Why Parents Should Not Negotiate with Kids for Obedience
Many parents develop a strategy for discipline that relies heavily on negotiation. There is nothing wrong with allowing children to occasionally participate in decision-making. They need to learn to make some types of decisions on their own. It helps them develop their decision-making skills and learn to use good judgment. Yet children also need to learn to take directions, follow commands, and render immediate obedience to parents to enjoy a safe, happy, and peaceful childhood. Children need training in obedience. This should be deliberately emphasized and practiced in the home setting. When parents have a strong willed child it is very easy for them to fall into a pattern of continuous negotiation in an effort to avoid sparking unpleasant emotional confrontations. Many parents, in the daily struggle with a spirited child, lose sight of their God-given responsibility for teaching their child to honor and obey their commands. This cannot be accomplished by simply avoiding confrontations.
God has designated parents as the primary authority over their children. No other persons or any local, state, or federal government agency will answer to God for the failure to teach and train a child in obedience. Scripture teaches that God holds parents accountable for their child’s obedience. Parents must train their children on how to honor and submit themselves to authority. Children learn to obey by showing deference and responding immediately to parental commands. Children old enough to walk should be routinely following simple direct verbal commands such as, “No,” or, “don’t touch,” or “stop that!” Many parents remain unaware that their children are perfectly capable of obeying these types of simple verbal directions because they habitually fail to hold their children accountable for obeying directions on the first command. Children not held accountable for their actions soon learn to ignore and delay their response to parental directions. Parents with low expectations for obedience often tolerate and encourage this behavior because they misunderstand the Biblical teachings on the role of parents. Parents should train children to obey on the first command by enforcing compliance immediately. When parents don’t consistently enforce their commands, they will soon find themselves making excuses for their children’s chronic failure to promptly obey.
Many parents mistakenly focus on finding non-confrontational methods to get their children to cooperate and comply with their will. Parents who have had many unpleasant experiences trying to get their young toddlers to comply with their directions can easily fall into a pattern of trying to avoid any confrontation which might cause their child to react emotionally and get upset. As parents we should not needlessly provoke confrontations with our children, but avoiding all confrontation skirts the child’s fundamental need to learn to submit to parental authority. The more often a child is required to obey, the less resistance they offer to subsequent parental directions. Obedience becomes a habit only when parents consistently require it. While there are occasionally situations when an indirect approach to obtaining compliance is advisable, parents should not use this as their primary approach. Parents who consistently avoid confrontation are at risk of abdicating their God-given authority over to the child. Parents should not encourage their children to believe they have authority over themselves. Children who learn to accept early that God has placed them under their parents authority experience greater peace and security. Parents should exercise leadership and influence over their children to enforce immediate compliance with all their directions and directly confront any overt act of disobedience.
Children who do not want to obey parental instructions can be indirectly influenced to do many things against their will. This is not Biblical obedience, but a form of psychological manipulation, contrary to the Bible’s teachings on obedience. Manipulation does not penetrate to the child’s heart attitude and leaves the child captive to its own natural self-centered spiritual orientation. Psychological manipulation is regularly practiced by many parents, but is not sanctioned by the Bible. A healthy and loving parent-child relationship cannot be established through manipulation. Young children should never be allowed to view parents as peers or friends. They need to learn to respect and trust their parent’s God-given authority and they should be expected to obey cheerfully without parental explanations. Parents who feel compelled to explain all their directions to their children don’t understand the nature of Biblical parental authority. These parents are often confused about the nature of spiritual leadership and the Bible’s teachings on Biblical submission.
It’s particularly easy to lose sight of the Biblical principles of parenting in the day to day struggles with a strong willed child. The Bible defines parental authority in the context of Biblical submission. Scripture teaches that parental authority begins with the parents in subjection to God’s authority as well as to God’s legitimate delegated authorities. The Bible teaches mutual submission between parents. The husband is designated in Ephesians 5:22 to be accountable as the head of the household, yet Ephesians 5:21 makes it clear both husband and wife must maintain a deferential attitude towards their marriage partner. Paul commands for all believers that we should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This clearly applies to the marriage relationship. Biblical submission is the primary antidote to self-destructive pride; both men and women must learn to recognize and submit to God’s wisdom, no matter who He uses to deliver it. Many times God tests our hearts by giving insights of truth to others, for our benefit. We must have the humility to hear His voice and be ready to respond, no matter who He chooses to use as His messenger. 1 Peter 5:6-6 tells us that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. A husband who learns to pay heed to his wife’s counsel will ultimately make better decisions. He bears responsibility to listen carefully to her wisdom. God is always ready to speak to the humble in heart, but He opposes all pride and self-will. Many times when I have been caught up in a bad idea, discussing the matter with my wife has brought me to see my error, and kept me from pursuing an unwise course of action.
