Is It Obedience or Controlling?


Many people outside Babywise circles hear the term “first-time obedience” and immediately (and wrongly) think that we are teaching our children to obey because we want to control them. They think we want them to act like little robots doing everything we say, simply because it’s convenient for us.

I’ll be the first to say that my life would be easier and much more convenient if my kids were robots and did every little thing I said. But I didn’t go into parenting expecting easy or convenient. Parenting is hard work! And that’s exactly as it should be.

There is nothing about obedience training that is convenient. In fact, I feel like if our first-time obedience slips, it’s more likely than not that it’s my fault, not theirs. If I forget to call their names before giving an instruction, then they will forget to obey me the first time. If I forget to get eye contact while giving an instruction, they will assume that I’m talking to somebody else. And if I don’t take the time to cultivate a loving relationship with my kids, they won’t have motivation to obey. There is SO MUCH that goes into training our kids — and ourselves — in first-time obedience. I could write a whole book about it! Oh, wait, I did! Haha.

I do not simply spout out my instructions to my kids and then discipline with a heavy hand if they refuse to comply. That, my friends, is controlling.

The line between obedience training and controlling is very fuzzy. It’s easy to slip from one to the other. You tell yourself that you have reason to believe that your kids are capable of obeying your every word. You believe in setting high standards for your kids, and so you set out to have them obey every instruction you give — without thinking whether it’s age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate, or just plain fair. This is where we set ourselves up for failure. It’s these tricky little expectations that fool us into believing that we could create robots out of our children.

And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want robots. I want children. I want my kids to be the unique individuals that they are. If that means that Lucas likes to sit in his chair with one leg hanging off the side, then so be it. If that means that William likes to chew on his sleeves, then so be it. They are not disobeying me when they do these things. Do these things sometimes bug me? Yes, absolutely. But I wouldn’t trade these quirks of theirs for a child guided by fear. I want my kids to love me and cherish our relationship. I don’t want them to fear me. If that means that I have to put up with their little quirks, that’s fine. Oh, and by the way, when they do these little things, they aren’t disobeying me.

I suppose that’s our litmus test for whether we are requiring obedience or trying to control our kids. Are we trying to train their little quirks right out of them? What is our motivation in our obedience training? If you’re like me, your main motivation in obedience training is to work on the big stuff. We want to create good, moral people, not people who sit straight in their chairs or don’t chew on sleeves. The little stuff doesn’t matter.

But maybe, on the other hand, it does matter. Because if your parenting is guided by training the little stuff, then your relationship will suffer. When you harp on their little quirks — the qualities that define who they are as people — you’re telling them that you don’t accept your children for who they are. You’re telling them that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. I find that utterly terrifying, both as a parent and as I look at it from my child’s perspective. I want my children to accept and adopt my values because they’re important, not because I’m trying to control their every move.

And you know what happens when we try to control their every move? They rebel, big time.

Think about the following quote when you ponder your reasoning behind obedience:

“Obedience teaches children to have self-control in all matters of life. Obedience moves children from extrinsic [external] motivation to intrinsic [internal] control. Eventually, a child will no longer need a fence on the outside for his own protection, because his parents have helped him a moral and ethical fence on the inside,” (Growing Kids God’s Way, p. 96).

So do your work to build that “fence” inside of them, but stop there. Accept and embrace their little quirks!

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