Thank you for your letter. I believe that you have touched on a universal feeling among parents, at least the parents with whom I speak. Disobedience is a sorrow. As parents it presents one of the most disturbing and overwhelming challenges to have children who refuse to obey or respect our directives. When our children are very young we call this behavior disobedience, when they are teens we label it defiance, when they are young adults it is referred to as a difference of opinion. It is vital that we work through the problems of children not obeying, early on in their childhood. With that said I think that it is important to understand that children are very resolute in their behavior and unless helped to understand the hurtful nature of their disobedience, will continue to use this behavior to get attention from their parents. This behavior is many times used for just that reason.
I believe that children want to be good. They are not born with a nature that desires to be hurtful or ugly. I also believe that children are many times confused by the strength of their own feelings. They love their parents and desperately desire their approval, however it appears that they will go out of their way to break rules and test the limits. Why? I have dealt with this in my own home and find it to be one of the most difficult challenges. I will tell you some of the methods and reasons for those methods that we have developed over the years.
Many times our expectations of what a child can and can not understand are not realistic. We may wrongly assume that children instinctively know the reasons behind our rules. Sometimes we are setting boundaries that are not helpful and are indeed burdensome for young children. Sometimes we set these boundaries from anger and this only fuels their discontent. Sometimes we assume that children can remember the boundaries and rules because they seem to have excellent memories for other data. In other words our priorities are not always the same as theirs and therefore they do not take our rules as seriously as we think they should.
When discipline matters are approached it is always better to reward good and pleasing behavior. Set rules that are easily managed for the maturity of the child. Take into account our personal feelings at the time of the discipline action. If we have had a bad day and our hearts are heavy with other concerns then it is only understandable that we will be spring loaded for confrontation and anger. As a result our disciplines may incorrectly affect our feelings not our common sense. Set a doable goal for a young child. Nothing breeds success like success. Having two rules that are obeyed is far better than a laundry list of commands that only serve to frustrate and intimidate.
Without knowing your little boy, please be patient while I make some suggestions. First and foremost make certain that he is feeling healthy and well. Many times small children are unable to articulate the real nature of their mental and/or physical problems. A scary program on the television viewed without your knowledge may be the culprit behind disruptive behavior. Imitating behavior that is inappropriate is always cause for caution for parents. We must be careful to look at behavior as a symptom of a possibly bigger problem. For this reason when we talk with our young children about their behavior we should always speak in terms of feelings and not actions.
Asking a young child "How did it make you feel when you disobeyed mommy?" is a better approach. Children can rarely tell clearly "why" they did something but they are many times able to tell you how they feel. Asking a young child about their feelings allows you to get into dialogue about the really important issues.
Never use language that belittles a child or causes him or her to strike out in anger. When we say "you are bad" we do not mean this at all. What we actually want to say is "what you did was a mistake." Try very hard to stay away from language that makes people stop talking.
Work to avoid discipline which uses fear. Try very hard not to say, "If you run in the house I am going to spank you." This actually presents itself as a dare for a young child, especially a young child that has that kind of independence in his or her nature. Better to say, "When you run in the house you may hurt yourself or accidentally break something that is special to the rest of the family." Now let's suppose that the child has ignored your warning and runs through the living room, knocking a lamp off an end table and in his haste possibly cut himself in the process. Believe it or not there is probably a moment when the child would rather have the spanking to rid himself of the feelings of guilt and sadness that he is experiencing. Showing compassion while you bandage the cut and true sorrow for the loss of the lamp and sadness for his inappropriate behavior will go much farther in terms of discipline. Taking time to sit quietly with the child and ask how he feels inside about his actions and then calmly exploring together ways in which he can make restitution is positive action for negative behavior.
Probably one of the most important concepts that we as parents must employ is to never show our anger in inappropriate ways. Yelling, name calling, losing our tempers, and impatience only confuses children and sends a message that we do not want our children to have. We want to teach our children to have balanced feelings and to react to situations with that balance. Behavior that is inappropriate is just that and needs to be dealt with as a learning issue and not just as disobedience. Make certain that your child knows from the get-go what the consequences will be for inappropriate behavior. This makes it easier for you as a parent because it serves to keep your response to negative behavior in check. I do not agree with ignoring a child's behavior because in my mind all behavior is exhibited for a reason and our task is to find out the reason and react to the reason behind the actions. This is the lifelong challenge of parenting.
I know that all this may seem complicated and make a parent feel that they must walk a tightrope around young children. To approach problems with this much care is time consuming and tiring for parents. However it is our hope that if we can deal with these issues while our children are young then perhaps we can be spared more serious concerns in later years. With that said, the fruit of discipline is to show each other the face of Jesus. It is our challenge as parents to imitate the loving, tender, and merciful Lord as we raise our children. There will be times to be sure when their behavior has tested every limit and brought great sorrow, however if we have really set this pattern of loving care as part of our discipline then it will be easier and certainly more peaceful to deal with these situations.
I admire the love and care that you have for your little boy. It is obvious that his behavior is breaking your heart. You want all that is good for him and feel at a loss to handle this situation. Loving your child is the first step and the one that we should keep uppermost in our hearts. Do not let the Tempter tell you lies about your little boy. Your little one is not bad or deliberately hateful. There are some issues that the two of you need to work through, but nothing that the good and tender Jesus is not ready to give you the strength to overcome. Remember that the Lord wants only what is good and holy for our children. They are created in His image and they belong to the Lord. No matter how much we love our children it is pale in comparison to the love God has for them. God's love is so profound that He is constantly sending the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to parents in order that they may have the skills to deal with challenges effectively. I believe this with all my heart and must pray to keep this reaffirmed in my spirit. People are not bad, they are presented with challenges that try their self discipline but they are not created to be bad.
Please allow the loving Lord to hold you tenderly. He desires to uplift you with the graces and care to get through this difficult time. He loves you and wants you to feel the power of this love. Jesus knows that a mother's heart aches for her children and He will honor her prayers on their behalf. You are his loving and hard working daughter.
Please continue the good work that Jesus has begun in you.
Jesus, we ask for the balm of Your healing touch upon this dear mother. Lord, she is experiencing a heartache centered around the behavior of her small son. Lord, we ask that Your healing bring with it the empowerment of the Holy Spirit so that she may better understand Your will in these actions. Uplift and encourage her today with a real sign of the peace that passes all human understanding. Jesus, we love You and long to see Your face. Lord, we ask a special blessing upon all mothers today. Guide and protect them. Make sure they have plenty of nourishing food to eat, rest that refreshes the mind and body, and loving persons around them to care for their needs. Thank You, Lord Jesus, You are a mighty and merciful Lord. We love You. Amen.
Sending out a prayer,