Children who learn to submit to parents learn humility; they are blessed to avoid the many negative consequences that naturally result from unchecked pride and self-will. Parents are to introduce their children to Biblical submission by requiring them to show appropriate respect and honor in the home, in accordance with Scripture:
“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” 1 Peter 5:5-6
“Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:17-21 ESV
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.” Ephesians 6:14 ESV
While some children are stronger-willed than average, and can be a greater challenge, all children are self-willed. If parents fail to train their young children in Biblical submission, their children will often attempt to manipulate and subjugate their parent’s will to conform to their own selfish desires. Parents who permit this type of behavior complicate their parenting efforts and pay dearly for their mistake, day after day. By failing to train the child to submit to their authority, they encourage the development of a more stubborn and self-willed child. Children want to know the strength of their parents will, and frequently test their resolve. If the parents routinely defer to the child’s wishes, children soon become hardened in the exercise of their self-will and will subsequently show greater resistance to parental authority. Much more effort is required to manage a child who does not learn at a young age to cheerfully defer to the authority and leadership of parents.
Small children should be trained to unconditionally obey without expectation for explanations, pleading, negotiation, or discussion. While there are times when parents should explain their directions and engage in a reasoned discussion with their children, it’s absolutely unwise to allow young children to believe that all parental directions require explanation and are subject to negotiations. God expects children to obey parents promptly and cheerfully, and immediate obedience should be our normal expectation. Many parents are unsure of when they can begin holding their children accountable for immediate obedience. Out of a mistaken belief that they are being kind and patient, they delay enforcement of their commands and overlook disrespect and disobedience from their young child. These parents may feel they are being hard-hearted should they speak sharply, or physically discipline their young children for disobedience. Consequently, they avoid giving direct orders that might spark an open confrontation. By phrasing all their directions as a request they think they are helping the child to cooperate and obey. In reality, they are manipulating them into compliance while skirting the critical issue of obedience. Because the child is never required to truly submit their will to their parents, the child’s heart remains unchanged from its natural selfish orientation. Parents should not be content with obedience that is obtained through manipulation. There are many reasons this is is unwise.
Parents can’t be effective without frequently giving children orders and holding them accountable for following them. A toddler who does not learn to stop whatever they are doing when sharply spoken to can be physically endangered in many common situations in and outside the home. Children routinely allowed to ignore and disregard spoken instructions require greater effort to manage. They soon fall into a pattern of habitual inattention to all parental guidance. Parents who respond to this inattention by repeating themselves only make the problem worse. Parents who learn to say their commands only once, and then enforce immediate obedience discover their children can be remarkably attentive, but this kind of attentiveness only occurs when children know there will not be a second and third reminder before discipline is administered.
Parents who run around and move things out of the way of an unruly toddler often have the mistaken belief that they are being kind by avoiding confrontations with their children over household items. They are unaware that by failing to introduce the child to the concept of boundaries they handicap their child’s normal development. Many parents routinely underestimate the capabilities of their children to discriminate between things they are permitted to touch, and things they must avoid. Children are very observant and learn effortlessly. They are perfectly capable of learning the meaning of “no” at an early age. Once children have experienced the consequences of not obeying verbal cues from parents who consistently enforce their commands, they easily grasp that some things are toys for touching, and some things must be left alone.
Parents who underestimate the intelligence and ability of their young children retard their spiritual growth and maturity because they do not require them to follow simple directions and show appropriate attentiveness to their parents. There is nothing wrong in requiring young children not to touch things that are not suitable for play. Parents who fail to hold their children accountable for heeding simple directions ultimately pay a heavy price. Day after day they must watch their children like hawks. They frequently suffer embarrassment when their children are in the homes of others, where things cannot always be moved out of their child’s reach. If parents are diligent to train their children, by the time they are toddlers the children will reliably respond to verbal directions.
When parents are firm and set clear boundaries at home, children quickly learn to take cues from parents in unfamiliar environments. They can easily adapt to new environments once they have learned to routinely listen to their parent’s verbal directions at home with attentiveness. However, many parents have become so accustomed to having their children ignore their commands at home, it is no surprise they have no control outside of the home. Parents who do not vigorously enforce their commands in their own home train their children to believe that parental commands are not important and can be safely ignored. They create their own problems outside the home through their permissiveness within the home.
