Cultivating a Heart That Obeys

By Rachel Tiemeyer
July 17, 2013
Cultivating a Heart That Obeys: Strategies for Dealing with a Whiny, Insolent Child

Do you have a little one who is going through this phase of life where every…thing…is…sooooooo…hard–especially following directions from Mom and Dad? Here’s a fairly regular morning conversation right now around our house:

Mom: “Please go get your shirt on so we can go.”

4-Year-Old: (ignores parental directive)

Mom: (in slightly elevated voice) “Did you hear what I said? I need your help. Please obey mommy the first time.”

4-Year-Old: (emanates low grade whine and then collapses into a ragdoll heap on the floor)

Mom: If you don’t get your clothes on right now, we will have to leave without you.

4-Year-Old: (looks slightly concerned but still doesn’t move and probably realizes that mom can’t follow through on that threat)

Mom: (parental realization that I can’t actually follow through with original threat and quickly shifting to new tactic) If you don’t go get your shirt on right now, I will pick it for you and you’ll have to wear whatever I pick out.

4-Year-Old: (in short, punctuated, ear-splitting intervals) No!….No!…NOOOOO!

Mom: (picks up 4-year-old and sets on her bed, while she is kicking and flailing) Sit on your bed…

4-Year-Old: NOOOO!!!

Mom: (headache forming; temperature rising; trying to remain calm) I said sit…

4-Year-Old: NOOOO!!!

Mom: (getting louder) When you have calmed down and are ready to get your shirt on…

4-Year-Old: NOOOO!!!

Mom: (almost yelling) …then, you may get down. (exit room)

4-Year-Old: (shouting down the hall) NOOOO!!!

The title of this post would suggest I have some definitive answers for you on the topic of parenting a whiny, insolent child. The truth is, yes, I’m gaining some wisdom in this terrain through experience with my first child, advice from friends, and reading The Bible and parenting books. But, my husband and I are in the thick of it right now with our 4-year-old (our second child) and still trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We feel like parenting failures at the end of many days at the moment. As with most of my parenting posts, I’m writing this as a reminder to myself…so I can keep in mind some important truths when I’m in the weeds.

Here are four reminders during this season of child rearing for those of us dealing with a whiny, insolent child:

1 – Behavior begins in the heart, so we must deal with our child’s heart motivations first.

The Bible says in Proverbs 4:23, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” The “heart” is the central part of who you are, governing your will and emotions. So, all behavior comes from and is dictated by the motivations in our heart.

Cultivating a Heart That Obeys: Strategies for Dealing with a Whiny, Insolent Child

I read a well-intentioned blog post recently by a Christian mom who said she obliterated her child’s whining by filling a jar with a bean each hour she didn’t whine. Then, when the jar was full, she received a big prize. The mom did not discuss doing any teaching about why it’s wrong to whine or what God says about learning contentment and obedience, at least in this post. Although I have no doubt this rewards strategy did work in the short-run, I have to question what has now happened in that child’s heart. Will this little girl only cooperate when given external, short-term rewards? Is the parent now stuck in a pattern of having to keep tally of her child’s behavior daily and offering rewards to keep her motivated? Is the child learning self-control and the value of obedience as it relates to her relationship to God and in response to his promises…or just what it can gain her in the short term? And, what will this mean for how she relates to anyone in authority over her in the future, including God?

If we are simply trying to modify our child’s behavior without the long-term goal of changing their hearts, we are doing nothing more than cultivating little Pharisees in our home. Jesus had some very stern warnings for the Pharisees and their “good behavior” in Matthew 23:26-28:

Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

If we aren’t cultivating the ground of our children’s hearts and praying that God will change them by his Spirit, then we are missing the mark. We are only washing the outside of the cup but the inside is unclean. The outside may appear righteous, but the heart is still full of wickedness.

