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Teaching ObedienceStarting Early     << Ch. 4 >>
Discipline your son while there is hope.
- Proverbs 19:18

Starting Early: The Rationale
Starting early means teaching your child to obey you as soon as he is able to understand the word �no�. That is usually well before he is a year old. I begin the training process about the time my little ones begin to crawl. At first, it's more of a preparatory phase, where I teach them what "no" means, and check extremes of willfulness or temper. Later, when I expect more of them, I have a much easier time of it. They've already learned that they can't do whatever they please, that I am their rightful authority in life, and that they must obey me. This makes all later training dramatically easier.

Childrearing is not only easier on you, when begun early, but on your child as well. Is it really a kindness to give your child complete freedom to be selfish, willful, and self-centered, then suddenly, a few years later, to change up on him and expect him to be respectful, considerate, and self-controlled? It seems to me, both kinder and wiser to teach good character from the outset. No big shock to the system. Your child won't feel betrayed because you've changed the rules on him. He'll have more confidence and more trust in you, because he's known from the beginning what expectations and limits are in place. 

The heart of a young child is more naturally na�ve to sin than that of an older child who has succeeded for some time, in using wrong behavior for selfish goals. Very young children may be self-centered, but this natural self-centeredness has not yet escalated into scheming, haughtiness and other more sophisticated character flaws. Because the young are less complex, and still unconfirmed in their willfulness, they are easier to persuade and shape, and the process is enjoyable to them, not stressful. They are also more transparent and honest at younger ages and so have far more difficulty obscuring wrong thoughts and inclinations. This makes it easier for you to understand them and teach them. And young children are more focused on you. They need you more, want you more, and are therefore easier to motivate with both praise and discipline.

If you start early, you are not tempting your child to sin by overlooking his character flaws. Every wrong, destructive, character quality is just as damaging in a two-year-old as it is in a twenty-two-year-old and just as easily encouraged by the neglect of discipline. Selfishness in a two-year-old is just as wrong as selfishness in a ten-year-old, so if you allow your two-year-old to be selfish, you are just allowing him to sin. If you continue to allow selfishness, you will be encouraging a pattern of sinning in his life, tempting him to sin still further as he learns that there will be no repercussions.

Although I strongly promote early child training, there is no reason to go to extremes and attempt to train tiny babies only a few months old. Enjoy your wee ones, but don�t delay discipline and training forever. It's perilous to wait until your child has reached the hefty age of two or three years old, as many of the so-called childrearing experts of today are now recommending. If you do, you will surely have the dubious pleasure of experiencing the "terrible twos (or threes)" in full force. Don�t assume that because you didn�t teach them anything up until they were pre-schoolers, they were not learning anything on their own. Children are always learning, and what they are learning when you are putting off child training, is that they can be as self-centered and self-willed as they please. If this is what they have learned by default, because you taught them nothing different, realize that you will have a much harder time turning them around when you finally get fed up with it.

"...a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother."
- Proverbs 29:15

Teaching "No"
Normal healthy babies are all capable of understanding "no" by the time they can crawl, and often well before that. For a little while, I just move them away from temptations or distract them to avoid trouble, but eventually (the sooner, the better � at least before the age of one) I get serious about teaching them to obey, and use the word �no� to do it.

I start by telling them "no" firmly when they reach for something they shouldn't, stopping them a few times to get idea across. Then I require them to actually obey me when I say "no," rather than me removing or stopping them myself. I watch for them to reach for something forbidden, probably something I've told them "no" to before. I tell them "no," and if they continue to reach for the object, I give them a mild swat on their diapered bottom and say "no" again.

These little ones are usually puzzled and try it a couple of more times, receiving a definite "no" accompanied by a mild, but decided, swat each time. Most of my babies got the idea after just a few "no's" and accompanying firm pats on the bottom. They either turned and crawled away, or sat and cried for a minute until I redirected them to something else. Sometimes they pouted briefly in disappointment, then turned to something else on their own. Once I can see that they are resigned to submission, I congratulate them and then point toward something else, if needed, and encourage them to go play. It is important to let them know what to do, not just what not to do.