Parents need to know that it is through immediately obeying parental commands that children learn how to submit to God and His appointed authorities. Ultimately, obedience to parents prepares them to submit their own selves to God. There is nothing unpleasant for a child in following the orders given by loving and benevolent parents.
Despite this, many parents fall into the trap of skirting the issue of obedience and seeking the immediate gratification of avoiding unpleasant confrontations. They habitually manipulate their children through psychological-based behavior-modification techniques without realizing they are failing in one of their most basic parental responsibilities. It is not enough for children to be skillfully manipulated into pseudo-compliance with parental directions. God expects them to learn how to willingly submit themselves to His designated authorities as an act of obedience, just as they would to God himself. By the time children have developed the motor skills to walk, they have almost always developed the intellectual comprehension required to take verbal directions. There is no reason children cannot understand that “no” means stop what they are doing and cease from further activity.
Parents who think their children are incapable of being guided in this manner immeasurably complicate their daily lives. Their expectations for obedience are set so low, they often think their child is incapable of obeying even the simplest directions without prolonged negotiation and manipulation. This sets the stage for constant struggle over the most trivial matters by empowering the child to fuss and cry whenever forced to act against its own will. Some parents are more resolute and have higher expectations. Their children learn quickly, respond favorably to directions, and rarely disappoint their parent’s expectation for obedience on the first command. With most children, the root problem is not with the child’s inability to obey, it is that undisciplined parents set such low expectations for their child’s behavior that they allow the child to develop the habit of inattention. When the parents don’t enforce their directions and hold the child accountable for obeying at the first instance, the child naturally concludes that he or she need not obey until the 3rd or 4th repetition, if at all.
On occasion, parents out of their home may find it wise to modify their normal response to their children’s behavior. But in the security of their own home environment they should expect their children to be attentive and obedient without hesitation. At home, parents should never pass over the slightest act of overt disobedience if they reasonably expect reliable obedience from their child in a foreign environment. Family order begins at home, and if children are unaccustomed to obeying at home, it only gets worse for the parents when they take children into public places.
For some time, I’ve made it a practice to carefully observe how effective parents act in public places with their children. Parents with well-behaved young children always give clear directions with an expectation of immediate obedience. They habitually express themselves without ambiguity. Effective parents rarely give children directions phrased as a question, and never sound pleading or apologetic. They use a calm but firm tone of voice to communicate an expectation of immediate obedience to the child.
Many parents are ineffective with their strong willed toddler or young child because they have been intimidated by their child’s habit of reacting with an emotional outburst or “melt-down” to any sort of discomfort or confrontation of wills. This pattern can begin at an early age when parents are genuinely uncertain on how to deal with an outburst of temper from an infant. The problem is that by the time the parents recognize the pattern of manipulation for what it is, it has become habitual conduct on the part of their young child. It is challenging to overcome a well-ingrained habit, but it can be done if parents are firm and decisive. Some parents end up accommodating themselves to the behavior rather than learning how to influence the child to change their conduct.
How can you recognize when parents have capitulated their authority in favor of habitually negotiating with their children? One of the biggest clues can be found by critically examining the language they regularly use with their children. Parents who unwisely phrase all their directions in the form of a question are usually unaware that the effect of this is to force the child into the role of being the primary decision maker in their own lives. Small children are simply not prepared, or qualified, to take this kind of responsibility for their own well-being. Another indicator is when parents start a sentence in a directive manner but then feel compelled to end it with a pleading “Okay?” at the end. Parents need not ask their children for permission to give commands and orders. God has given parents authority; effective parents feel comfortable in wisely exercising their leadership role over their children. Children draw security and comfort when parents lead them firmly, with love and confidence.
Young children often lack the information needed to make good decisions. It is unfair to force them into a role of primary decision maker. Children quickly grow tired of deciding everything for themselves. They appreciate the security of being able to trust their parents to make many of their decisions for them. One of the main reasons some parents fail to be authoritative with their children is to avoid sparking direct confrontations where the child’s defiant behavior makes it imperative to discipline for disobedience. Many parents grow weary of disciplining a child because it can be unpleasant. Since it is not possible for the child to directly disobey if the parents never give a clear command, some parents fall into the bad habit of rarely telling their children to do anything. Instead, they ask them if they want to do it. Many times the child feels free to say, “no” right back to them. This is simply wrong! Children should be told what to do, and be expected to do it! When parents avoid giving direct commands to their children and continually phrase their commands as requests, it’s a pretty good sign they are trying to avoid confrontation. This strategy simply postpones the inevitable clash of wills to a more inconvenient time. It also has the unfortunate consequence of teaching the child that they only have to do the things that they want to do, which is a recipe for failure in life.
