God has blessed us with three wonderful children. But lately we have had some problems with our three-year-old son, and we just don’t know what to do. He is very rebellious and when we tell him to do something like pick up his toys, he just says “No” and doesn’t do it. Spanking him doesn’t seem to be the answer. No matter how often we spank him he keeps on being rebellious. We try to show him that we love him and to be consistent with what we say. Do you have any advice on how we can break his will without breaking his spirit?
Yours is a common problem. The “Terrible Twos” give way to the tyrannical threes. As to your concern about breaking his spirit, it seems the opposite is true; he has broken yours. His spirit is a long way from being broken. And, although we may speak of breaking a child’s will, in reality, we do not want to break a child’s will or his spirit; we want to see his spirit strengthened to direct his will to do what he ought. I know you understand that distinction, but for the sake of 500,000 readers, I need to mention it.
You said spanking doesn’t work. I am assuming that you have consistently administered the spanking in a quiet, controlled manner, without anger, and with sufficient force to sting his skin and momentarily give him pain.
Your son needs to be trained to choose rightly. He is now trained to choose the opposite of your will. The problem runs much deeper than a failure to obey; he has a willful commitment to defy your will. You have developed an adversarial relationship with him. He is in fact a rebel at heart, bent on bringing down your authority and proving his independence. The two of you have different agendas.
You said spanking doesn’t work. I am assuming that you have consistently administered the spanking in a quiet, controlled manner, without anger, and with sufficient force to sting his skin and momentarily give him pain. Some parents who have had the same complaint as you have seen a complete turn around when they discovered that their “spankings” were just irritating little swats that did not hurt at all. When the kid got a real spanking he perked up and started respected their threats.
Never use your hand to swat the child. If you actually hit him hard enough to hurt, you would cause damage to the tissue, bones, and joints. Use a small, light instrument on bare skin, four or five licks, something that will sting mightily but not leave marks or bruising.
If you are convinced that you have indeed spanked him soundly—he has squirmed and hollered in pain and still refused to obey—then you should stop spanking. Your problem lies elsewhere. Spanking is not punishment; it is the last word of authority in an admonition to obedience. When used before admonition its purpose is to grab the child’s attention and show him the seriousness of the moment. Some very strong spirited children learn they can endure the pain and maintain their pride and will become even more defiant. Their spirit grows stronger and their wills more resolved. Like a terrorist under torture, they find satisfaction in defying their captors. There is a great sense of self esteem and power in maintaining ones autonomy in the face of great opposition. The only thing left is the self-respect of not yielding to their enemies, of proving their bravery.
Let me be very clear, do not follow their lead and give way to excessive spanking or angry retorts and actions that communicate rejection. The way to create an emotionally disturbed child and adult is to constantly criticize him and fail to show affection. Parents are in danger of expressing rejection toward a child that is constantly rebellious; and as a result of his dislikable nature, they fail to show him affection. It is the formula for supplying psychiatrists with another patient to drug.
I have no doubt that laziness is the human weakness that originally provoked him to neglect household duties. Laziness alone is sufficient to cause a child to disregard his chores and ignore commands. But when he is threatened with a spanking and he defies you to the point of enduring pain, it is clear that he is no longer motivated by laziness. There is now a very powerful force of defiance that springs from his definition of self. To yield would be to give up who he is, the thing that makes him unique. As concerned parents we can not allow him to frame his life with a false and destructive premise.
Before I offer some practical suggestions, I need to raise a relevant issue. I know from reading many letters that you are wondering why your third child is rebellious when he was trained exactly as were the first two, and they did just fine. Kids are all different. When parents have two mild mannered, complaint children first, they get relaxed and even lax in their training. And when they give birth to a little Viking, they are amazed that he doesn’t respond in the same manner as the others. Some kids are best molded with a gentle touch and others must be chiseled with much labor. You’ve got a granite rock that will need chisel and hammer, but with a caution that he could be easily fractured.
This article is a part of the new book I am writing called Traditional Child Training. It covers this subject thoroughly, but it will not be available until early spring of 2012. For now, I will give an abbreviated formula. It will also help if you go on line and review articles like, “The Flavor of Joy” and watch the video “The Joy of Training.”
OK, let’s get to an answer. You have failed in the first principles of child training and cannot now resolve all the issues at the end of a switch. Remember what I said, “We want his spirit to direct his will to do what he ought.” He must be bought to the place to where he finds pleasure in cooperating and obeying. He must be led to choose the good for the satisfaction it brings.
