“He’s so easy!”
I almost cried.
You see, although my 2-year-old firstborn son had quickly obeyed my command with a cheerful smile while this person was watching, the person who exclaimed that sentence to me was not there a few hours earlier that day when I knelt on the floor next to my son to administer a spanking yet again because he did not obey. They weren’t there a few months before that when I spent weeks standing quietly in the hall outside LB’s room for at least 20 minutes whenever I put him in his bed, waiting to administer correction if he made noise or tried to get up. They weren’t there when I sat in the living room for hours when he was little listening to him scream in his car seat as I worked on training him to obey and sit quietly. They weren’t there for the countless hours I’d spent engaged in conflict with this dear, sweet, stubborn boy who I love so dearly. They hadn’t seen my tears of defeat after the days I felt I’d gotten nowhere in molding my child’s proud, willful heart.
This dominate, commanding, confident firstborn son of mine could be called many things.
Easy is not one of them.
That’s why I’ll never tell you your kids are easy. Or hard. I’m not going to label them. Our kids, with all their nuances of character and natural personality traits were given to you and me as a gift from God. He knew exactly what He was doing when he gave you those children. Whether they seem “hard” or “easy,” it doesn’t matter. He gave them to you to do the best you can with the wisdom and grace He’s given you.
And, if you do seem to have “easy” kids, I have no idea what you’ve gone through to make them appear that way. Conversely, if you seem to have “hard” kids, I will never judge you or them. I am not in your home, doing what you do, day in and day out. Nobody knows what it’s like to parent someone else’s children.
However, if you are struggling with your kids, this blog exists to provide hope, practical advice, and perhaps a little nudge to get you unstuck. If you’ve labeled your kids “hard,” maybe it’s time to let go of the label and begin to work with what God has given you. Maybe it’s time to pick up some books, add some new tools to your parenting toolbox, and dive in headfirst to the family you have, exactly where they are. Instead of looking around at all the “easy” kids you see, lamenting the fact that your kids aren’t like that, perhaps it’s time to start studying those families. Ask questions. Study what the Bible says about children and parents. And ask God to give you wisdom to parent your children in a way that will “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)
So then, why do we think some kids are “easy” when others are “hard”? Is is really just luck-of-the-draw whether you get an easy kid or a hard one? Who’s the judge? Because what seems easy to one parent might prove beyond difficult for another. And what one parent claims is horribly difficult might seem easy to a different parent with a different parenting style.
Why then do some entire families seem so much “easier” than some others where all the kids seem “hard”? I know sometimes it is a child’s natural temperament to be more easygoing, but I’ve seen enough families with 8, 9, or 10 children who all seem “easy” that I know it has got to be something else. There’s no way they could possibly birth that many easygoing children in a row!
I know that every child is unique and every set of parents is unique in their parenting philosophy and parenting techniques. Therefore, since “easy” kids seem to run in families, it must be that some parenting techniques work well and others don’t work so well.
I must be clear here. Good parenting is not about making it look “easy” in public. Our kids aren’t given to us to parade around and make us “look good.” It’s about godliness. It’s about shaping our children’s hearts to look towards their Creator. It’s about leading them to God and shaping their character so that someday they can be mightily used of Him to do His will. Whether in public or private, it’s not about “easiness.” It’s about obedience. The reason I use the “easy” analogy is because often, that’s what seems to stand out about obedient children in public.
So what do parents with “easy” kids do differently than parents of “hard” kids?
It starts with how parents handle conflict.
Conflict in parenting is inevitable. Therefore, each parent’s approach to conflict will, in large part, determine the trajectory of the entire parent-child relationship. Will the kids be “easy” or “hard”? Will they obey or not obey? Who’s in control? Who “wins” the battles? Where does conflict happen? How do parents deal with it?
I have found that parents who appear to have “easy” kids in public are most often the ones who have consistently trained their children to obey through purposeful conflict in the home first. They make a big deal of the little stuff. If they ask their child to say hello to someone, they never allow the child to walk away without saying hi. In short, they have taught their children that the parent is the authority and it is the child’s duty to obey. The child appears “easy” in public because he quickly obeys the first time with a happy heart, but it has nothing to do with his temperament. It is because of his training.