How can we reach a child’s heart instead of just changing behavior? A good place to start is by praying that God would change our child’s heart, like I was reminded of in a powerful way in the book A Praying Life by Paul Miller. In it he says,

It took me seventeen years to realize I couldn’t parent on my own.  It was not a great spiritual insight, just a realistic observation.  If I didn’t pray deliberately and reflectively for the members of my family by name every morning, they’d kill one another.  I was incapable of getting inside their hearts…But even more, I couldn’t change my self-confident heart….As I began to pray regularly for the children, he began to work in their hearts…I did my best parenting by prayer.  I began to speak less to the kids and more to God.  It was actually quite relaxing. (p. 59)

Another good place to start to cultivate a heart of obedience is by simply asking these 3 questions when your child has done wrong, as a way to uncover heart motivation and give guidance. I’ll explain a few more practical ideas in point #4, as well.

2 – Learning to obey is critical for children.

It’s paramount that my 4-year-old (and all of my kids) learn to obey Mom and Dad and those in authority right away and with a good attitude. The Bible makes great promises to those who learn to obey God and their parents.

Proverbs 19:20, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise.”

Colossians 3:20, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”

Ephesians 6:1-3, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—“so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.

In the incredibly helpful parenting book, Good and Angry: Exchanging Frustration for Character in You and Your Kids!, the authors, Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller, say this about teaching your children to obey:

God expects children to learn obedience at home, because hidden within that virtue are the principles that will make them successful as they get older. Teaching children to cooperate with you will also help them learn how to obey God and be responsible as they get older. (p. 9)

We’ve established this family rule below in our house recently and have some verses posted on our refrigerator.

Strategies for Dealing with Whiny, Insolent Child

In our good moments (umm, that’s key), we remain calm and use our child’s temper tantrum or defiance as a teaching moment. We ask her, “What is your first job in our family?” The answer we have come up with and that she knows the answer to well now is, “To listen to Mom and Dad and do what they say.” When we take the time to discuss this together in the midst of defiance, she almost always responds the right way. This has reminded us that often our kids just need to be taught/reminded of their expectations first and then have consequences if they don’t respond. We also try to be proactive, not just reactive, by reminding the kids about once a week right now about this family rule and God’s promises to us.

So, point #2 in dealing with my whiny, insolent child, is the big picture: She must learn obedience. I don’t want to just give in or make excuses for my child’s behavior. I want to have the end goal in mind for her and deal with her wrong behavior consistently, because I know this is what is best for her in the long run.

3 – The manner in which I interact with my child can either bring healing or create distance between us.

My tone of voice and body language can either help diffuse her tantrums or rev them up. Michelle Anthony says in Spiritual Parenting, “The end goal for us as parents is to conduct God’s discipline in our children’s lives in such a way that they experience healing from their sin.” That’s what I want to do but have such a hard time remembering in the moment! God’s Word gives so much wisdom to this end. I often post these verses around my house, to help me fight my temptation to be impatient and get angry quickly.

Psalm 103:8, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Proverbs 14:29, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.”

Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

James 1:19-20, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

In Good and Angry, Turansky and Miller say this about engaging in battle with our kids:

When a child begins mistreating a parent with arguing, meanness, or defiance, that child will feel many emotions, but especially guilt. People don’t like to feel guilty, and one of the easiest ways to excuse the guilt is to justify it by looking at the sins of others. When you join the boxing match, your children feel attacked and find it easier to blame you rather than focus on what they did wrong…As parents, we need to stay out of the boxing ring and allow the Holy Spirit to convict our children of sin. (p. 3)

They go on to explain that as parents we need to step out of “the boxing ring” and instead come around to our child’s “side of the ring” as a coach. When a fight begins, we must stop dealing with the issue at hand and instead discuss the way we’re relating. It means as a parent I need to choose “a different posture, one that offers healing instead of antagonism, and closeness instead of distance” (p. 4).

4 – Set a routine that will teach my child how to accept instructions in life.

We all have routines of how we interact with our children in our home, some good and some bad. If you’re like me, I can easily get into a bad routine that doesn’t help my children respond the right way to my instructions. My anger, impatience, and short-sighted behavior-adaptation attempts at dealing with their behavior can make it worse in the end. Instead, I want to strive for a changed heart not just changed behavior in my child.

