Angry fists and hateful slurs flew deadly in the living room. I peeled the perpetrator off the victim and sent her to her room. She bolted her feet to the floor and hissed, “You can’t make me.”
Have you been there, stuck in that moment between, “Did she seriously just say that?” and “Uh-oh, what on earth am I going to do?” If you haven’t been there, mom, trust me when I say your time is coming.
This child isn’t some horrible brat who no one pays attention to or holds accountable for her actions. She has never been to juvenile detention. For that matter, most people think she is an angel. But she does disobey. In fact, at times she is all-out defiant. She has actually been that way as long as I can remember her cute little self. As a baby, when I would tell her not to touch something, she would smile and stick her hand right back on it.
Of course, back then I was a “perfect-know-it-all-parent” and was certain that a lot of good discipline would cure her of that. I was dead wrong. It sure hasn’t worked. Granted, she is generally characterized by obedience, so there is some gain in discipline, but there are still plenty of times when that old defiant spark sends electrifying jolts straight through my heart.
So what does one do about defiance?
Pointing a Defiant Child to God
We’ve talked a lot about obedience around here. When I wrote the post, Teaching Your Child to Want to Obey, I had no idea that any parent would be in opposition to the concept of obedience. It really had never occurred to me that obedience was an option in a functioning society. I mean, if no one obeyed, our entire world would be in complete chaos. Drunk drivers would kill innocent families on a constant basis. People would freely murder their neighbors over small annoyances such as a dog barking at 6am. And children would be abused without recourse.
Why? Well, if there is no reason or desire to follow any sort of rule, we can all do whatever we wish. And the Bible is clear about that which we wish. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked…” Certainly this is the reason why authority, laws, and rules have been in existence since, well, the beginning of time.
We need rules. We need authority. And we need obedience.
But there is something we need MORE than obedience. We need for our children to understand that they can’t possibly do it. Yep. You heard me right. Your child, my child, cannot possibly obey 100% of the time. We have to remember that this is a process. It’s a process born out of our desire to please the Lord, but that won’t happen overnight. Nor will it happen all the time. Just think about it. Do you obey God all the time? Ahem, I can only speak for myself here, but if God were giving out grades, I would fail miserably.
If I expect God to have patience with me, as a parent, I need to expect to have patience with my kids. And no, I don’t mean that I should just throw up my hands and let them do what they want. God doesn’t do that with me.
We need to practice intentional parenting that is full of the right kind of grace. When our children do struggle with wrong choices, we need to be there to guide them through it. We need to help them understand they don’t have to be defeated by wrong choices (sin) and there is a way to listen to the right voice.
So let’s take the example from above. The perpetrator (name will remain silent to protect the innocent) has now told me I can’t make her go to her room. Is she right? How do you even respond to that?
Well, she is right. I can’t make her. Sure, I could pick her up and carry her there, and I would certainly do that if she was 4 or 5, but she is twice that. And she has hit the nail on the head as to why parents so desperately feel out of control. We can’t MAKE our kids do things. Aside from physically enforcing something (which only works for a few years), we have no real power here. At least not the forcing kind of power.
If we are to have any success in this situation, it’s going to have to be something that will change WHO they are. Let me explain what I mean by sharing our conversation. (Please note, I remained very calm and quiet while talking to her, despite her behavior.)
Me: You know, you’re right. I can’t make you and I won’t. You are going to have to make a choice here. But before you do, I want to ask you a question.
Child: Silence. Arms crossed, eyes rolled back in head and fire breathing out of her nostrils (ok, maybe not the fire part).
Me: Who are you pleasing right now, yourself or God?
Child: (having been asked this question before and with clenched teeth) MYSELF.
Me: I can understand why. I don’t like it when people annoy me either. But I also don’t like it when people punch me. Don’t you think that is why God wants me to obey his Word in Ephesians 4:32 when He says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another”?
Me: I also understand that it’s hard to face it when you know that what you are doing doesn’t please God. That’s why I think we should go into your room and have this discussion. So, would you like to try and obey this time?
Of course there is no magic in my words. The key is two-fold.
#1 Ask “Who are you pleasing right now?” (Because this draws their attention not to you or the sibling or whatever the problem was, but to God. And all matters should be taken up with God.)
#2 Relate to the child. Don’t act high and mighty or perfect. What do you do when the clerk charges you too much or the neighbor destroys your property? Do you feel angry? Of course! You can absolutely relate to what your child is feeling, so rather than judging his/her choice, help them understand that it’s normal to feel that way, but God wants us to make a right response to our feelings.
The goal is to point them back to the truth of the matter, not condemn them. <—-Did you get that.
I think the worst thing a parent can do is shame kids to the point of hopelessness. And I’ll be the first to admit that parents do this unintentionally. We have to remember that they CAN’T do right all the time. Their sinful flesh just won’t let them. So rather than offering them a heap of shame and defeat, we want to offer them questions they can use to help them remember why they really want to do right.
Otherwise, I fear we will be the parents of one of the infamous 76% who will someday walk away from the church (see foot note). After all, what is the point of working so hard to be Christ-like if we are always going to feel full of shame and defeat?
You’re probably wondering if my little talk worked. The truth—> it did, but it doesn’t always make her do what I tell her to do. You see, sometimes I can talk through the wall of selfishness she has put up around her decisions, and sometimes I can’t. But I won’t stop taking this angle to solve the problem, because it’s the only real solution. One day, she is going to be in a position where she has to make all her own choices and where she will face very adult consequences for those choices.
If I am consistent now to point her to the only real answer (God), when it really matters in her life she will not forget that He is the answer.
For now, it doesn’t matter if she went to her room. The first few times I tried this with her, she refused. Little by little, I have seen a change in how long it takes before she comes to her senses. Her apologies have become very sincere and these episodes are much less frequent. I love that it’s so clear God is working in her heart and that she is letting Him! I love it much more than whether or not she actually went to her room that day.
*Studies have shown that 2/3 of today’s Christian teens are leaving the church (the infamous 76% mentioned above). I would highly recommend reading Already Gone, if you have not heard of these studies and their implications.
By the way, if you are struggling with obedience in your home, I would recommend that you take a look at this Bible study. It is written to help children explore WHY, HOW and WHO we should obey. Take the pressure off of your own authority and put it back in the right place by helping them understand what God’s Word has to say about this vital topic!