These parents don’t delay conflict, hoping it will just get better with time. They know that it is far better to deal with issues when they are small, before they grow into something ugly and complex. A 6-month-old who gets his way by whining, screaming, and crying becomes a 2-year-old who screams and cries as well when he doesn’t get what he wants. A 14-month-old who won’t stay in her crib at naptime becomes a 2-year-old who won’t either. A 10-month-old who can’t sit still and gets into everything becomes a 3-year-old with very little self-control.
In parenting your child right now, take some time to think ahead. Are you establishing boundaries and training your child right now in a way that will bring you to the expectations you hope for? Are you facing the inevitable parent-child conflict head-on, willing to patiently use the conflict to teach and train for obedience? Or are you currently allowing behaviors that will lead to less than desirable results, perhaps thinking “she’s too little” or “he doesn’t understand”? Are you avoiding or delaying conflict by giving in to the child’s demands, thinking maybe he’ll “grow out of it” or it’s just a “stage” she’s going through?
First, let’s see what current advice tells parents to do about conflict.
The common advice in the secular parenting world today to minimize conflict and deal with the “inevitable” temper tantrums that go along with parenting a toddler, is this: ignore all the little stuff your kids do wrong, and instead save your “no’s” for the really big stuff. This philosophy tells parents to “pick your battles.” Most proponents of this theory claim that because parents are so tired and emotionally worn out all the time, they need to “save up their energy” to fight those really big battles. (I suppose this might be good advice, because parenting in this way is guaranteed to foster some EPIC battles!)
Apparently, the theory is that by allowing the child lots of choices and just freedom in general, when the parent does need to constrain the child to obedience in some area of behavior, he will comply because he’ll think, “Well, I do get to do lots of other fun things and my mommy is really nice to let me do all those fun things, so I guess, out of the goodness of my heart, I will obey her in this one simple request.”
There’s a problem with the “pick your battles” philosophy, though.
As Christians, we believe children are born sinful, willful, and stubborn. Children are sinners and naturally do wrong. They must be taught to do right! There is not one toddler on the planet who will willingly choose to obey just because he feels he ought. When parents pick their battles and allow a small child to freely express his will the vast majority of the time, they “minimize conflict” by simply avoiding it. With this approach, parents miss out on the wonderful opportunity to teach the child’s heart to surrender.
As Christian parents, we should be doing things differently that what the world says is good parenting! The Bible says, Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.” (Ephesians 6:1) So, instead of picking your battles, what does true obedience look like and how does conflict fit in the equation?
Why do some parents seem to have so much public conflict while others seem to have minimal issues?
We’ve probably all seen this scenario or something similar. We’re playing at the park with our kids. There’s another child playing too, about 2 or 3 years old. We hear his mom call out, “Johnny, 5 more minutes and we’re going to leave!” (Supposedly, if you warn a child of an impending change, they’re not as likely to have a temper tantrum. I’ve rarely ever seen that actually work, but hey, parents still try it!) A few minutes later she calls, “Ok, Johnny, it’s time to leave! Let’s go!”
The kid ignores her and continues to climb through the tube on the playset. She calls several more times to no avail. Finally, we watch her physically climb up into the hot, smelly tube, braving who knows how many pieces of rubberized chewing gum, to retrieve the little fellow who commences kicking and screaming like he’s being abducted. The racket doesn’t stop until she closes the door on her minivan and drives away.
Chances are, if you took a moment to talk with this tired mother, she would sigh and talk about how parenting is so hard and full of conflict and the battles between her and her “strong-willed child” are intense, (like the one we all just witnessed at the park). She might even say at some point in the conversation, “You just have to choose your battles.” But she won’t sound too convinced that she actually believes that line…
Because she didn’t choose that battle at the park that day. She didn’t want it. She didn’t welcome it. She knew it was coming (because it comes every single time they leave the park), but there was nothing she could do to stop it…or is there?
What if she’d caught the problem when it was still small? What if she’d taught the child when he was 6-months-old to come to her across her living room first?
