Train Up A Child… To Say “No”

One thing I’ve struggled with in my parenting lately is how to encourage my children to obey without breaking their spirits.  Beach Girl (and I’m starting to think Beach Baby, as well) can be quite the independent thinkers, unafraid to (sometimes loudly and with great intensity) let us know what they want.  As a parent, I know I need to reign that in and teach them how to obey me.  But, I also want to encourage their independent thinking, in hopes that they will use the minds God has given them to love other people well and to follow Him.

I just finished reading Tim Challies’ review of Michael and Debi Pearl’s book “To Train Up A Child”. I haven’t read the book and I don’t intend to, but in the interest of giving you some context, the authors’ system of child “training” often includes presenting children as young as 12 months old with “teachable” moments such as putting an appealing but forbidden object in front of them and then telling them “no”.  Then, when the child (inevitably) reaches for the object, the Pearls encourage parents to switch their children in increasing increments until the child learns the meaning of “no” and stops trying to touch the object. Challies points out a number of issues with this book’s method of child “training”, all of which I agree with and encourage you to read.  But, one main issue I have with this approach is that it teaches our children blind obedience.  They are forbidden from telling their parents “no” no matter what.

I want my children to say no.  As a parent of a toddler, that feels weird to say.  I spend so much of my day encouraging obedience.  But, when I think of parenting with the long-view, I remember that, as a parent, I am called to disciple my children’s hearts in many more ways than simply to teach them how to obey.

Here’s why I actually want my children to say “no” to me sometimes:

First, I am sinful and limited in my thinking.  I need to leave space for the fact that my children could sometimes know better than I do.  One time, before I became a parent, I was hanging out with my friend and her 3 year old.  The 3 year old desperately wanted to wear socks with her dress-up shoes, even though her mom had told her that she might slip so needed to take her socks off.  In fact, if she didn’t take her socks off, she’d have to take the shoes off too.  Her daughter started to pitch a fit, then took a deep breath and calmly told her mom: “I’m worried that my feet will be cold if I am not wearing socks too.”

I’m all about sticking with what you say (and so was my friend), so I was blown away when my friend responded: “That’s a very reasonable thought.  Thank you for explaining that to me. Just walk carefully in them then.”  I realized at that point — sometimes 3 year olds do know better than we do and have reasonable requests if we just listen to what they are saying.  They are not mindless animals who we need to force into compliance, but are instead people with whom we want to pursue relationship.

I want my children to come to me. My children are guaranteed to screw up.  If one of them makes a bad choice and ends up at a party she shouldn’t be at, I want her to call me for a ride home.  I’d much prefer my children come to me when they’ve made mistakes than struggle through it on their own or go to a bad influence for help.

Obedience isn’t necessarily good. While I completely agree that God calls children to obey their parents, I don’t believe that He calls us to blindly obey any authority.  We are to obey God above all, so when another authority conflicts with God’s commands, I want my children to feel comfortable following Him instead.  History gives us many examples of society following a misguided authority.  I would much prefer my children be the ones who stand up against an injustice like slavery than the ones who blindly follow the status quo. Sometimes, following the Lord will mean not submitting to another person.

Practice is much easier now than later.  There are many times down the road when my children will need to say “no”.  Sexual predators rely on the fact that children are taught to obey adult authority in their lives.  I want my children to confidently tell them (and their peers) “no” when they need to. If my parenting has been geared toward teaching them that it is never okay to say “no” to me (especially at risk of physical punishment every single time), how can I expect them to say “no” to another authority or friend?

My parents were pretty strict when I was growing up.  There were many things they forced me to do and many circumstances in which I had to obey, even though I didn’t want to.  But, my parents did a great job listening to me.  They showed me dignity in that my opinion mattered.  Rather than acting as totalitarian authorities, they validated me and my opinions and, in non-essentials, sometimes even went along with my ideas.  Often, I still had to do what they initially had said, but they at least heard me out.

The practice they gave me at speaking my mind throughout my childhood – and the assurance that my saying “no” actually had value – prepared me to expect the same from others later in life.

When I was 16, I went to a friend’s birthday party.  This was by no means a crazy, unsupervised bash, and I was by no means a wild, party girl.  While one of my closest guy friends and I were alone in the backyard getting sodas, he started getting flirty. It started innocently enough, but pretty quickly, I felt like he was trying to pin me to the ground and kiss me.  I started protesting and when it seemed like he wasn’t listening, told him more forcefully that he needed to stop.  Then, I showed him he needed to stop when I threw him to the ground and marched back up to the party alone.  (One of the things my parents forced me to do against my wishes was take karate lessons.  Ha.)

I hope that my parenting will teach my children to expect that someone should listen to them when they are being coerced into something that they know is wrong.  I’m still working out how that plays out in how I parent and I sometimes wish I could stop listening to “no’s” from my toddler.  But, more than wanting them to stop saying “no” to me, I want my children to say “yes” to God, to His love for them, and to His call for them to stand up and follow Him, even when someone else is saying not to.

3 thoughts on “Train Up A Child… To Say “No”

  1. Andrea C July 31, 2012 / 4:09 pm

    Wow, great thoughts, thank you so much!


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