This is the fourth in a series of articles on Family Life by Ben Pitcher
Teaching our children obedience is one of the most explicit parenting instructions in the Bible.
Paul, in both Ephesians 6v1 and Colossians 3v20 commands children to obey their parents. This same command from God is also embedded in the Ten Commandments and stamped with God’s Name and a promise. The reason for its emphasis is fairly obvious when thinking about the importance of this command: How can a child ever grow up to obey a God they can’t see, if they do not first learn to obey a parent they can see?
Following this line of thinking further, parents are purposely put in a position where they establish the reality of God to a young child. A child’s first understanding of their Heavenly Father will be shaped by how they view the authority and love of their natural parents.
Faithful parents have a unique privilege — to make God real to our children. In a sense, we are God to a very small child. Think of it from their perspective. We have all the responsibility and care for them like God does. Furthermore, we make the rules about what is applicable in our house, we tell them that God is pleased when they obey, and they see we are also pleased by their obedience. We tell them God loves truth and hates lies, and they see we also love it when they tell the truth. As parents, we tell them God loves and cares for them, and they see we love and care for them. We tell them God’s word is in the Bible, they cannot even read it, so we say phrases out loud for them to repeat when reading the Bible together; we tell them it is God’s Word, but they are hearing it as our words they are repeating.
We make God real to our children and by obeying us, they learn to obey God.
Obedience is not a natural part of our makeup, it has to be taught, and no one finds it easy to learn.
As adults, we still struggle with obedience to God’s commands, but we have a God-given opportunity that we can teach our children obedience early, and in so doing provide a natural transition to obeying God as they grow older and more mature.
A challenging thing to think about is that even the Lord Jesus Christ had to learn obedience. Our Lord was never disobedient, but because of human nature, obedience did not come naturally and so he ‘learned obedience through the things he suffered’ (Hebrews 5:8).
God, as a Father, taught His only beloved son, and expects us, as godly parents, to teach obedience to all His children, as well as be obedient children ourselves and be holy like Him (1 Peter 1:14-15).
The fact that obedience to a parent is linked with the promise of life in the Ten Commandments stayed with me once I learned the very serious lesson that obedience can be a matter of life and death to a young child. The horror of a child running toward the road and ignoring the command to stop is a heart-stopping moment. The somber reflection later, when an incident is averted, is the realisation that the fault is not that of the child, but that the parents are entirely responsible for not teaching obedience to their commands.
If Christ struggled to learn obedience—and remember he struggled till he ran with sweat like blood—our children will naturally struggle too. There are, however, some simple things we can do to help our children to learn to be obedient.
Sometimes we can fall into the trap of wanting to sound like nice people in our own ears and so will ask for compliance when we really mean to command. We might say, “Would you like to pick up your toys now please?” This approach sounds very polite, but really the answer to that question could be “No”, and we would have no right to get angry at such a legitimate answer.
If we want to help our children, we are welcome to give options on occasions, but we should be clear when we are giving a command that requires obedience and carries consequences.
A key thing to help children is to have a set way of asking for obedience, so that the child is prompted that this is one of the times I am being asked for obedience, rather than being confused as to whether this is a time that they get an option. Also included in the set way of asking is a requirement for a response from the child so they hear themselves take responsibility for carrying out the command.
Very simply, a recommended way to give instruction is:
- Call the child and establish eye contact
- Maintain eye contact and give clear instructions in one or two sentences
- Expect a ‘Yes Mummy’ or ‘Yes Daddy’ verbal response
- Encourage or hug them when the command is carried out
As well as the set formula helping young children learn and realise they are being called to obedience, the eye contact and their verbal acknowledgement means that there are no excuses possible about not hearing your instruction.
The other positive effect of this instruction routine is that when children hear themselves acknowledging the command, they have a greater tendency to follow through with the instruction because they have said they would. Sometimes you see their visible struggle via their body language in not wanting to say ‘Yes mummy’ to the command, but once they make the acknowledgement, often it is as though the struggle has been won in their mind because they have now agreed to comply and so they carry out the instructions with no further hesitation.
In this way we can tangibly see that we are helping our children to learn to submit to the commands of a higher authority over their own wishes.
Another practical point to note is that delayed obedience is disobedience. Don’t fall into the trap of giving a ‘one-two-three’, or cajoling, or bribing our children into obeying us.
A far better way to gain compliance without compromising on the principle of obedience but being seen by our children as helpful, fair, and just is to give them a five-minute warning where possible.
If our children are invested in a game at a friend’s place and we wish to leave, or they are playing in the backyard and we want them in for dinner immediately, we have not allowed any satisfying way for all their investment and involvement in the game being played to dissipate. If we provide a five-minute warning, however, they have the opportunity to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion, with everyone knowing this is the last round, perhaps with more points or penalties, and then they will be prepared to comply.
Obedience is a difficult lesson to learn, and if we characteristically make obedience attractive to our children by giving a warning when we need compliance to leave the park or beach ahead of time, then on those occasions when, for some reason, we are unable to provide a warning but require instant obedience anyway, then our child is more likely to give it to us, as they will see us as a fair and reasonable parent who tries to help them as much as possible.
Let us as parents take the responsibility of teaching obedience seriously, but we must do so in such a way that our children are drawn towards the concept of a loving and caring Heavenly Father by the role that we play in representing Him to them, demonstrating His character, and making it easy for them to obey His Word, because they have grown up obeying us.
Previous articles in this series on Family Life:
This article was previously published in The Lampstand magazine.
Feature image: Parents walking with child Photo by Caleb Oquendo on Pexels.