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More Than Obedience?

February 15, 2005

Should I expect her do more than what she is commanded? Isn’t that asking too much?
Dear Mike and Debi,
I have a question for you. Yesterday I was visiting a friend who also reads and follows your way of child training. While we were talking, my 28-month-old daughter climbed up in a chair and started turning the lights on and off. I commanded her, “Do not touch the light switch.” She immediately removed her hand from the switch part, but after a moment of looking in my face, she reached up and touched the plate around the switch. She slowly ran her fingers over the screws and then traced the outline of the plate, but, as we watched, she carefully avoided touching the switch. I was proud of her obedience. She was doing exactly what I told her to do. However, my friend told me that she was being disobedient by keeping her hand near the switch, and that she should be disciplined for it.
We discussed it. Actually, I guess we argued some, and she suggested that I write you. She was sure you would agree with her assessment. I asked my husband when he got home, and he agreed with me that our sweet daughter was doing exactly as she was told. She is more obedient than almost any kid I know, but I have noticed that she will do anything she thinks she can get away with. And, on occasion, though not very often, she will defy me and go right ahead and do the thing I tell her not to do while I am looking her in the face and commanding her otherwise. She always seems to have a sweet attitude, and we have great fellowship together, but I do spank her when she outright disobeys. I am confident that we tie lots of sweet strings of fellowship. Should I expect her do more than what she is commanded? Isn’t that asking too much?
A Reader

This is a great question, and I am glad to answer it for all our readers. The first level of child training is to constrain them to obey all direct commands. Most parents have failed to accomplish even this most rudimentary step. But, ultimately, we must take the child beyond mere constrained obedience. A faithful trainer can train any animal, reptile, bird, or child to perform under the watchful eye of the trainer, for the trainer (having complete control of the environment) has the power to manipulate, reward, or punish. But we ultimately want much more than that. Our goal is to train our children to possess their own souls in wisdom and self-discipline. They must come to know good and evil, and to choose the good, for someday you will not be there to tell them what to do. If they honor boundaries only when there is strict oversight, they are not developing character. It is what the Bible calls, “eye service” performed as “men pleasers” (Col. 3:22). When an employee watches for his boss and works diligently under his gaze, but relaxes and does not perform to his optimum when the boss is not looking, he is a dishonest, unprincipled crook. Such a man never gets promoted. He is always unhappy with his job, and his job is unhappy with him. A child who learns to perform only when she is under a sharp, scrutinizing gaze is developing an unwholesome character.
When Mother commanded her daughter to not touch the light switch, the little girl obeyed because it pleased her to do so. She remembers that Mother is consistent in spanking, and the kid knows she has no alternative but to obey, so she is nearly always obedient enough to avoid the spanking—but no more than that. However, when she ran her fingers around the light switch and almost touched it, she knew she had the attention of everyone in the room. She was playing with their minds. She was challenging authority right up to the point of judgment. Her caressing of the light switch was a clear demonstration of her will to defy. For her, it was an exhilarating experience to daringly keep her hand so near the forbidden fruit—so near to the ax of judgment, like driving dangerously, defying the odds. Every experience like this is molding her character, and even her body, to love the thrill of challenging authority. She was playing with the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—if not to eat it, then to let authority know that she wanted to eat of it. In her mind, she was obeying, but “almost not” obeying. The act of pushing to the edge of disobedience obviously gave her a thrilling sense of control. The parents didn’t recognize it, but her actions were a “cloaked” but very transparent expression of rebellion, which they should have seen through. All this is hard to declare an act of rebellion if the child is a sweet little thing, but it can make your blood pressure rise if it happens to be observed in an ornery 4-year-old boy who glances back at you with a “I’ll not touch it, but I could if I wanted to!” look on his face. This is a classic instance that pictures so clearly why we say a child’s character is almost 90% developed by the time they are 4 years old.
Obviously, this mother does indeed fellowship with her daughter in a very productive way. The lack of temper in the child demonstrates a desire to abide on good terms. She does not have a will to antagonize her mother, as many children do, but she does have a will to remain independent of authority and to seek her own without regard to the rule of law. At her present young age, the power of the parents to constrain her is sufficient, but, while she obeys on the outside, a spirit of defiance is growing on the inside. As her powers of nature develop, there will come a day when she will not be ruled by intimidation. She will stand in “practiced” defiance and do what is in her heart; and it will not be pretty! Parents will wonder what “suddenly” happened to their previously compliant fourteen-year-old daughter.
These parents may continue to point to their daughter’s good nature as an indication of the effectiveness of their training. Children are all different in their natures, that is, their temperaments and personalities. Some children are explosive and passionate, no matter the situation. One child loves loudly and rebels loudly, while another child is sweet and passive, whether in love or defiance. When a child throws fits of defiance, it is easy to identify it as rebellion, but when a child sweetly seeks her own way contrary to our commands, it does not alarm us as much as does the loudly defiant child. But it certainly would, if we could see the future. The home will remain quiet and peaceful with a sweet, self-willed child making her own way around the rule of law, but the soul of the child is all the while in great jeopardy! When she gets into her teen years and the allure of alternate paths is placed before her, will she look to see if mother is watching? If she has developed the habit of pushing the boundaries to the very edge, and sometimes beyond when it pleases her, what hope is there that the sixteen-year-old will suddenly become a woman of principle?
My suggestion to these parents is that they become more diligent to recognize passive rebellion. I can remember my own experience with our young children. When I suspected that the child was giving half-hearted obedience, I instinctively went after it as if it were overt rebellion. You must cause the child to let go of all expressions of defiance. Demand that the little one surrender her very body language and every gesture to authority. Go after the attitude. In the “light switch” situation, I would say, “Leave the light switch alone.” If there is a moment’s hesitation, any sign of delayed compliance, rise immediately and give her hand (the offending hand) two or three licks with a small switch. Don’t delay even fifteen seconds. No more discussion or rebuke. No removal to a more secluded location. No “bend over on the couch.” Before she can move away from the area of the switch, administer the rod of truth. After such an episode, to confirm that she has yielded completely, give her several other commands not related to the immediate situation. Put her through a brief “drill” to certify your authority and her submission. For example, you might tell her to move the chair to a new location, “Put the socks in the laundry, “Sit down—Stand up,” etc.
Now, my reader may ask, “How is a more strict interpretation of obedience, with its subsequent enforcement, going to reach the child’s heart in a way that will impart personal convictions. How will this build a value system that will cause her to live by the rule of law and not just eyeservice?” Children develop a worldview from the context we parents provide, and their knowledge of good and evil is learned through the eyes of their parents. Children are not born responsible, neat, diligent, and honest. They learn these things from their culture—their environment and their daily activities. Teaching is important, but it is perhaps only 10% of their learning, whereas example is closer to 90%. Children learn what to be afraid of by what causes you fear. They learn what to trust and how to respond to a given situation by watching you.
And then, there is the matter of boundaries. All parents establish boundaries, whether narrow or broad, visible or invisible. The boundary line is the point where you consistently demand compliance. It doesn’t matter what you say about the boundaries. What matters is how far you are willing to allow the child to go before stopping her. The point beyond which you NEVER allow her to go is the true boundary. On the inside of the boundary are your “Please . . . I wish you wouldn’t . . . That is not nice . . . I am not going to tell you again (but you do) . . . I am going to get my switch . . . Stop that right now!” Outside the boundary is the place they are never allowed to go without swift and decisive consequences.
Boundaries are an expression of convictions and values. You communicate what is good and what is bad by the way you enforce boundaries. If you allow the little girl to dawdle around the light switch, you are teaching her that minimal outward compliance is all that is expected. YOUR PERMISSIVENESS COMMUNICATES THAT “ATTITUDES” ARE OK. When you spy an attitude in your child and you confront it with deliberation, the child learns that “attitude” is not acceptable. It is the best form of teaching. You are presenting an unmistakable message about good and evil. The child raises her standards as you reveal yours. Parental boundaries and values are passed to the next generation in just this manner.
You likely know such a child as the “light-switch kid” who is now a wife and mother. She does what her husband commands her, but she looks for ways to do as she pleases, even when she knows that he won’t be pleased. She reasons that she is a good and dutiful wife, for she never disobeys flagrantly, but she finds pleasure in her ability to circumvent his will by “obeying” him to the letter only. You know other adults who do what God clearly commands, but their manner of dress and conduct expresses that they never learned to live and obey with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength–as if they were obeying God! Those people had loose and fluctuating boundaries when they were young.
There is much more to child training than what we have covered here, but this will help you to fine-tune an already fairly well-trained child.