Certainly, there are some situations where it’s wise for parents to avoid sparking a confrontation with a young child. As a rule, parents should avoid giving direct commands when they are not prepared to decisively enforce obedience. This might be true when they are in an environment where their ability to apply the appropriate discipline for direct disobedience is limited. There’s nothing wrong in avoiding unnecessary confrontations in public places with a child who is just beginning to develop their ability to obey and follow directions. However, parents who choose a strategy of continually avoiding confrontation shirk their primary parental duty to teach their children Biblical obedience. This is often rooted in a lack of courage, and a misapprehension of the child’s ability to follow directions. Godly leadership is a responsibility that parents must continually wear. The failure to discipline children when they are young and teachable can leave them spiritually handicapped for life.
Parents should not negotiate with kids but timid parents may feel they are doing well to avoid the emotional explosion that comes from forcing their child to act against its will. However, such appeasement encourages self-centeredness and delays the development of self-control. When parents maneuver around an issue likely to provoke an emotional outburst by negotiating acceptable terms, it harms the child in the long term by setting the precedence for many subsequent conflicts. For example, when they tell the child that it’s time to go to bed, the child may be eventually persuaded to go without a major confrontation by negotiating among less desirable alternatives. This sidesteps the basic issue of the child’s self-centeredness, and refusal to defer to parental authority. It is harmful to allow a child to dictate their own terms. Biblical submission is desirable because it creates an attitude in the child that is conducive to joy and peace, and leads to more pleasant interactions with others.
Parents who negotiate may believe they are doing the right thing if they successfully avoid the immediate unpleasantness of an emotional outburst. They are unaware of the future problems they create by hardening their child in self-will and leaving them wrapped in self-absorption. Parents need to confront disobedience and require their children to submit, not negotiate. King David illustrated the type of attitude that we should encourage our children to have towards obedience, when he spoke of the spirit displayed in Christ, who came to redeem lost sinners:
“I delight to do your will, O my God, your law is within my heart.” Psalm 40:8
Wise Parenting Teaches Self-Control, Composure, and Humility: The Result is Joy, Peace and Lifelong Blessings
We’ve discussed how the most negative aspect of using an indirect approach is that it sidesteps the critical issue of the child’s need to learn self-control. Parents who do not shirk their duty of training their children will be rewarded with obedient children with peaceful temperaments, who will be a delight to others. Children respond to loving discipline by gaining self-control and becoming more attentive to parental guidance. The foundation for self-control is developed through the habitual exercise of an attitude of deference to God’s appointed authorities. For your child, it begins when they learn to respect and honor your parental authority in your home. Children need to learn to submit to parental authority through daily practice. By nature, they tend to be rebellious and self-centered; obedience is a learned behavior that comes through your effective coaching and leadership. If children are always manipulated into doing what parents want only through non-confrontational negotiations they never learn to exercise willing obedience from the heart. To help them learn, parents must have an expectation for instant obedience and immediately apply correction when children fail to obey. Children should not be empowered to passively resist through whining and negotiation.
Whenever children are slow to obey parental directions, this should be recognized as a form of outright disrespect and confronted vigorously. When disrespectful children are not immediately corrected it encourages them on a pathway to future acts of resistance. Disrespectful, defiant, or directly disobedient children should not be rewarded by manipulation or distraction. Direct disobedience and all forms of disrespect are an affront to God’s divine order. Verbal correction will not be sufficient unless periodically reinforced with a more forceful form of discipline such as spanking. God has appointed parents as His authorities over children. We must never allow our children to despise God’s authority by tolerating overt disrespect. Immediate confrontation with appropriate consequences discourages repetition of disrespect, leads the child to repentance from self-will, and creates a teachable spirit with humility and self-repose. Parents should not avoid confrontations with a strong willed child, but should be ready to exercise firm leadership any time it is needed. Parents help children learn self-control every time they encourage them to deny their own impulsive behavior by showing deference to legitimate authority through sincere obedience from the heart.
The end result for the child is greater security, happiness and joy in living. Well-disciplined children have a heart attitude that will open many open doors in later life. Disciplined children understand they are not the center of the universe. Their hearts are tender and open to hear the call of God’s voice to trust in Him. They will often make the decision to trust Him for salvation at an early age. Parents will take great joy in disciplined children and will find their parenting efforts are rewarded by a close and enduring relationship. Their home will be a special place of joy and discovery that provides an enduring testimony to God’s love and grace to all who enter.