And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you will obey the LORD your God.
- Deuteronomy 28:2

From Then On
From that time forward, I always made them obey any direction I gave. I stop distracting them and removing them from temptations. I make clear what I want, and teach them to obey. Don't think of this as discipline. Think of it as training. You can start training very early - as soon as your baby is old enough to be taught what you mean by "No, no".

�the precious possession of a man {is} diligence.
- Proverbs 12:27

A Word About Little Hands
By the way, never swat little hands. Little hands are delicate things, and easily injured. God provides a better place - one that is well padded. If my baby is heading with determination for the electrical outlet, I don�t wait until he gets there, then swat his hand as he reaches for it. Instead, I stop him before he getting too close for safety. Then I speak a serious, "No," and tap him on his bottom, not his hand. 

Babies are surprisingly smart and will make the connection very quickly. In fact, in my experience, swatting a hand suggests to them that you are playing some kind of game, not seriously saying �no�. They focus on their hand and not your words. What you want them to focus on is your word and its meaning. The mild pat on the bottom is just a "pay attention, I'm talking to you" swat. It shouldn't be hard, just one that has a persistent air to it. 

Neither should you yell your "NO!" Just use a quiet, firm tone of voice and accompany it with a gentle, but firm tap on the diaper. Repeat, with reasonable pauses, until your baby listens. Do not let him do anything else until he obeys.

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of...
- II Timothy 3:14-15

Watch Your Baby 
Watch your baby closely. You can't train him if you don't see what he is doing. If you try to correct him after-the-fact, he won't understand. Watch him and correct him as he disobeys. Babies have surprisingly good memories, but don't expect him to have a perfect memory. Just repeat the same process again, if he forgets or tries to test you. Your training will be useless if you say "no" to something and then do nothing a few minutes later when he repeats the same offense. Be careful not to give too many commands and directions at first, but when you do tell him something, always make certain he obeys. Watch him and be ready to correct him as soon as he disobeys you the next time and every time thereafter. 

"For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the LORD, and He watches all his paths."
- Proverbs 5:21

What a Little One is Capable of Learning 
Some parents expect too much from their children, but generally, most parents do not expect enough. A one-year-old can be taught to sit quietly in church, for example, and to remain seated at a restaurant and even to be quiet when mom tells him to.

Most things will require repetition. Be consistent and you'll be surprised at how much the littlest ones can understand and how well-behaved they can be. After teaching your child the meaning of the word "no" and to obey you when you use it, you can apply that word to all of the following and more, according to the child's ability and understanding. Practice some of these things during dinner or story time. Picture a well-behaved, happy little one, then teach your child to act that way. I�m going to give some specific examples and directions here, but don�t limit yourself to just those I mention. Look for anything your child can be taught to understand, such as holding still for a diaper change, staying where you tell him to stay, not touching forbidden objects, looking at you when you call his name, and so on. You can expect him to obey you in all of these things and more.

Correct your son, and he will give you comfort; He will also delight your soul.
- Proverbs 29:17

"Put Your Head Down"
It is helpful to teach a baby to put his head down on your shoulder when you tell him to do so. Just wait for the appropriate opportunity (when you have time to just stand and hold him, and possibly when he is sleepy) and push the side of his head gently down on your shoulder. When he picks it up, say, "No. Put your head down", and push his head down again. Repeat until he keeps his head down. Expect this to take a while, but eventually he will learn what you mean, and to obey you.

Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her, for she is your life.
- Proverbs 4:1

Infant Temper Tantrums
Some children possess strong tempers even when they are very young. If your baby stiffens and throws a full-fledged screaming fit of anger when there is nothing wrong except that he isn't getting his way, hold him tightly and keep telling him firmly "no" until he relaxes and submits to you. Don't relent until he does. Don't get angry; just outlast him. Once he's stopped, reward him by rocking, singing, or something else that he likes, but don�t give in until he obeys you without resisting. 

