How to Get Your Kids to Obey

In last week’s post, I touched on the importance of teaching our children to obey. We homeschool moms are keenly aware of the necessity of obedience, for without it not much learning takes place and the home deteriorates into a battle zone. Indeed, several moms tell  me they are reluctant to homeschool because their kids won’t listen to them. The reality is that many of us struggle with getting our children to do their work promptly, responsibly, and without whining or complaining.  Teaching our children to obey well takes a lot of patience and consistency, and it takes a lot of prayer. But the good news is that homeschooling provides us with ample opportunities to grow in those virtues and it gives our children lots of practice in obedience.

As we strive to develop the virtue of obedience in our children, we need to keep in mind that the purpose of obedience is not just so that our children get their school work and chores done without arguing or whining. Nor is it simply a matter of keeping peace in the house and annoying behavior at bay. Our reasons for making our children practice the virtue of obedience have to be nobler. As I wrote last week,  obedience teaches humility and self control, it leads to true freedom, and it enables our children to live out their vocations faithfully.

In his excellent book Character Building, David Isaacs lists the three classic degrees of obedience:

  • simple external compliance
  • internal submission of the will
  • full submission of one’s own judgement

Simple external compliance is obeying because one is forced to. A child obeys outwardly, but inwardly, he really doesn’t want to. In fact, he might be seething with rebellion.

There are many ways for us to exact external compliance from our children. Over time, we homeschool moms build up quite an arsenal: letting our children suffer the natural consequences, punishments such as time out,  extra schoolwork, or the withholding of privileges. Or we offer rewards and treats in order to motivate.  At a homeschooling conference several years ago, psychologist Dr. Guarendi made me realize that we really can demand obedience from our children, for we can control what they eat, where they sleep, what toys they have, whether or not they go out, and so on. His no-nonsense approach to discipline is extremely effective in getting children to co-operate and obey.

For children between the age of zero to five, simple external compliance is as much as we should reasonably expect. Sometimes these little ones obey because they intuitively recognize our authority or because they want to please their parents. How endearing it is when they do so! We need to praise and encourage such behaviour lavishly. However, often we will need to make them obey, and the more consistent we are in doing so, the sooner they will learn that when Mommy or Daddy says so, they do so. When a young child shows resistance, we don’t negotiate. We don’t argue. We simply tell them in a matter-of-fact tone that they have to obey, and we see to it that they do.

Promptness is a key factor. Some children say they will obey but they don’t get around to doing what you requested. The next thing you know, “Oops! I forgot!” Since young children do not like being jolted from an activity that they are immersed in, it is sometimes appropriate to give them a five minute warning. Billy, in five minutes you will need to put away your puzzle. Once that five minutes is over, we need to make sure our child obeys promptly. If he doesn’t, we need to be prompt about the consequences. Billy, since you didn’t clean up your puzzle when I told you to, I am taking the puzzle away. You will not get to play with it for the rest of the week.

If we train our children to obey right away, even when they don’t want to,  we pave the way for the second degree of obedience, internal submission of the will. Internal submission of the will is obeying because one sees that the request is reasonable and makes sense. Around the age of five, children want to know the reasons for our demands (or requests, if you want to be nice about it). Choleric children, especially, need to know why they ought to do a chore or task. And since we do not want their obedience to remain at the level of external compliance, it is right that we should reason with them. But we have to watch that our reasoning does not turn into negotiating or arguing. When we tell our children to do or not do something, they need to know that we are to be obeyed, whether or not they agree with our reasons.

Just last night, All-Star was lolly-gagging while the rest of us were clearing away the dinner dishes. I asked him help clear the table, but he just sat there and looked at me. I asked him again. Looking me right in the eye, All-Star ever so slowly put a piece of meat into his mouth and said not a word.

“All right, All-Star, ” I said. “I’ve asked for your help twice, and you’re still sitting there. It is not fair for you to sit there and let everyone else do all the work. You didn’t obey me when I asked you to help, so tonight you are going to do everyone’s chores.”

All-Star began to argue. “It will take me forever!” he complained.

“No, it will take you twenty minutes. And if you’re not done by then, you’ll do everyone’s dinner chores for the rest of the week. I’ll set the timer.”

All-Star was mad. He banged the chairs and called me a meanie. But he did the chores. In less than twenty minutes. By the end of the evening, he forgot that he was angry.

Around the age of eight or nine, children begin to develop a sense of justice. Fairness becomes very important to them. At this time, we need to point out to our children that when we ask them to do something, it is really for their own good or the good of the family. A year ago, my daughter was begrudging the fact that I wanted her to make revisions on a composition she had written. So this is what I told her:

I’m not making you revise your paper for my own sake. It is for your own good that I’m making you do this. I could let you get away with leaving the paper as it is. In fact, it would make my life simpler, at least for the moment. But I know you’re capable of doing better, and I would not be doing my job as a teacher if I let you settle for less than your best. Nor would I be doing you a favor. The fact that I’m insisting on this shows how much I care about you and your education. Believe me, I’m not doing this for myself.

