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Thursday, May 10, 2012

it's not personal

Parents, when your young child disobeys, what is your emotional response? Does a screaming fit in Walmart cause you embarrassment? Does the declaration “You’re not my mommy any more” hurt your feelings? Does a refusal to come when called make you angry? 

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.


  1. Thank you for this Jen!
    I'm right smack dab in the middle of this with my 21 month old and needed this truth this morning :)

  2. I have no problem not taking things personally from my kids at school but it's so much harder with Natalie because she's MY daughter and I'VE taught her better. I think that's what is sometimes hard to wrap your brain around - young children's behavior does not ALWAYS reflect the good parenting that has been taking place.

  3. I read this entry remembering how personal I took it when my eldest disobeyed (was over that by the 3rd one) and was feeling so thankful that I was through the flopping stage until the last line about adolescence. Getting out my notecard now...

  4. Boy did I need to hear this! What about the laughter response!? Because I am having a problem with that too. He ALWAYS does something to make me laugh when disciplining. Then, it's over. Haa!

  5. This is great advice for parents with kids of any age. I am guilt of this with both my 13 and 15 yr old kids. Thank you!!

  6. Thank you so much for this!! God bless you!

  7. This is just what I'm going through with my sassy little 3 1/2 year old daughter. And I have to come clean- I am a yeller. I'm working really hard at not responding to her in that way, mostly because of the scars I have from my own father being a yeller. Thank you for sharing this. I'm getting out my note card too!

  8. Really appreciate this! I've been feeling really stuck when it comes to discipline lately, and this makes me realize what most of the problem is.(of course that would be ME.) Excited to listen to the links as well!

  9. Yes and amen to this. Great reminder to me any my husband when we respond to our 2 1/2 year old. Thank you Jenn for sharing your Godly advice!

  10. Thanks for this! I'm expecting my first little one in November, and as I have very little experience with children thus far I know I have everything to learn about Godly parenting and discipline. This helps put some things in perspective for me. I know it'll be a little while before I get into the flopper stage but I'll go ahead and make my notecard. In the meantime I can practice with my husband :-)

  11. Just found your blog...and this was really good. Why are some of the most profound things also some of the most simplest (if that's even a word ;)). Thanks for this!

  12. I like this a lot. For a while in my parenting career I bought into the lie that anger expressed by children was always problematic, and that it was part of my job in godliness training to help them to 'think right thoughts' which occurred when they saying right words/with right expressions -- all things taught by more than one reputable Christian teacher.
    It didn't go well.
    It took time, analysis, and prayer to figure out how detrimental that position was, and to begin to realize that it was both normal and RIGHT that children should be allowed to behave like…. well, children. And more than that, like humans.
    I posted about it here -
    Kids and Anger and
    Part Two on Kids and Anger
    And the resolution we eventually reached is here:
    Between Permissive and Over-Controlling Parenting: a Middle Way
    I find that it's a key topic to get right. Discarding bad thinking (and teaching) about this has been instrumental to developing healthy relationships with my kids.
    Thanks for the great post.