Divine Obedience

ELIZABETH FOSS

So much of child-rearing is character training and little children need to learn to obey. They need to be trained to answer affirmatively to authority. So how do we go about helping a child learn to obey?


"Patrick, pick up your socks and put them in the hamper." "Why?" questions my sevenĖyear-old as he kicks the socks across the room. "Because Iím the Mommy and I asked you to," I reply firmly. "O-B-E-Y! Obey your mom and dad! O-B-E-Y it makes Ďem very glad. Listen to the words they say. Obey your parents everyday!" My five-year-old daughter is singing exuberantly, glad to help my cause.

There was a time when I would have explained that the socks need to be in the hamper in order for them to get to the washer and dryer so that they would get clean and he could wear them again. But I am quite certain Patrick knows and understands the laundry system in our house. So, I get to the heart of the matter. His heart. So much of child-rearing is character training and little children need to learn to obey. They need to be trained to answer affirmatively to authority.

We require obedience. We insist on obedience and we work day after day, every single day, to ensure obedience. When we ask a child to do something, we are polite. But we are firm. We embrace the fact that we are in authority over our children. God put us there and our children need us there. We teach them truth. We teach them that Godís laws are absolute and we require them to obey those absolute laws. For a child, the first law is "Children, obey your parents in the Lord." The only reason we need to give our children is: For this is right. God says so. We donít shrink from our authoritative role. Rather we see it as a gift.

One of my favorite educators, Charlotte Mason, writes "Authority is not only a gift but a grace Ö Authority is that aspect of love which parents present to their children; parents know it is love, because to them it means continual self-denial, self-repression, self-sacrifice: children recognize it as love, because to them it means quiet rest and gaiety of heart. Perhaps the best aid to the maintenance of authority in the home is for those in authority to ask themselves daily that question which was presumptuously put to our Lord ó ĎWho gave thee this authority?í"

Of course, God did. And by golly, we better be grateful good stewards of that gift. Letís unpack the quote a little. To train our children, we must deny ourselves. We canít administer occasional bursts of punishment and expect a good result. We must instead be incessantly watchful, patiently forming and preserving good habits. This means we are attentive and active. Those are habits to cultivate in ourselves.

To rid ourselves of bad habits, Mason suggests we replace them with virtuous ones. I know that in my house, my children misbehave a good deal when I have been on the phone or in front of the computer too much. They misbehave when routines slack off and meals are not given enough thought. They misbehave when bedtime isnít observed or they are overprogrammed and too busy. They misbehave when I am inattentive or lazy or tired or inconsistent. Those are bad habits. I must consciously replace them with attention and diligence and action and consistent sleep.

Children recognize the Biblical living of our authority as love because it is love. Children who consistently misbehave are begging for moral guidance and a strong anchor. They are crying (or whining as the case may be) for someone to be in authority. As they grow, the real tangible relationship with the authority that is the parent flowers into full-blown relationship with God and an eager willingness to obey Him as an adult.

The life of an adult Christian is not easy. You can expect that as you train your children for that life, there will be some unhappiness. But that unhappiness is nothing compared to the quiet rest and joyful peace that comes with being right with God.

Since the first publication of these thoughts of mine on obedience, several parents have asked how to make a child obey. First, we donít want blind obedience; we want the child to be inspired to obey because he believes it is right. We want virtuous obedience. We want to train the habit of control, doing what is right because it is right.

Children need to learn to focus on Godís will, not their own and on a Spirit-inspired control, not a self-control. It is easy to be controlled by oneself. It is hard to die to oneself and live for God.

The Holy Spirit will inspire, lead and give strength and wisdom to the child who is taught to listen to the whispers of his God. This Spirit-inspired control enables children to do work — to finish their chores, to be diligent in their learning, to be reliable volunteers, to stick to a marriage even when it is hard. They can do their duty. They can answer their call. They can control their tempers, their anger. They can work a little harder. "I ought" is enabled by "I will."

I do not agree with authors who think we need to spank the will into submission. I do not agree with those who suggest that every desirable behavior be correlated to star charts and complicated reward systems. Iím not a big fan of "time-out." Usually, a child who is misbehaving needs more of his parentís attention. He doesnít need to be sent away unless itís for very short moment where both child and parent cool off before meeting to discuss and remedy the situation. And I do not agree with the experts who suggest we pinch our child so hard that the "strong-willed child" becomes weak. We want strong-willed children. Thatís right: children who give in to their own whims and desires are actually weak-willed. They need strength training.

Training children in right habits strengthens their wills. Maturity is making right choices. We want our children to have strong wills for doing what is right — strong wills for doing Godís will. Crushing the will is not training the will. Training requires a relationship between parent and child. It requires patience and persistence on the part of both parent and child. When you train a child, you both grow in virtue.

I am not asserting that corporal punishment is wrong. I am asserting that it should not be necessary. Charlotte Mason writes of this eloquently:

Discipline does not mean a birch-rod, nor a corner, nor a slipper, nor a bed, nor any such last resort of the feeble. The sooner we cease to believe in merely penal suffering as part of the divine plan, the sooner will a spasmodic resort to the birch-rod die out in families. We do not say the rod is never useful; we do say it should never be necessary. ÖDiscipline is not punishment ó What is discipline? Look at the word; there is no hint of punishment in it. A disciple is a follower, and discipline is the state of the follower, the learner, imitator. Mothers and fathers do not well to forget that their children are by the very order of Nature, their disciples. Ö He who would draw disciples does not trust to force; but to these three things — to the attraction of his doctrine, to the persuasion of his presentation, to the enthusiasm of his disciples; so the parent has teachings of the perfect life which he knows how to present continually with winning force until the children are quickened with such zeal for virtue and holiness as carries them forward with leaps and bounds (Parents and Children, pg. 66).
We donít want self-controlled children. We want children who are controlled by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit ó children who hear and answer the Lord. We need to give children choices within limits but we need to teach them how and why to choose right. We need to train their hearts and educate their minds. When they are fully informed of the consequences of their actions, we need to allow free will, just as our heavenly Father does.

In order to train the childís will in this manner, parents must lay down their lives for them. They must be willing to spend large amounts of time engaged with them. They must believe that children are educated by their intimacies and they must ensure that the child is intimate with what is good and noble and true. And when the child needs correction, the parent must educate in the truest sense of the word. She must teach. Our children are created in the image and likeness of God. If she looks at the child, sees Christ in his eyes and disciplines accordingly, she will train her children well.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Elizabeth Foss. "Divine Order." Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Arlington Catholic Herald.

THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Foss is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia. She is the mother of six (with number seven on the way). She is a past recipient of a Catholic Press Association award for column writing on the family.

Copyright © 2002 Arlington Catholic Herald


Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.