Michael Pearl

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6 comments on “More Than Obedience?”

  1. Thank you for this article ! I've wondered about this, for especially our boy has a way of trying to do something his sister just were told not to do or to stop doing. To see if he might be exempt of this boundary. I've previously only warned him, but since I read this article (I came back to comment), I've started 'treating' this behavior of his as open rebellion, deserving a swat immediately. He has a 'light switch' tendency and I'm thankful that I know what to do now.

  2. Take it from a "light-switch" kid PLEASE follow his advice. My parents didn't know what hit them when I turned 17, neither did my husband. Thank you Pearls for your Created to Be a Help Meet and your child training books. You have helped save my family, and I see the dangers of the light-switch now and would urge parents, PLEASE follow his advice and don't let your children turn out like I did.

  3. Dear Michael Pearl,

    Thank you for answering this question for me. I am not a parent but I am married and I hope to be a mama some day. I try my best to observe families in my church and see how they interact and discipline their children. There is one family that I watch a lot because they have three little ones so it is prime training for them. Their kids are sweet and well mannered but I have seen their kids do this so often I find my own blood boiling at their disobedience and the blindness of the parents. Although it frustrates me that the children do this I have second guessed myself and thought maybe I expect too much from these children. After reading this article I feel much more confident in my own instincts on child rearing. Thank you for sharing.

    Sincerely Roxy

      1. Thank you for your reply. Yes, those verses say we should honor and submit to our husbands, just as we ought to honor and submit to all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. But the word used in all of them - "hypotasso" - does not mean "obey". This article seems to be saying that women ought to be regarded as perpetual children, at least to their husbands.