In Good and Angry, the authors write, “It’s easy to feel angry because your children aren’t doing what you say. At those moments don’t respond with more harshness. Instead, move into a routine that teaches your kids how to accept instructions in life. This new pattern not only makes family life easier, but each step will train your children to respond to other leaders and eventually to God’s instruction.” (p. 41)

Turkansky and Miller make these practical, heart-targeted suggestions for moving into a new and effective pattern of giving instructions and helping your child learn to obey. (I encourage you to read the entire book to address a whole host of behavioral issues you may be dealing with in your children and how to respond rightly.)

Step 1: Get close together.

Cultivating a Heart That Obeys: Strategies for Dealing with a Whiny, Insolent Child

When you need to give an instruction, start by getting close to your child. Most of the time this means calling your child to come to you. At times, though, you may have to go to him. This takes lots of practice. But, what this teaches a child is that “dialogue only takes place when relationship has been established through eye contact and proximity….By affirming your relationship in the midst of the instruction, you teach your children an important lesson about the way God relates to us. Spirituality isn’t just a list of dos and don’t, but it comes within the sphere of relationship.” (p. 45)

Step 2: Consider the timing.

When getting ready to give instructions, we should consider “is it best to address this problem right now or would it be better to talk about it later?” “Pausing for just a moment, or in some cases, waiting a few hours, may prove to be the most productive way to deal with a problem.” (p. 47)

Step 3: Give the instruction.

Make a statement about your goals or objectives before you give the instruction. “Ben, we’re leaving for swim lessons in 15 minutes and it’s time to put your swim trunks on. Can you help by choosing which ones you want to wear out of your drawer, please? If not, I can pick them for you.” This kind of statement gives your child more information, so they can feel like they are part of the team. The older the child, the more of an explanation is helpful.

Once you give the instruction, teach your child to respond to you. We often say to our younger kids, “Say, ‘okay mom'” after giving an instruction. A child’s answer reveals three things: 1) it shows that your child has heard you, 2) it teaches the child to communicate intent to follow through, and 3) you can hear what kind of attitude your child has.

Step 4: Wait.

Once you’ve given the instruction, ask your child to go do it and then report back to you. This gives them accountability to finish the task.

Step 5: The child checks back and you inspect and release him/her.

“After children report back and parents inspect what they’ve accomplished, everyone experiences a sense of completion.” This also gives you a chance to “praise your child for obeying, teach about responsibility, and foster a positive relationship…By getting the work checked, a child then experiences a sense of freedom. You give your children a gift by releasing them to go play or enjoy the rest of the evening.” (p. 55)

Parenting Resources

These are some of the best heart-targeted Christian parenting books and resources that we’ve found to be helpful for training our children (and ourselves!):

I post these printable verse cards around my house:

encouraging Bible verse cards just for moms

Good and Angry: Exchanging Frustration for Character in You and Your Kids! by Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller

Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World by Kristin Welch

Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World

Finally, here are a few more parenting posts on Thriving Home you may find helpful:

10 Ways to Cultivate Grateful Hearts in Your Kids

One of the greatest parenting struggles in our culture might be summed up in one word: entitlement. How do we combat that at home? Here are 10 easy ways to start cultivating grateful hearts in your kids.

Make Your Summer With Kids at Home Count

Make This Summer with Your Kids Count - How to create intentional summer goals that will make a difference in kids' lives.

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28 replies
  1. Amy Evers says:

    I am sitting with tears because I am struggling with my 6 year old son Michael. And I just googled blogs for Christian moms with boys with behavioral issues. I haven’t read it all yet because I can’t see very well with my tears!! But I am at a loss. I will read this and it looks like it could be helpful. Our life has had many, many changes in the last two years; not all of them good. So thank you for putting this out there; I feel a little more encouraged now.

    • Rachel says:

      Amy,I’m sorry parenting feels so discouraging right now. I’ve shed many tears over my kids and my not-so-great parentings (at times). One of the things that has helped me most is having a few trusted, wise friends who are one step ahead of me. Talking through my parenting struggles with them and having them pray for us has been a life saver over the years. I encourage you to reach out to others for help and prayer and perspective, if you can. I will pray for you and Michael right now. God loves you both more than you know.

