Do you find yourself giving umpteen reasons why your child should do what you just told him to do? Do you find yourself repeatedly explaining why or why not? (This post is part 2 of a series.)
I am concerned about the postmodern trend to reason with children over an obedience issue (either a command or a denial of something requested). When I mentioned this topic to a friend of mine, a grandmother, her reaction was instant and emphatic. Her strong reaction incited me to ask several other older moms living in other U.S. states. Every one echoed the same concern with intensity. They see it as a serious problem among young parents.
Initially, little children ask “why” because they are learning to connect cause and effect. However, when obedience is required the question easily morphs into a control tactic for delay, avoidance, or resistance. Given time and practice it becomes a slip-n-slide to rebellion.
The Bible is clear that the primary reason parents must exercise decisive, loving authority is because God commands it. If that was the only reason it would be sufficient. Of course, underlying that command is the nature of God Himself and, therefore, what parents’ obedience to this command models to children and others about God. But for this post, I would like to take a more pragmatic approach and show from biblical principles of child development why reasoning does not work but provokes anger and rebellion. I won’t elaborate on the principles so much as state them and then connect to the implications. At a minimum, child development in the areas of knowledge, perceptions, thinking skills, feelings, impulses, conscience, and will relate to the issue.
Reasoning disregards factors of child development.
First Corinthians 13:11 says that a child reasons and perceives as a child. In context it refers at the least to a lack of knowledge, lack of understanding others, and lack of broad perspective. A child has neither the brain ability nor the years of experience you do. So if you give reasons for what you want the child to do you are showing reasons to a person who is literally unable to see them like you do because he is literally unable to understand as an adult does. Children generally live for the moment, so you are trying to get a short-sighted person to see distances–he can’t.
Living by feelings and impulses, children aren’t naturally sensible or reasonable; they are emotional and selfish (Ps. 51:10; 58:3; Prov. 22:15; Rom. 3:10-18; 1 Cor. 3:1-3). Therefore, if you think you’re logically explaining why, what you’re actually doing is pitting reason against emotions. His feelings matter a lot more to him than your reasons.
Children think and perceive self-centrically, simplistically, and foolishly (1 Cor. 3:1-3; 13:11; Prov. 16:2, 25; 22:15). You see yourself reaching the heart. The child sees an adult who, at the point of disagreement, can be distracted and drawn into a discussion by just the little word “why.” You explain reasons. The child perceives he is in a negotiation over a behavior. And he’s right. When giving reasons, you are trying to persuade your child to give up wanting what he wants. He’s doing the same toward you. That’s a negotiation, not instruction.
A child is a chooser. He has a will, a strong will, a will bent toward his own way. More than one parent has thought that if she could just explain it enough times the child would finally “get it.” Understanding is not the problem. Willfulness is. (Ps. 51:5; Prov. 22:15; Rom. 3:10-18, 23)
Reasoning doesn’t reach the heart in the way you intend.
For the reasons above, I propose that it is not the assertion of gracious, judicious authority that is harsh, but it is the efforts at reasoning little children into obedience that is unloving. (Again, I’m not talking about a congenial discussion time. I’m talking about a time for obedience.) Expecting a person who can’t understand to understand is not kind. It expects more than a child is able to handle. It frustrates, provokes, and that is inconsiderate at best. Parents who adopt this practice do not realize its long-term effects.
Christian parents rightly want to shape the heart motives of their children. By Ephesians 6:4 we see that instruction is an important way to do so. Thoughts about truth influence the desires a person chooses. Perhaps this command to instruct leads to a misapplication, to explaining (“instructing”) reasons why a child should obey instead of enforcing the responsibility of the child to obey.
Reasoning with a child over obedience teaches by example that it is right for the child to expect authorities to answer to him, to defend decisions. It feeds pride. “Mom is willing to negotiate with me person to person; therefore I must be on a level with her. Okay, I’ll ask ‘why’ because it draws her into explaining herself. Then I’ll negotiate until she compromises.”
Christian parents rightly want to train the conscience. Reasoning when the child should be obeying does the opposite. It hardens a child’s heart. How? It lets him practice ignoring his conscience in order to resist, argue with authorities, and comply only on his terms–when he deems the decision to be “reasonable.” You may out-debate a young child until he does what you want, but the teen will out argue and outlast you without remorse.
It is vital that a child learn to trust and obey. Explaining reasons in order to gain compliance teaches the opposite. When God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Abraham didn’t ask why. He didn’t question or negotiate. He didn’t dawdle. He immediately obeyed (Romans 4, Hebrews 11). That is mature faith. Having to know all the reasons first opposes faith.
Teach at the effective time.
Do teach. Just don’t do it when submission to authority (obedience) is at issue or when the child is disputing. When obedience is the issue it is time to learn obedience, not thinking skills. “Son, your responsibility right now is to honor and obey without disputing” (from Ephesians 6:1-3 and Philippians 2:14, spoken calmly).
Train the conscience. Teach the right standard to inform the conscience. Discipline violations to help him listen to that conscience, to care about God’s standard. That is reaching his heart. Discipline makes him more aware of the sin in his heart that his conscience is warning him about, which then uncovers his need for Christ. This is why discipline is a grace to the child.
Just as the Law exposes our sinful hearts, so requiring compliance to an authority without reasons exposes the child’s heart. If the child is resisting, he is not teachable anyway, so explaining is futile and leads to frustration. When your child truly wants a discussion for understanding you won’t feel your tension increasing and he usually won’t use the word “why.”
So then, don’t confuse application time as teaching time. I’m not saying the two can never go together. Relationships are dynamic. But if you find yourself frequently hearing “why” or being expected to defend your commands, your child has moved away from teachability to resistance. He doesn’t need more words; he needs more practice at application.