Dear Betsy, How Should I Discipline?

Dear Betsy,

My oldest is 3 years old and she is very smart and has great language and communication skills. She also is very independent and usually wants to make her own plan or modify every directive I give or she will say, "I don't want to." 



Am I to spank for every incident of defying me throughout our day? Or should I try reasoning with her first? Do I just pick a few? Is only picking a few not being consistent? I don't want to exasperate her, but I would also hope to see a more submissive heart? Really want to know what is appropriate for a 3 year old!!!

Dear Concerned Mother,

I want to encourage you in your desire to get to the heart of your child’s behavior. Your concern about her resistance to your authority is a valid one. Having said that, I want to stress that this scenario is very common! We know that we cannot actually change the heart of our children—that is the work of the Holy Spirit alone—but we also see that we are commanded in Scripture to train (them) in the way they should go. So the question becomes, what do we do when they don’t respond to our attempts at training in the way we expect (or hope) that they should? It’s easy for a parent to think it should be easier—or quicker—than it turns out to be.

As we are training our children, we learn so much about patience, perseverance and the reality of the sin nature in all of us. Understanding and accepting that this will be a process has been very helpful for me. How long will the process be? This depends on a lot of factors such as: their temperament, their age, your consistency, and ultimately, their will.

I like to remind parents to always be watchful, seeing the “direction” the child is heading, and quickly re-direct them. Sometimes this is a physical act of picking up that baby that’s headed for the outlet and saying, “No-no,” over and over again. Other times it’s actually taking them through the full-circle of discipline (with or without a spanking). But make no mistake about it, it will at times seem to wear you out...but be encouraged!  

Galatians 6:9 says: "Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. God knew that we would grow weary, or be tempted to give up in this and other challenges life brings, but He promises that we will see fruit in due time." Proverbs 22:6 presents another helpful principle that refers to the idea of training over time. (Also, see Hebrews 12:11.)

Some practical thoughts:

1. Often our children develop habits (just like we do) which require that we stop everything else and just devote a day—or maybe longer—to breaking the bad habit and developing a new and good one. (This is discussed in detail in the chapter on Exasperating Behaviors in the Entrusted book. See the section about “Putting off and Putting on.”)

2. Be sure you and your child have an agreed understanding on what it means to obey, as in “all the way, right away and with a good attitude (or a happy heart)” or however you choose to say it. The point is that they understand that obeying when they feel like it or with a rebellious spirit is not true obedience.

3. Try training (or retraining if you’ve gotten away from being consistent) when there isn’t a current conflict. You can make it a game or role playing activity. You might say to the child, “Okay, Mommy’s going to tell you to do something and I want you to practice what it means to obey.” You might even let them pretend to be the mommy and you can model both obedience and disobedience and see if they “get it.” This can open the door to a conversation about the importance of your role in their lives and that God has given parents for their protection, etc. Making it a little bit fun, outside the context of an emotionally charged conflict can really change the dynamic. Then later when they do begin to argue, or aren’t responding with a submissive heart, you can refer back to your discussion or role play activity.

4. You mentioned not wanting to exasperate her, but the truth is, children become exasperated when parents are not consistent in their expectations and discipline. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to be focused until the habit is broken and the attitude is changed. Children know instinctively that they should not be in charge (even if they say otherwise!) so it is up to us to continually remind them of that truth.

5. It will be very helpful if your husband (and any other caregivers) reinforce this, especially during the initial, intense training period.

The main things to remember are that:

  • You are the parent and they must obey you.
  • Their desire to have their own way is a normal part of the sinful nature. It will be a process and you will want to give up at times and say, Is it really that important??
  • Once this pattern is established, your home will be much more peaceful! (Not that she won’t test the line from time to time, but it will be easier to bring her back to the understanding if it has been firmly established it in the past.)
  • Parents are the restrainers of their children until they learn that their will must be submitted to the Holy Spirit. Therefore, while we always present the grace of the gospel throughout life, it is balanced with training the child to submit now to the authority of their parents.

  • Always, always, always, strive to maintain that special connection with your child—by means of edifying words and lots of affection.

Hang in there, Mom! You are definitely not alone.


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Photo credit Ellen Swalley of Red Sweater Photography

Posted on July 27, 2015 and filed under Building Your Family.