A fool always loses his temper, but a wise man holds it back..
- Proverbs 29:11

Another very good beginning lesson in obedience is teaching your baby to sit contentedly on your lap. You can begin at six months of age or even younger. My sixth baby was eleven months old when I wrote the first draft of this chapter and he had already known how to sit quietly for some weeks.

Place your baby (after he has been fed and changed) on your lap, facing away from you. When he tries to arch his back or roll over, push his tummy back down and tell him "No." Do not hold him down. (But don't let him fall on the floor either!)

Do this when you have time to keep it up until he stops resisting you. Outlast him. Usually a baby will cry a little bit before giving in, so expect that. Be consistent. Once you start this, do the same thing every time he struggles on your lap. Be sure he sits there quietly for a little while before you allow him to do something else. Be sure that YOU are the one making the decisions, not him.

My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD, or loathe His reproof, For whom the LORD loves He reproves, even as a father, the son in whom he delights.
- Proverbs 3:11-12

Pushing Away From You
When training little ones, look for points of resistance, then teach them to submit instead. It's common for a baby to want to be picked up, but then to immediately start twisting and turning until you feel like you're in a wrestling match, trying to prevent a fall to the floor. You need not endure that. Use it as another opportunity to teach obedience.

Squirming reflects the realization that his world is bigger than boring old mom, and he's figured out how to use mom as his transportation to the rest of the world. Let him look at and explore many things, but teach him limits as you do, drawing the line at him resisting you and causing you to struggle. He should look without pushing and twisting and trying to get you to go where he wants. 

It's quite easy to do this. Just say, "No, stop that," as soon as the squirming begins, and administer a little pat on the bottom as he pushes away from you. Show by your demeanor that you disapprove. Pull him back toward you and release. Don�t hold him still, require him to obey you and choose to stop struggling on his own.

Don't assume he can't understand, just because he can't talk. A puppy can't talk either, yet we all know how to communicate with a puppy. Ability to talk is not the same as ability to understand. Watch your baby's reactions to see if he understands, being certain to discern the difference between what he understands and what he is willing to do. If there is any hint that he knows what you want, he probably does. Once you know your baby understands you, just keep insisting he obey until he does. 

Listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old.
- Proverbs 23:22

Refusing to Come
Most of the previous early training examples won�t require much time. If you start early, little ones will usually not hold out for long. Within a few minutes, usually less than fifteen, they will give in and obey you. If sessions are repeated every time they are needed, they will soon become shorter and shorter, and less and less frequent, until you having no standoffs at all. Although most children learn very quickly, there are, nevertheless, some who can be quite stubborn. They will hold out a lot longer, and when they do, you must simply outlast them, no matter how long it takes. 

Let me share my experience with my third born. I waited a little too long before insisting that he always obey me and he was two years old at the time we began training him seriously. He was well behaved compared to many two-year-olds, but had finally realized just how much he was in control of us, rather than we of him. He quickly become stubborn, willful, and prone to throwing fits. One day we were visiting some close friends and he decided to exert his new found power. He blatantly refused to come to Dad when Dad called him. He ignored Dad and continued playing with our friend�s telephone instead, about six feet from where my husband and I were sitting.

The friends we were visiting were excellent parents and offered their advice, which we readily accepted. They coached us to outlast him, instructing Dad to keep calling him. When he didn't budge, Dad was directed to go over to him, administer a little swat on the bottom (over clothes and a diaper), then return to where he'd been sitting and call him again. We were encouraged to repeat this, pausing appropriately between repeats, until he obeyed us. We never guided him back to us. We never raised our voices or let our tempers flare. We never �forced� him to obey. Sometimes we gave him a mild, but firm swat, and sometimes we only made him look at us while firmly repeating what we wanted.

Finally, after approximately an hour and a half, he began to cry and take a few steps toward us, but he still refused to come all the way. He still did not want to totally give up the power he had enjoyed exerting over us. Each time he took a few steps toward us then stopped, we would replace him back by the phone and call him to come to us again. We devoted the next half hour to making sure he obeyed completely, not just partially. When it was over, he was content and happy and ready to obey any request, just as we asked.

