I want you to write this on a note card and put it on your fridge: “It’s not personal.”
It’s a reminder we need, because the emotions we feel when our kids disobey will directly affect the way we discipline. Before we had children, the idea that a three year old could cause us embarrassment, hurt or anger seemed silly. But once we have them, it can be hard not to read their disobedience as evidence of our failure as a parent. But the disobedience of a small child is not personal – it’s just the product of immaturity. And our reaction to it will either reinforce or retrain the behavior.
Children, like the rest of us, are usually looking for a way to elevate their wills above those in authority over them. They don’t want to submit to the authority of a parent, a teacher or a caregiver unless that person’s will aligns with theirs. In other words, as long as Mom wants what I want, the day will go smoothly. As soon as Mom wants something different that what I want, I will employ whatever means of influence I have to bring her back to my agenda. What means of influence are available to a young child? His weapons are few but effective, and they fall into two categories: verbal and physical.
His verbal arsenal includes (but is certainly not limited to) whining, yelling, arguing, backtalk and good, old-fashioned crying. His physical arsenal includes (but is certainly not limited to) hitting, throwing, running away, door-slamming, refusal to hand-hold or hug, and my personal favorite: the full body-flop, usually executed in the middle of a grocery store aisle in front of as many onlookers as possible.
Children like to combine verbal and physical weapons for even greater effectiveness, and I do not have space here to illustrate the glorious near-infinite spectrum of disobedience that can occur. But the unlimited number of disobedient scenarios is not the point. The limited number of parental reactions is. Parents, when faced with a screaming flopper, you have a choice: will you take this personally and respond out of anger or hurt, or will you hold the parental high ground and respond out of love? Your child will come to the battle of wills fully armed. Your response will determine whether she is armed with a sniper rifle or a squirt gun.
Anger is our natural emotional response to having our will violated. Anger, in its initial state, is not sinful. Acting out of anger almost always is. Your child yells or throws a fit because she is angry her will has been violated by yours. If you respond by acting in anger (yelling back or punishing to “even the score”), you show her that her angry behavior is valid, acceptable, and even “adult”. You actually reinforce the negative behavior and prolong the learning process - even if you follow through with an appropriate consequence.
Do the compassionate thing: disarm your child by remaining calm in conflict and responding with emotionally neutral speech and facial expressions. Children are smart and observant. Though they may not have begun a behavior to manipulate you, they will quickly pick up on its manipulative power by watching your response. If you yell, lecture, or act wounded in any way they will sense the power of their actions to control you. This is a power a responsible parent does not give to her child. A parent who takes her child's disobedience personally risks reinforcing not only her child’s emotional immaturity, but her own as well.
So be the bigger person. Be the parent. Don’t be lured into an emotional battle by a small person who can’t fight fair. Teach your young child that conflict cannot be escalated by hurtful words or actions. Do this by keeping anger out of the equation. Set it aside. And in so doing, model the loving correction we receive from our Heavenly Father who has set aside His anger toward His children.
And save that “It’s not personal” note card on the fridge. It just might come in handy in case adolescence rings your doorbell in full battle regalia.
For more thoughts on training young children in obedience, listen here.
Related post: Civility in the Christian Home