Imagine a different scenario with me. The same child is playing at the park. “Mommy can I go over to the swings?” “No, Johnny, not right now. We are going to leave soon anyways.” “Ok, mommy.”
A few minutes later, “Johnny, it’s time to leave!”
We hear an “Ok, mommy!” from deep within the tube maze before a little head pops out and the little boy comes running to his mother. She picks him up to give him a hug as they head for their car.
Which parent-child relationship has had more conflict? Do you naturally think it’s the first mom because of the huge public conflict she endured trying to get the child to leave the park? In reality, the parent who has probably had more “conflict” with their child is actually the second mom.
But wait! She didn’t have any trouble with leaving the park while the first mom practically engaged in World War III! How can you say the second mom has had more conflict?!
Because the mom that has trained her child to easily obey in public has already won a thousand smaller battles within the privacy of her own home. Unlike the first mom, the second mom doesn’t “pick her battles.” She lets her child choose. If the child wants to make a battle out of something like which shoes he wants to wear or the color of cup he drinks from, she gladly accepts and even welcomes the conflict, knowing that it will work for good in the heart of her child.
She proactively seeks situations at home that will bring conflict in order to teach her child to obey and respect her authority. She purposefully plans opportunities where she knows her child will resist at home so that she can teach him obedience. And ultimately, by teaching obedience and “winning” those hundreds of little conflicts during her child’s young life, the big battles will rarely, if ever, come at all.
(A side note here: sometimes, the battle will be such that it is “un-winnable.” In these situations, the parent must still outlast the child and be perceived to have “won.” This article is long, but is a must-read for any parent who wants to understand the concept of rebellion in a child and the importance of “winning” every battle from the very beginning.)
If you pick your battles, they’ll come when you really don’t want them to.
Unlike the parent who willingly plans and engages in little “insignificant” conflicts every day, the parent who listens to the current parenting advice and “picks her battles” (like the first mom in our scenario at the park) ignores all the little daily conflicts with her child and lets the child “win” those. The mom holds out hope that when the big battles come, she will somehow have enough fortitude to withstand the pressure of her child’s will. She saves up her strength, fortifies the bunkers, and calls in reinforcements in preparation for the inevitable battle.
Parenting deteriorates into a defensive position as the parent tries to stay out of the child’s way and store up enough emotional energy to maybe win a big battle here and there. The really sad part about defensive parenting though, is that often, those big battles become unplanned, hysterical, screaming temper tantrums.
On a plane.
Yes, this last week, in the midst of a nearly 4 hour flight where I had one sleeping little boy sprawled on my lap and another in the car seat next to me, the child in front of us commenced one of these fits. His DVD player battery died and his favorite show was now unavailable. He was a big kid with big lungs and the only thing his poor mother could think to do was clamp her hand over his mouth to dampen the awful noise and wait it out. He screamed behind her hand, kicking and flailing, for a good 15-20 minutes. The battle came when she really didn’t want it to. I felt so sorry for that mother and for him as well. She was doing the best she could with the advice she’d been given, and the poor child was growing up without any self-control, practicing to become an intemperate adult.
With a public screaming fit or temper tantrum like this, even if the parent is physically able to overpower the child and “make” him do what they said (such as leave the park or suppress the noise of the screaming), the parent is not “winning the battle.” The battle against authority rages on unabated in the child’s heart. He will still feel like he “won” because he made everyone around him miserable with his screaming fit and the only reason he “obeyed” was because his parent is physically stronger. There will come a day when he is the stronger one…what happens then?
Planned conflict is always better than unplanned.
In order to make conflict productive, it must be planned as often as possible. Parents of “easy” (or obedient) kids make a decision to parent proactively. Instead of retreating into defense mode, waiting for the next battle to emerge, the parent engages directly with the child from day one, using every little natural conflict to teach and train for obedience to parental authority.
When the 3-month-old baby decides he doesn’t want to take a nap, the parent ignores the fussing and makes sure he does. When the 6-month-old wants to crawl all over and touch things that are off limits, the parent takes the time to teach the child to sit still and not to touch. When the one year old decides not to come to mom where she sits on the couch, she patiently takes the time to win the battle and teach him to come without being asked twice. When the 2-year-old decides he doesn’t want to stay in bed, the parent rises to the challenge and ensures the child stays in his bed.
