Immediate obedience is a commonly taught parenting principle and the method for extracting it is often quick, firm, and even physical. Is this the Bible’s way of discipline? My thinking on this topic has changed over time.
“Delayed obedience is disobedience.” Or so they said.
As a young dad, I listened to teachers that said, “Delayed obedience is disobedience.” Kids should be required to immediately obey all parental requests. I disciplined accordingly. I knew that having obedient kids was a good goal. And, if I’m honest with myself, I liked the feeling of control and validation that came with having obedient kids.
When our kids disobeyed, I was quick to respond with a firm rebuke and a punishment.
Demanding immediate obedience just wasn’t working
Our oldest son Daniel was particularly strong-willed and defiant, and I worked the program hard. But my approach didn’t have the desired effect. As Daniel grew from toddler to preschooler, he grew more irritated by my discipline. He became angrier and testier with time.
What did I do? I intensified efforts to “nip this in the bud” by requiring more obedience. Not just any obedience. I required immediate obedience. “Daniel, delayed obedience is disobedience, and you’ll be disciplined if you don’t obey immediately.” I uttered these words again and again. Sometimes he complied, and sometimes he did not. We were both generally discouraged by the process.
What does the Bible say about kids’ obedience?
Yes, the Bible commands children to “obey your parents in The Lord,” (Eph 6:1). For us to relate with our kids in ways that compel them ultimately to obey God is perhaps our highest calling as dads. But compelling kids to obey is not the same as scaring them into compliance.
There’s a verse for us too. I was working much harder on getting the kids to follow their verse than I was to obey the verse aimed at fathers a few sentences later. It turns out that perhaps the most direct of all commands in the Bible to fathers is found in both Colossians 3:21 and Ephesians 6:4. In short, it says, “Fathers, don’t exasperate or embitter your children.”
I had to confess, I was the disobedient one, and there was no one punishing my disobedience with swift, firm consequences.
How was I disobedient?
I yelled. I stood tall in order to intimidate my kids into submission. I scared them into doing things my way. I sought to emerge victoriously. There was a subtle “I win and you lose” dynamic in my discipline. And I made “losers” of my kids. I did little to consider what was really best for my children. Instead, I disciplined from a sense of what was best for me. In other words, much of my discipline was selfish!
The saddest thing about this is that two of my three kids largely complied when I acted this way. So I thought my quest for immediate obedience was working. What they were really learning was that submitting to angry people is the way to get along in life.
Since it was “working” with them, I was even more critical and harsh with Daniel. I remember saying about him, “This kid thinks he’s the center of the universe!”
I’m guessing, in retrospect, that if he had the skills at the time, he’d have said about me, “This dad thinks he’s the king of the world!”
Although I was well-intentioned, by exasperating my three kids, I was sinning against those precious ones entrusted to me. Once I recognized this I began the hard work of self-discipline in the discipline of my children. My new goal when kids misbehaved was not my children’s immediate obedience, but my obedience to Ephesians 6:4.
Don’t exasperate your children!
When there is parental selfish motive (which there almost always is), you demonstrate humility and Biblical obedience by focusing on your own verse. Don’t exasperate or embitter your children. And for those critical-thinking, constantly questioning everything sort of kids? There is a great long-term payoff to kids and parents when parents take the time to state their reasons for their expectations.
When we hold ourselves accountable for helping our kids understand, we do better thinking. We are less likely to make selfish demands. This is how we gain the respect needed. Then when the occasional demand for quick obedience does come, our kids respect it. They know we have good reasons because we’ve proven over and over again that we do.
Confession leads to grace
I disciplined for a long time from a place of selfishness. It was about my needs. I didn’t want to argue. I didn’t want to explain myself. I just wanted things done my way.
In order to change, I had to confess this to God, my kids, and my community. And then I experienced God’s grace for me. This motivated me to bring God’s grace and truth to their disobedience too—not in a way that let them off the hook for it, but in a way that built wisdom and reconciliation as I held them accountable.
I learned to better live more fully in obedience to my verse as described so beautifully in the Message, “Fathers, don’t exasperate your children by coming down hard on them. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.”
Fathers, don’t exasperate your children by coming down hard on them. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master
With this in mind, I modeled more intentionally. I encouraged more. I learned to nurture values and skills that empowered my kids to desire obedience because they valued God’s ways.
A legacy of grace, instead of demands
I’m so glad I made this shift. Today my kids’ memory of me is not as their dominator, but as their discipler—a loving and graceful daddy. Not perfect, but in my son Daniel’s words, I was “cosmically safe” (in the big picture of our relationship) to him, because I was faithful to reconcile with grace whenever I slipped back into a big angry power reaction.
I encourage you to commit to obeying your verse first and foremost. You just might find your kids more naturally follow their verse. But even if that takes a long time, you’ll have peace of mind knowing you’ve obeyed the Father that loves you and your kids deeply.
Want to learn more? Jim recorded this 38-minute message thinking about dads (although moms can listen too!). If your wife has recently been digging into our material and is urging you to “get on board!” this is a great place to start!