  2. Kendra says:

    Wow, I LOVE this article. So valuable is it that I am printing it out for reference. Your insights are strong and broad, & shore up & strengthen my understanding and call me clearer in the direction my heart calls me to go in my parenting. Thank You so much. It is so hard to find this kind of true parenting guidance sometimes, and yeah I sure hear you – in the daily trenches battle and trying to parent right and struggling every day!! I loved Teresa’s “why” comments and I ditto Erika- Clay Clarkson’s Sheparding a Child’s Heart, along with Sally’s Ministry of Motherhood- have so much powerful overflowing of SPIRIT – of true love of sheparding their children toward God- it is just amazing. It’s the FEELING of heart to heart parenting. I. Love. It. Now- back to those Real Life Tantrums!!!! ?

    • Rachel says:

      Kendra, true confessions: My kids are no longer toddlers or preschoolers, but I still go back and re-read this post (and skim some of the parenting books I mention) sometimes to keep me on target with my kids. I need biblical reminders of my long-term goal repeatedly, because being in the trenches doesn’t stop in elementary school and I’m guessing beyond, too. The battles just look a little different. One thing that does encourage me, though, is that looking back to the little years and what we were trying to teach and live out is beginning to bear fruit. As my kids are learning (in a one step forward, two steps back, sometimes) to obey us and trust God, we can see how that is shaping their character at home and at school and in the neighborhood. My kids aren’t those perfectly obedient, quiet ones. They struggle just like any others, sometimes very loudly and for everyone to see. 😉 But, I can see their tender hearts for God and doing his will growing over time and that’s all I can ask and pray for. So, let’s keep marching forward in God’s grace and with his wise teaching by our sides, trusting him to shape our kids.

  3. Liz says:

    Hi! I stumbled across this when looking at recipes on your blog and I love this post. Getting my 4 year old son to do anything we said has been such a struggle and he has been acting out at preschool. I took your advice in this post and I’m seeing great improvement! He is starting to want to please us and make us happy. When I picked him up from school today he said with a a big smile that he was a good boy at school today! I’m not the religious type at all so it was hard for me to get past that, but there is real value in what you say here. Just wanted to let you know that this blog post has helped my family!

  4. Kerri says:

    I must say I passionately disagree with teaching a child that their whole purpose is to do what I say. I give my daughter choices and time and have reasoned with her explicitly since she was 1. I think she deserves reasons in every instance so that she learns how to make decisions on her own behaviour in life and how my expectations are formed, not just blindly follow without understanding the reason or importance. “If he told you to jump off a cliff would you?” Comes to mind. Teaching obedience teaches how to act, but only reason also teaches how to react

    • Rachel says:

      Kerri, I hope you had a chance to read the whole article. I don’t think I excluded reasoning with or listening to my children at all. And I don’t think I said their whole purpose was to obey. I do, however, think there are some very powerful (and biblical) reasons to teach our children the importance of obeying at a young age, as I mention.

  5. teresa says:

    Your advice to build rapport with them ny spending good times together helps them learn to trusy you, but it also bears verbally stating why they should so they know how to properly view authority.

  6. teresa says:

    Good advice overall, but one key thing to add is WHY they should obey parents and God: because we are trustworthy. I tell my kids that they need to do what we say bc we love them and we know what needs to be done to help them be holy happy and healthy. And God loves them even more than we do and He never makes mistakes. We don’t want our kids to think that they should just do what they’re told by anyone who has a position of authority. A study was done on the parenting methods used by Germans to see why so many Germans stood by and let the Holocaust happen. The emphasis on blind obedience to authority was the culprit, while those who made efforts to work againsy the Nazis had been raised to examine things for themselves. The book on that is “The Altruistic Personality”. Testing things and adhering to what is right is also biblical. Takes more effort,but explaining why they should do something and contrasting it with how their plan won’t work often gets them moving.