Big-Sis revised her paper. But more importantly, she understood my point, and later she apologized for her behaviour. Now, she rarely complains about having to revise her compositions. When a child realizes that we have her best interest at heart, she is much more likely to be compliant. In the heat of the moment, a child may argue that our reasoning is faulty. She may refuse to see or admit that she sees our reasons are right because she just does not want to obey. In such a situation, we do not engage in a battle of wits.  We plainly state our reasons and then tell our children that there will be unhappy consequences if they do not comply. In time, our children will come to see that our reasons make sense, though they probably will not admit it.

As we show our children the reasons for our requests, we should also teach them to obey well: promptly, cheerfully, and generously.  We should not settle for bare-minimum obedience, for example, chores that are done sloppily or homework that is rushed and incomplete. Rather, we should encourage our children to go over and beyond the call of duty and to pitch in when they see help is needed.  I know this may seem lofty, but we need to aim high, especially if we want to raise saints.

If we are going to hold our children up to a lofty standard,  we should give our children a lofty motive: they can offer their obedience as a sacrifice to Our Lord. How pleased Our Lord is when children do this! What graces He gives them in return for their little sacrifices! So, encourage your children to offer their work up to Jesus, and remind them that if they want to offer it to Him, it must be done well and with a cheerful spirit. Obedience for the love of God is the highest form of obedience, but children are truly capable of it.

So when it comes to obedience, we require, but we also inspire. We do this by giving our children heroic examples of  obedience in the bible (check out this website), in saint stories, and in literature. Just today I happened to read The Knights of the Silver Shield from W. Bennet’s The Children’s Book of Heroes. It is a wonderful story about a knight whose victory over repeated temptations to disobey won him the greatest honor in the kingdom. I could see that my son was impressed with the knight’s obedience. The Dragon Slayer of Rhodes, another story about a knight,  is a beautifully illustrated book that upholds the importance of obedience and humility.

The greatest example of obedience we can give to our children, however, is our own. Our children are very astute, and they will notice how we respond to the requests of our spouse. When our spouse asks us to do something, do we complain, procrastinate, or argue? Do we respond cheerfully or grudgingly? As they get older, our children will notice how well or poorly we  observe the teachings of the church. They will see if we have a bare minimum attitude towards church attendance and fasting. Even our obedience to civil laws, such as staying within the speed limit, will serve as a standard for how well they should obey.

We also need to show our children appreciation for their efforts. After all, being obedient can be very difficult at times. Adults, even very holy men and women, find obedience a challenge at times. So we need to be understanding and encouraging.  Children need our vote of confidence. I know it’s really hard for you to obey right now. But I know you can do it. You are such a great kid and you always try to do the right thing. 

Once children realize that they have to grasp and fulfill what their parents want… the right time has come to show them an affection and gratitude. We have a right to be obeyed, yes, but children will be keener to obey if they know that we appreciate the efforts they are making. – David Issacs, Character Building

If we are going to strive for a high standard of obedience and if we want to show our children that our requests are directed to their own good, we need to avoid making unnecessary and excessive demands. We need to “pick our battles”, choosing ones that really matter, ones that are worth seeing through to the end. For example, we should not make children do chores simply because we do not want to do them ourselves. It is far more effective to ask our children to obey in matters that are truly important, and to make them obey promptly and well every time, than to be constantly badgering our kids to do things without following up on them.

Finally, in a homeschool, it can be very easy for a mother to micro-manage her children and their time. We need to give our children freedom, and lots of it. Just as it is important for children to practice the virtue of obedience, it is important that they exercise their freedom. Children need to learn how to make choices, and they need to learn how to live with the consequences of their choices. So far as it is safe and moral, we need to give our children broad boundaries. They need to have the time and freedom to explore and pursue their interests without us hovering around like anxious helicopter parents. Children who enjoy a fair amount of freedom within reasonable limits find obedience of the second degree, internal submission of the will, much easier to attain.

So to summarize:

  • The ultimate purpose of obedience is to prepare our children to live out their vocations faithfully.
  • External compliance is most suitable for children under the age of five.
  • After the age of five, children need to be given reasons for why they should obey.
  • However, children need to know that we are to be obeyed, whether or not they agree with our reasons.
  • Children need to know that we are really looking out for their best interests.
  • We should also teach them to obey well: promptly, cheerfully, and generously.
  • We should encourage our children to offer their obedience as a sacrifice to Our Lord.
  • When it comes to obedience, we require, but we also inspire.
  • We need to set a good example of obedience for our children by obeying our spouse, church teachings, and civil laws.
  • We need to show our children appreciation for their efforts.
  • We need to avoid making unnecessary and excessive demands.
  • We need to allow our children to exercise their freedom.

In next week’s post I’ll write about the third degree of obedience, full submission of one’s judgment. This degree of obedience is especially important for teenagers as they move towards independence.


One thought on “How to Get Your Kids to Obey

  1. Love this post! Really need to work on this…and the tips are very helpful, as well as the idea that helping kids learn to obey is an education for freedom…to acquire humility and self-control…thanks!!

    Liked by 1 person

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