It was a busy, trying time for them, preparing meals and hauling us around from town to town, with meetings every night and sometimes all day. They urged us to be diligent in observing their every act and response, sharing any insights that might be helpful in improving their child training techniques. If an occasion arose and we didn’t speak out, they brought it to our attention and asked how and what should be done. This family meant business.

When we arrived, we assumed they must be having problems with their teenagers, since parents usually don’t panic until they have a teenager making their lives miserable, but that was not the case. By today’s Christian standards, they had a well ordered-home. Their oldest child, a boy of about seventeen, was a real joy to his parents. But as the children got younger, there was a definite deterioration in their attitude and self-control.

I am not sure why this is sometimes the case. Often parents seem to tire of the rigors of teaching and discipline and begin to slack off with their younger ones. Or perhaps when the older children are turning out well, parents ease up on their vigilance, taking their success for granted. Family values often change as economic success interrupts family unity. And of course, when a marriage slowly erodes, the younger children will not be rooted in the same loving, secure environment as were the first ones.

This family had applied the teaching of our book To Train Up a Child and seen great improvement. But their six-year-old boy occasionally went into a rage when things didn’t go his way. We observed that he was a very good psychologist. When angry, he would express his hurt feelings in a way that caused his parents to feel guilty, evoking just enough doubt and insecurity in them to blunt their decisiveness and lessen their application of discipline. Being cautious of his “touchy” emotional state, they resorted to pleading and reason, explaining how “they really did love him” and how he was “not a bad person.”

I watched the boy commit an offense, throw a fit when corrected, and then end up lecturing his parents on how mistreated he was. “You don’t love me like the others. You think I am dumb. Why am I always the one to blame?” It all settled down with the parents apologizing and the kid stomping off to brood until the parents expressed proper contrition. Amazing! Brilliant—in a wicked sort of way.

Now, I am well aware of the many things parents can do to cause children insecurity and hurt. But I will save that for another day. Here was a selfish, manipulative brat who had found his parents’ weakness and capitalized on it. Mom and Dad occasionally expressed just enough anger and resentment to cause them to doubt themselves. Sensing their lack of confidence, the boy found ways to further deepen their guilt. He knew just what to say to cause them pain. Did he have a legitimate basis for accusing his parents of being unworthy to be his head? In some cases, as is probably true with nearly all parents, yes. He capitalized on their sense of moral inadequacy. Granted, if they had maintained clear consciences his manipulations would have fallen flat. It was their humble sensitivity to their own failures that caused them to relinquish the moral authority of the family to this six-year-old tyrant. It reminds us of how the coming of the law increases sin (Rom. 7).

Now, the obvious solution is to tell parents to instantly become wise and discerning. If all parents were ideal Christians with no shortcomings, no hang-ups, nothing to cause guilt, then they would always have the moral strength to withstand manipulation. Christian maturity is normal, but the fact is that in most cases it doesn’t come until the children are grown. Should parents wait until they are sufficiently mature and worthy before assuming command? If so, it may then be too late for the children.

“So, if I am not the perfect parent am I going to abdicate the throne to my imperfect child?” If your child is smart enough to touch your weak spots and make you feel guilt, is he therefore more righteous, more wise? Remember, he is using his parents’ weaknesses to silence them and eliminate their interference so he can act in selfish and unruly ways. I will remind you that parenthood is not an appointed office; it is not by the consent of the child. Parents hold an office (parenthood) that carries with it certain obligations and authority, apart from their worthiness. For the sake of your children, you must act now. You must rise above feelings of inferiority or unworthiness. By “rise above,” I mean you must act for the child’s benefit, whether you feel up to the task or not.

In our observation of this family, we detected that the mother was a very “sensitive” person. She was the first to feel the child’s “emotional pain.” She shied away from confrontation until provoked by frustration and anger. She never spoke with authority or conviction—tired frustration, yes, but not with dignity and authority. She ASKED the children to comply. She “patiently” coaxed and compassionately pleaded with them. When they ignored her “suggestions”, she would then become exasperated and reach an impasse where she felt overwhelmed and defeated.

This mother was physically and emotionally abused as a child. Overcompensating, she was always fearful of not being sensitive and patient enough with her own children. She didn’t trust herself. She didn’t trust her husband—though she would say she did. She was fearful of him being like her father. Her six-year-old boy didn’t have any sense of being abused, and he was not broken in spirit as he often portrayed. But he was a smart little psychologist and knew just how to hurt his mother and short-circuit her interference with his indulgence. He was emotionally stronger than she was.

