“We don’t know what else to do with our son. He just doesn’t listen to us.”
And that’s your cue to dispense advice that resolves this frazzled couple’s parenting crisis.
So, what do you say?
Before you answer, know this: these parents discipline their son Brian. Nothing crazy, they just administer consistent and appropriate consequences for bad behavior. When Brian was younger, corporal punishment. Now that he’s a teenager, no PS4, no texting, no allowance, no driving privileges. And, no progress.
Now, what do you say? How do you advise wise disciplinarians when their children continue to disobey?
Why does that question trip some of us up? Maybe it’s because we’re operating with a faulty assumption about discipline. We think, if a parent loves his children, he disciplines them (Prov. 13:24; Heb. 12:5–11). But just because discipline = love, it doesn’t follow that discipline is the only loving response to disobedience.
How do we know that? Because God uses more than discipline to bring about change in us.
The goals of parenting
God thinks of us as His children. And God wants us to do more than cease particular behaviors. God is conforming us to the image of His Son—which does mean that we will stop doing certain things. But it also means that we should begin doing new things (Eph. 4:20–31). Not only that, God wants us to think differently (Rom. 12:1–2), embrace new priorities (Matt. 6:33), have different attitudes (Phil. 4:4), and have different motivations (Mark 8:35).
The same thing is true in parenting. Sure, there’s a list of things we want our children to stay away from. But there’s also a list of things we want them to do. And beyond that, there are qualities we want them to embody, character traits we want them to display, and values we want them to cherish. This is why we have to teach parents to do more than discipline their children.
The limitations of discipline
When we look at the goals of God’s parenting and the goals of our parenting, it becomes clear that discipline can’t be the only tool we use to bring about such change. Discipline (understood as giving punitive consequences in response to a child’s inappropriate behavior) helps children see that there are negative consequences for breaking the rules. As such, when it works, it dissuades children from future disobedience. But discipline can’t impart good study habits. Someone has to train the child to study well. Cutting off a child’s allowance doesn’t teach the child to wisely navigate sibling conflict. Taking away driving privileges doesn’t teach a child how to express his frustration without disrespecting his parents.
If we’re going to help parents with parenting, it’s important for us to help them consider what God does as He changes us from disobedient children to mature disciples of Christ. For example, when we sin, He forgives us. When we are weak, He shows us mercy and gives us grace (Heb. 4:16). He is slow to anger, abounding in love (Exod. 34:6). He equips us (1 Cor. 12:7; Heb. 4:12). His expectations are in line with our abilities (Ps. 103:13–14; 1 Cor. 10:13). And He puts us in a context (the body of Christ/local church) in which we can have support and opportunities to do the things He has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:19–21).
When we help parents see the various approaches God uses to change us, it helps them see the wisdom in emulating God’s diverse approach to parenting us. If they don’t, parents risk wrongly concluding that what the Bible says about parenting doesn’t work. However, when we encourage parents to model God’s parenting, they’ll discover that their options for responding to a child’s disobedience abound.
3 suggestions for parents of disobedient children
So how do we answer the question, What do I do with my son, who doesn’t listen?
Encourage parents to become aware of how God parents us
Advise parents to study Scripture to see how God parents. Also, look for opportunities to point out parenting tips when you preach. You don’t have to preach a message on parenting to talk about the subject. A quick aside can illustrate how God’s treatment of His children can serve as a model for parenting. Do that on a regular basis, and over time, your people will pick up lots of helpful parenting tips.
Encourage parents to hit the pause button
If parents don’t stop to think about the best way to respond to their child’s disobedience, they’ll probably respond the same way every time, and usually that means discipline. Help parents see that it’s OK if they wait a bit to respond to a child’s inappropriate behavior. They don’t want to wait weeks or months to respond, but waiting a few hours or a day typically won’t make too much of a difference. It gives parents an opportunity to consider the different ways they can respond (e.g., showing a child mercy, making time to teach a child how to do what he repeatedly fails to accomplish, encouraging a child for the progress he has made in dealing with a particular struggle, etc.).
Encourage parents to intentionally explore their parenting options
If you can get parents to pause before responding to a child’s disobedience, great. But it takes creative thinking (informed by Scripture) to figure out what works best for a child. Questions like these can help parents determine the best way to help their child.
- Is my child a believer? (If not, expectations for that child may need to be different.)
- Does my child need to fear God more? How might I help him understand how great God is?
- Does my child need to be equipped/trained to do what I want him to do?
- Is this an area of weakness for my child, as opposed to rebellious/sinful behavior?
- Does he need to be in a better context/environment for success?
- Do I need to be more patient with my child?
- How can I show grace and mercy?
- How can I make sure my child knows that I love him despite his disobedience? How do I communicate/demonstrate that?
- Is this something I should overlook?
- How can I encourage my child? Where am I seeing progress?
- Am I treating biblical parenting principles like magic formulas/guarantees?
Parenting God’s way
Even though parents don’t have the ability to impart the spiritual renewal necessary for their children to live a changed life, there is great wisdom in modeling God’s approach to making His children more like Christ. Let us know how you’ve helped parents deal with parenting challenges. We’d love to hear from you.