Your goal is to get him addicted to sweet fellowship so that he comes to value you as a source of endless delight. In turn he will care for you.
You need to go back and lay the foundation properly this time. The first principle of child training is to establish a relationship of trust and fellowship. Fellowship is sharing something personal with another. We fellowship with people that make us feel better about ourselves. It is mutual giving and receiving. Fellowship requires trust and confidence in the good will of the other. We make ourselves vulnerable when we enter fellowship with another, so we must trust that they have our best interests in mind. Your son does not believe you are committed to his best interest. He sees you as an adversary that must be beaten—and he finds pleasure in the process. You will counter his warped perspective by creating for him a new channel of pleasure not dependent upon his surrender to you. Your goal is to get him addicted to sweet fellowship so that he comes to value you as a source of endless delight. In turn he will care for you. He will care how you feel. He will not want to make you sad. On the contrary, he will be sad when you are grieved. “Love covers a multitude of sins.”
You said, “We try to show him that we love him.” The word “try” stands out like a doom’s-day prediction the day after it didn’t happen. Love is not a sentiment, nor is it an intention or a duty; love is pouring out the soul moment by moment. It is seen in the eyes and experienced in the actions. Love does not originate in our need; it is responding to the need of another. Dear lady, your son does not feel loved. Let me put it another way; he does not feel valued. He does not think of himself as a part of the family unit—a part of the fellowship. He is on the outside establishing his identity in defiance of the norm.
In good times, when emotions are in neutral, when you are not asking anything of him, come along side of him and share good experiences. Let him see your delight in his performance—any performance, as long as he thinks it is an accomplishment.
You must make him an insider, a participant in the social order. You do that by turning your heart to him and then his heart to you. “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers….” Malachi 4:6 Notice in the passage the father turns his heart to his children before the children turn their hearts to their father. The children’s turn is conditioned upon the father’s turn of heart. Your son must feel valued and cherished. It is not enough to cherish him; he must feel it as well.
Don’t expect to establish fellowship and make him feel valued in the midst of conflict. In other words, when he is in the midst of an act of defiance, that is not he time to try to tie sweet strings. That would just dilute your authority—make you look weak and ineffectual. He would despise you for it. Rather, in good times, when emotions are in neutral, when you are not asking anything of him, come along side of him and share good experiences. Let him see your delight in his performance—any performance, as long as he thinks it is an accomplishment. Empty “positive affirmation” that has no basis in actual performance is counterproductive. Take his hand and lead him to accomplish something worthy. It can be as simple as a drawing, a stunt on his tricycle, or jumping off the couch onto a cushion. Spend face time with him. Let him become addicted to your favorable attention. He should be moving from one thing to another to please you, to cause you to laugh, to make you brag on him to others. When you have given him your heart, he will give you his. When he is living in a stream of fellowship and seeking to please you, he will not want to interrupt that communion with acts of disobedience. If he becomes dependent upon your approval he will not want to lose it by giving in to laziness.
This transformation will not come magically or suddenly. It will be a process that may have some setbacks, but don’t give up. Fellowship is sure to work. You just have to keep laying the foundation. He may have to suffer the emptiness of defiance several times before he puts it together and understands the cause and effect, making a choice to protect his stream of fellowship with happy compliance.
Where it concerns an extremely defiant kid, don’t overreach in trying to gain perfect compliance. Set the bar low so you can win even if the win is a fraction of what you actually desire.
You will ease him into obedience. Here is the way to approach it. When the happy juices are flowing and he is enjoying your company, hand him some of the dirty clothes you are carrying to the laundry and continue your fun as you walk and talk together. He will not see it as a transition from fun to duty. While avoiding making demands that will lead to a confrontation where he falls back into his habit of defiance, continue to involve him in household duties at a level that remains fun. When you are wiping off the table where he spilt his food, hand him a rag and the two of you wipe together. Make a game out of it. Laugh. Chase his rag with yours. Race to see who can get their side of the table cleaned first. Slowly transition from hand in hand sharing of work to just asking him to do a very small job alone. One day you will find him happily doing that which previously turned him into a French revolutionary or a Wall Street protester.