What of the father? As is true of most families trapped in today’s industrialized lifestyle, he was away from home most of every day. Feeling out of touch, in most cases he naturally deferred to his wife’s judgment. He did have more control over the children, but the pattern was set and habits formed during the two-thirds of the day when the kids were under her tutelage. He, too, stood back with insecurity when he saw the “deep hurt” of his son. He felt guilty for not being there more of the time, for dumping the load on his wife. The parents had good hearts. They were just blinded by their own fear and sense of helplessness.

One day we were sitting in the living room discussing an event that had just occurred when their over-sized dog attempted to interrupt. The father, hardly looking at the dog, commanded him to go downstairs. He didn’t raise his voice, and there was no anger. He spoke with firm authority, expecting the dog to obey without further word or attention. The dog took off downstairs like he had just heard from God. I suddenly realized that in this quiet-spoken home, I had never heard either parent speak with confident authority.

What solution did we offer this couple? We told the mother particularly, “Get tough; you are thinking more of your own feelings than you are the needs of your children. Don’t let your past hurts come into the present to continue hurting your children. You are allowing your abusive father to abuse your children through your continuing reactions.”

Right in the middle of several emotional confrontations with Knuckle Head, we guided the parents through responses to their children. “Quit asking,” we would say, “Tell him what to do, and put a little toughness in your voice.” Then we would tell her, “Don’t tell him again; respect your own word; get your switch and apply it right where he stubbornly sits; ignore his self-pity. Don’t assure him of your love; assure him of your authority. You are in the right; put your shoulders back and act like a commanding officer whose word is final. Do not negotiate or explain. Mother, take the whine out of your voice, and put some steel in your posture. Stay calm, but unmoving.”

They tried it out like someone trying on uncomfortable clothes. The kid was amazed to discover that no one cared for his manipulating pity shows. One word from a parent was the last word—no repeat, no appeal, and no regret. It took three days, but when the child realized he had no recourse, he obeyed the first time and kept his mouth shut. By the end of the week, he was expressing more love and appreciation for his mother than ever before. He began to admire her rather than see her as a weakling he could control. It was a joy to see and share in their victory.

Their youngest boy, age two or three, had a tough hide that at times absolutely resisted all control. He would whine, and whine, and cry, and plead, and demand. He was a tough nut to break, but it was a simple procedure that didn’t hurt anyone but the parents.

Again, it was their lack of resolute authority that cultivated whining in this two-year-old. Since the parents were seldom decisive, the child had learned that begging and pleading often caused them to capitulate to his will. When they said “no,” he knew it was just the starting point in negotiations. After reading our book, on several occasions the parents had attempted to exert their authority and hold out against his demands, but this tough little campaigner had always endured.

Late one night we were riding back from a seminar when the little fellow noticed that he was on the other end of the seat from his mother—with other siblings between them. He was riding in a restraining seat and whined to sit in his mother’s lap. The father SUGGESTED that it would be best if he stayed strapped into his restraining seat. The mother began to sympathetically explain why she couldn’t hold him. Based on past experiences, he knew that this was just the opening round. Their rejection of his proposal was only tentative. He was just testing the waters to see if they would yield. If by continual insistence he should demonstrate how very important this issue was to him, they would eventually come around to seeing it his way. As he pleaded further, asking for water, I could see that the mother was feeling guilty for not being close to “HER BABY”. Didn’t his tears demonstrate how important this was to his emotional well-being? After six or eight rounds, it finally reached the brokenhearted crying stage.

Mother was reaching for her baby when the father turned to me and asked, “What should I do?” Again I explained the principle: by allowing the child to dictate terms through his whining and crying, you are confirming his habit of whining and consenting to his technique of control. So I told the daddy to tell the boy that he would not be allowed to sit in his mother’s lap, and that he was to stop crying. Of course, according to former protocol, he intensified his crying to express the sincerity of his desires. The mother was ready to come up with a compromise. “He was hungry. He was sleepy. He was cold.” Actually, he was a brat, molded and confirmed by parental responses. I told the father to stop the car and without recourse give him three to five licks with a switch. After doing so the child only screamed a louder protest. This is not the time to give in. After two or three minutes driving down the road listening to his background wails, I told the father to COMMAND the child to stop crying. He only cried more loudly. At my instruction, without further rebuke, the father again stopped the car, got out, and spanked the child. Still screaming (the child, not the rest of us), we continued for two minutes until the father again commanded the child to be quiet. Again, no response, so he again stopped the car and spanked the child. This was repeated for about twenty miles down a lonesome highway at 11:00 on a winter night.

