we can’t help but wonder, what’s really happening here? What did Eli learn? Did he get away with disobedience? What if the encouragement had been met with resistance? What is the Biblical way to help children learn obedience?
We’re going to address these issues in our next email. In the meantime, we’re inviting you to do at least one thing, and hopefully another.
First, try this with your younger kids. Just to see what happens. We’ve found that kids seem to better respond to our authority when we make better efforts to encourage rather than command. There is something powerful in the notion that “I decided to do this” rather than “somebody else decided I should do this.” We’re not at all suggesting that there aren’t times when parents ought to expect immediate obedience. We’re suggesting that when we put much effort into encouraging our kids, they will be more respectful of our occasional firm commands.
Second, when you try this, tell us your story. Include what happened? How did you feel? What, if anything was different about your child’s response? What did you learn and what do you think your child learned? Your input will contribute to our next email.
Read Working Towards Obedience Pt. 2.
Want to learn more about these concepts? Download our one-hour recording of a Discipline That Connects workshop.