When he balks at a command, you must make sure three things occur. First do not back off from your authority. Secondly, do not transform into an angry policeman, ready to sentence him to 30 days in jail. Maintain your calm, controlled self. If anything, move and speak a little slower, more deliberately and intensely. There will be a little tension in the air and he will be aware that you have stopped your routine and are seriously focused on him. His defiance may be just old habits reasserting themselves, or it may be naturally laziness, and the seriousness of the moment may cause him to wish he had taken a different course. Give him space to return to the cheerful, cooperative path. It you explode into anger and rejection he may retreat to the old paths of solitary rebellion. So leave him an easy path by which to return emotionally. Speak seriously so he feels the moment and knows he is at a cross roads, but speak as if you expect him to amend his ways and share in the burden of labor. Patiently point out the need for him to do his share as part of the family unit. Explain how it would be if you didn’t cook; the family wouldn’t have anything to eat. And if Daddy didn’t work we wouldn’t have any money to buy groceries; so he will have to do his part as well. If he still resists obeying, and you have covered all the bases up to this point, then you will need to win the contest of wills. In the animal kingdom, the parent always wins—without exception. The young are forcibly caused to submit. Likewise, in the real world to which he will emerge, the boss always wins; the policeman always wins, and the judge always wins. It is time for him to learn the rules.
Where it concerns an extremely defiant kid, don’t overreach in trying to gain perfect compliance. Set the bar low so you can win even if the win is a fraction of what you actually desire. The important issue is psychological. The child must come away from the experience feeling that he gave in and failed to maintain his rebellion. He must acknowledge you as the alpha female of the herd—the big boss. He must be made to feel his weakness in the face of your power. This is accomplished by causing him to give-in on some level—any level, no matter how small. If he comes away from the confrontation having begrudgingly surrendered his will to yours, you have triumphed. It is the second step to a cheerfully obedient son. The first step was fellowship.
If you don’t have enough grace to restrain yourself while constraining him, it will be best for you to leave him be and go about the business of bringing yourself to maturity.
What might victory look like? You have told him to put his toys back in his box and he has refused. Get you switch and swat his exposed legs hard enough to make him squirm, calmly commanding him to pick up “That toy,” pointing to one close at hand. If he refuses to touch it after three commands and three spanks, calmly, not hastily, take hold of his hand and constrain him to pick up the top and drop it in the box. Do that with two or three toys and then tell him that you are going to help him finish the big job. In a tone that suggests the sweet fellowship he has previously enjoyed, say, “I will help you get finished so we can go out and swing.” [He loves swinging, so it is an inducement to obey.] “Here, I have picked up one; now you can pick up one.” [You are holding the toy in your hand waiting for him to pick up a toy.] If he picks up a toy, flood your face and voice with the praise and fellowship he has come to enjoy. Then, with a laugh, say, “Let’s hurry so we can go swing.” And begin grabbing the toys and throwing them in the box. I would expect him to laugh and join in the fun, grabbing the toys and throwing them as fast as he can. He will come away knowing you are boss and the rule of law must be obeyed. Continue in this vane until he is readily obedient in all things.
But what if he still refuses to pick up a toy after you have constrained him to pick up two or three? I cannot imagine a little fellow being so committed to rebellion that he maintains his defiance through all of this. If so, for his sake you must continue the process of forcing him to do the job until every toy is picked up. His hand may not close around the toy, but as long as you are forcing his hand to move with yours, he will come away knowing you won. If he is kicking and screaming the whole time, do not create an ongoing confrontation that you cannot win. Walk away smiling as if you got everything you desired. Then resume house work or invite him outside to swing. You won. Act like it. He will pick up your attitude and know you are in charge and are now happy with his performance. Remember the end goal here is for him to perceive you as the final authority.
His little developing soul needs you to win. If you don’t win now, the judge and the policeman will win later. What kind of husband will he make if he lives to defy? What kind of father? He will not be able to hold down a job or function in society.
Don’t give up, for I have seen many parents with the same problem who have triumphed and saved their child from rebellion.
If you don’t have enough grace to restrain yourself while constraining him, it will be best for you to leave him be and go about the business of bringing yourself to maturity. You can do more harm than good if you become belligerent or excessive in your physical domination of the child. Maybe you need a “time-out.” I don’t recommend them for kids, but sometimes adults need a self imposed retreat to a place of prayer and heart searching.
Don’t give up, for I have seen many parents with the same problem who have triumphed and saved their child from rebellion. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”