When the situation began to look like a stalemate, the mother suggested that the little fellow didn’t understand. I told the father to command the boy to stop crying immediately or he would again be spanked. The boy ignored him until Father took his foot off the gas, preparatory to stopping. In the midst of his crying, he understood the issues well enough to understand that the slowing of the car was a response to his crying. The family was relieved to have him stop and the father started to resume his drive. I said “No; you told him he was to stop crying immediately or you would spank him; he waited until you began stopping. He has not obeyed; he is just beginning to show confidence in your resolve. Spank him again and tell him that you will continue to stop and continue to spank until you get instant compliance.” He did. The boy was smart. He may not have feared Mama. His respect for Daddy was growing, but that big hairy fellow in the front seat seemed to be more stubborn than he was, and with no guilt at all. This time, after the spanking, when Daddy gave his command, the boy dried it up like a paper towel. The parents had won, and the boy was the beneficiary.

Now you may wonder why I did not tell the father to tell the boy that he was going to spank him until he stopped crying, and not resume driving until he had stopped. Never put yourself in the place where you may lose the contest. What if the boy didn’t stop? Would you spank him forever, or would you stop when it bordered on abuse, in which case the child would win? Your word would fall to the ground; you gave in before he did. You would have actually hardened his resolve to rebel. Furthermore, when a child is being spanked and shortly thereafter, he may be too emotionally wrought to make responsible decisions. Our concern is not just to silence the child, but to gain voluntary submission of his will through respect for our command.

Father tells the boy to stop crying or he will stop the vehicle and spank. Father stops, spanks; the child cries, and the father resumes the drive. He waits three to five minutes, ignores the crying and continues to talk as if all is well. Five minutes later, the father again commands the child to stop crying. By this time there is no lingering pain and he has had time to quiet his emotions and reflect on the parental mandate: “Stop crying or get a spanking.”

Again the father commands the child to stop crying or he will receive a spanking. The child continues crying only because he assumes that the status quo continues. That is, he is not at all convinced that the father means what he says. Judging from past experiences, he is sure that he will win this contest eventually. By breaking it up into several sessions, the father is reprogramming the child—Father commands with a threat; child disobeys; Father carries out threat; child loses and suffers the consequences; it is an unpleasant experience; repeat all of above five to ten times. The child concludes: There is a new order; Father is consistent; he always means what he says; I cannot win; there is no alternative to instant obedience. Get smart, be a survivor, just say no to self-will.

The beauty of this kind of contest is that, when the parents conquer, it applies across the board. The child is not just yielding to the circumstances; he is yielding to his parents. The rebel in him is dying. This submission will translate into every aspect of their relationship.

The child has learned that the parents have more resolve than he does. They are not liars. When they say stop or else, they mean it. There is no way to bend the parents; their word is final.

The next day we were sitting in the living room when the mother gave the little fellow a command. Out of habit, he commenced his whine, which turned to a cry. Mother looked discouraged and turned to me asking, “What should I do now?” I said, “Tell him to dry it up instantly and to start smiling.” When she commanded him, he immediately stopped crying and gave a faked smile that quickly turned to a sincere one in reflection to the delight on his mother’s face. I never will forget. She started laughing with absolute abandonment. She was overjoyed. “He has never obeyed me like that,” she said. For the few days that remained, he obeyed her instantly and the household was a very peaceful place. The battle was won. Whether or not the victory continues depends on how consistent the parents are, but the hard part is over. As long as the parents don’t revert to their old responses, the child won’t revert to his.

There are those of you who will think that the twenty miles of spanking was cruel. Remember, this was not a daily event; it was a war to end all wars. The spankings were not wild, violent affairs. They were not greatly painful—to the child, that is. They were done in quiet calm and dignity. It is not the severity of the spanking but the certainty of it that gives it persuasive power. Our object in spanking is not to cause the child to so fear the pain that he obeys. It is to gain the child’s attention and give him respect for the parent’s word. I know that there are abusive, angry parents out there who, through their own inconsistency, find themselves in a position where they excessively spank every day. Spanking should just be the early part of a training program. It is our consistency that trains. The rod just gives credibility to our word. If your word is not credible, no amount of the rod will ever be effective. You will become abusive. If you feel abusive, you probably are. Get counsel and advice from a close friend who has a Biblical perspective on child training.

In reflecting on our one-week stay with this fine family, I am amazed at their humility and grace. Giving us full license in the home must have been like the Judgment Seat of Christ. Well, not quite, but about as close as can be experienced down here in the flesh. One word of warning: Don’t invite us to come stay with you for a week; this old man has had all the crying and whining he can stand for the rest of his life. We just sit back and watch our children train our 16 grandkids.

“Honey, I’ll put some wood on the fire and you put the tea on. We’ll have another quiet evening writing.”