    • Rachel says:

      Teresa, I think you’re absolutely right. Thank you for taking the time to write this comment. We very much believe the same thing and I was actually surprised I didn’t say that implicitly in this article that I wrote a few years ago. Yes, we tell our children (based on many of the verses I mention in this post) from very early on things like: God loves you and is worth obeying; your life will “go well” when you obey Him, he has put us in charge of you because he loves you; you can trust us. A child’s understanding of who God is and why he has put us in authority over our kids is a foundational truth to cultivating a heart that obeys (for the right reasons).

  7. Heather B says:

    We are doing everything we can to give our son the foundation and understanding he needs to succeed in his faith and life. I’ve been reading a great new book by Dr. Tony Evans. One of the goals of the book is to help parents grow in confidence as they discover their worth as a parent based on God’s Word. He says just what you are saying, “Instructing your children in the Lord means spending time with them so they can see how you live out the gospel.” It’s called “Raising Kingdom Kids: Giving Your Child a Living Faith.” He says, “It’s far easier to SHAPE A CHILD than to REPAIR AN ADULT. Raising kids who recognize and retain their identity as children of the King launches healthy adults who have the capacity to stand strong in their faith.” Equipping and guiding our children starts with us, parents! This is the most solid, thorough, inspirational and affirming parent book I’ve ever read! I love it and HIGHLY recommend it for all parents!

  8. Sara says:

    Thank you so much!! I don’t normally leave comments but this blog has really touched on the root of my parenting mistakes. I have a six year old boy that has been struggling for several months with my parenting technics. Ever since I gave birth to my 14 month old little girl our relationship and the dynamic of the house hold had changed dramatically. I have struggled trying to balance both of my children’s needs. This blog really reminds me of some of the technics I use to use that had become less frequented these pass few months. Moreover I think implementing Gods words to meditate on is really the key to success. God has the power to change our children’s hearts but it is our job to teach them Gods word. We need to give our children tools for their future that honors God and everything god is about: love and forgiveness. Thank you so much for this reminder. And thanks be to God for your burden to share what you have learned.

    • Rachel says:

      Sara, thank you for taking the time to leave your comment. I’m encouraged that God has used something he taught/is teaching me in your life too. And you’re exactly right that being in God’s Word and praying for our own hearts and our children’s hearts are the most important things of all. I will pray for you right now.

  9. Alaina Oliver says:

    Thank you so very much for this post! These are issues that my husband and I are struggling with on a daily basis with our 3 year old, and it is so comforting not only to realize that we are not alone (nor is our son especially difficult, but in good company!), but also to read the words of the Lord that address these hearts struggles in us and in our children. God bless! 🙂

  10. christine says:

    Wonderful. This is the first time I have wanted to follow the advice and read more about Christian parenting. Other blogs have focused on “discipline” through force, “Training Up a Child” and other methods I find soul crushing to little beings. Your words touched my heart in a deep way. thank you.

  11. Wendy says:

    Who knew 4 years old could be so tough? Not me?! We’ve been struggling with this for several months with our son who will be 5 in a few months. Thanks for posting your thoughts and experiences and for sharing some great resources!

  12. Jenn Cook says:

    Thanks for the post! It’s encouraging to know I’m not the only one dealing with this exact same thing in our household especially since we also expect and teach first time obedience. I’ve read all the books you’ve referenced and have loved them. A new one that I just read (and loved) is “Why Can’t I Get My Kids To Behave?” By Joey and Carla Link. Excellent book on establishing and teaching first time obedience — which is ultimately the key for all things parenting! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Katie says:

    Love this! I would add Ginger Plowman’s “Don’t Make Me Count to Three” & also Elyse Fitzpatrick’s “Give Them Grace” – Both excellent heart & gospel centered parenting resources in addition to the fabulous ones you’ve already mentioned! 🙂

  14. Erika says:

    LOVE this post and the book recommendations. I have loved the parenting books by Clay and/or Sally Clarkson. They are committed to heart-targeted parenting. Two of my favorite books are:

    Heartfelt Discipline by Clay Clarkson, and
    Ministry of Motherhood by Sally Clarkson

    These books have been encouraging to me as I seek to learn from God’s Word how to win my children’s hearts!

  15. Shonda says:

    Wow, it sounds like you are in my house. I am dealing with the same exact behavior from my 4 year old. Thanks for these tips.