This one outlasting session had a considerable and exciting long-term impact on our child. He clearly learned he was under our authority and must always obey us. He only resisted obeying a few times the following couple of weeks � a huge improvement compared to his usual previous behavior - and each time it took only about fifteen minutes to outlast him. The initial two-hour ordeal never needed repeating. It has been over 20 years since this incident and all 20 years have been extremely enjoyable with this child. I'd highly recommend you adopt this method of teaching "come here" to your child if needed.

My son, give attention to my words; incline your ear to my sayings.
- Proverbs 4:20

Too Many Tears
Here is a question from one of my internet message board moms:

Bettina: My one year old daughter understands the word "No." Occasionally when she doesn't obey promptly, I go to her, interrupt the offending activity, and firmly say, "No." Typically she will look at me, and burst into a fake cry, and then stop. Sometimes she'll let out a wail and come and put her head on my leg. When she comes to me like that, I pick her up and tell her why I said, "No," even though she may not completely understand what I'm saying. Am I doing this right? Am I doing enough? Should I be doing anything else?

Elizabeth: If she stops when you say, "No," you are doing fine. Nothing else is required. Her quick ready compliance suggests she will likely be an easy child to raise. Continue to be alert to similar opportunities to do a little training. Don't overlook occasional disobedience just because she usually obeys so well. Also, be careful not to overdo the sympathy when she cries. You can pick her up or give a little hug and add kind words, but do not allow her to milk the situation. Too much sympathy will send the message that you can be manipulated with tears, and she will begin doing it with great regularity.

He who pursues righteousness and loyalty finds life, righteousness and honor.
- Proverbs 21:21

Making it Stick
After attempting to follow my early obedience instructions, moms frequently complain to me that the training doesn�t seem to be lasting. They have do it over and over again. Here�s an example, along with an answer from me:

Calandra: I can tell my crawler "no" when she reaches for my plants and she will stop and crawl away from them, but the minute I turn my back or step out of the room, she's back trying to touch them again. Does she understand what I mean? When is this training going to "stick"?

Elizabeth: Since she goes for the plant only when you are not looking, I'd say she understands exactly what you mean - that the plant is off limits. The way you described her reaction to your "no," suggests you have trained her well so far. She clearly knows she must submit to you. Although she's learned she must obey when you are present, she still believes she can get away with disobeying when you are not right there watching. God gave little ones lots of natural curiosity and determination of spirit and they will indeed, test you over and over again. That�s what babies do. Eventually, if you persevere in catching her in the act and correcting her, she will understand that she must obey, whether you are around or not.

A little �ambushing� is usually very helpful in getting the message across, that she must obey you even when she can�t see you. Try this: leave her in a tempting situation (perhaps near the plant), then let her think you are away (go around the corner or someplace close by, but where she can't see you). Then watch her closely without her being aware. If she crawls toward the plant, wait until she decides to try to touch it, and be there to give her a sharp "No!" possibly accompanied by a little surprise swat on the bottom, just as she reaches for it.

Surprise is the key. It's the startle factor that provides that little bit of extra motivation needed to make a rule �stick� in your child�s mind. A little ambushing teaches her two things: 1. that Mom is most likely watching even when she doesn�t seem to be, and 2. that a child must always obey, whether or not she can see mom. If you are having �sticking� problems, be alert for opportunities to "ambush." Remember this: Watch, Ambush, Repeat!

My son, observe the commandment of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother; Bind them continually on your heart; Tie them around your neck. When you walk about, they will guide you; when you sleep, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk to you.
- Proverbs 6:20-22

Don't Go Overboard
CAUTION! Don't go overboard and start training your six-month-old all day long as though he were in boot camp. ENJOY your babies. It's not going to hurt them to be cuddled when they cry. They don't have to be on a strict schedule unless that's what works best for both of you. They don't have to be saying, "Yes Ma'am," and saluting you, when they can't even crawl! If you decide to start training them early, a decision I highly recommend, focus only on simple obedience, and keep the things you ask of them age appropriate. 

Grandchildren are the crown of old men, and the glory of sons is their fathers.
- Proverbs 17:6

(c) Copyright 2007 L. Elizabeth Krueger.  All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.