Every time a parent wins one of these “little battles,” the child develops a heart of obedience and the parents maintain their position of loving authority. Because their roles are clearly defined, and the child knows his place in the home, the parents are free to lavishly love and fellowship with the child.
Intense parent-child conflict rarely happens because the child has been conditioned to first-time-obedience upon hearing a calm, quiet command. If the child does require correction, it often takes very little to steer the child back onto the right path.
When a “big battle” against authority does come (usually around age 2), the parent can win that one rather easily because the foundation has been laid for simple obedience. (Often, that kind of battle will only happen once.)
Speaking from experience, eventually these little daily “conflicts” I’m talking about begin to not even feel like conflict. Parenting this way is actually really fun and enjoyable! 🙂 Very, very soon you won’t be able to remember the last time you had a major battle with your kids and instead you’ll fill your days with lots of joyful fellowship, leading to good memories and lasting relationships.
What are some practical ways any parent can proactively engage in conflict now in order to teach obedience and actually minimize conflict in the future?
Here are some simple ideas to get started:
- First of all, do not give the small child choices. A toddler or preschooler does not need to decide what shirt he’s going to wear or what cup he will drink from. Making things like this a choice invites conflict. The child who is given too many choices too early in life becomes confused. (Why are some things a choice while others are not?) The child begins to wonder if napping is optional. Or maybe he can decide to only eat ice cream for dinner. There is nothing to be gained from allowing the child to believe his decisions and ideas are just as good or better than daddy and mommy’s. It will only lead to pride. He is not the adult. You are. And you make the decisions about daily activities, apparel, etc., not him. Children thrive on stability, routine, and simplicity. Take away the endless stream of choices and the child’s life suddenly becomes simple and direct. He no longer has to wonder who’s in charge and instead, he can focus on exploring and learning about his world. Think about it, your child will spend the rest of his life making choices. Don’t force him to do it before he’s mentally and morally capable of making good ones!
- Give your child regular direct commands throughout the day, every day, and make sure he obeys the first time with a good attitude. (“Pick up the toys and put them away, please.” “Come here.” “Sit still.” “Go get your shoes, please.” etc…) Remember, if he wants to make a battle out of any of these, don’t avoid it! Welcome the battles. Because you know that by winning them, you will work good in the heart of your child! You are teaching obedience. And by choosing to engage in the battles when they are small, when the big ones come, your child will already be trained to obey.
- Once the child is beginning to obey quickly, begin to correct for attitudes not necessarily just actions. If the child obeys, but only with a poor attitude, patiently take the time to teach him to have a happy heart. The ultimate goal is not grudging obedience, but wholehearted, willing surrender of the child’s spirit. If at first, grumpy compliance is all you get, that’s ok. Just remember that it is not the end goal. Continue your training until a cheerful, happy spirit of surrender is the norm. I cannot overemphasize the importance of attitude, especially as children get older. If you want to raise a happy child, train him to be happy! If he is unhappy, correct and instruct him on how he should think. Teach him to be grateful. Teach him to think good thoughts. Teach him to be kind. Show him how much fun it is to make other people (such as his siblings) happy! Siblings who laugh together often find it hard to make each other cry. Be sure to always freely express your own joy and exuberance (especially when your child is being happy and obedient too). Reward his good attitude. Cheerfulness is the most important trait any parent can have!
Minimizing conflict doesn’t happen overnight.
If your child is already accustomed to having his own way in most everything, initially parenting proactively like this may feel like an increase of conflict, compared to the usual way of dealing with the occasional temper tantrum or screaming fit. You will be tempted to give up and give in. But I can promise you, if you take these steps to consistently win the small (and big!) battles, and proactively train your child to obey through the myriad of little conflicts every day, those big, epic battles will soon become a distant memory.
If I do nothing else, I hope I can inspire you that proactive parenting through the inevitable conflict really can be fun!
I’m not talking about the, “oh, yeah we have fun times together, especially when we go to the zoo and see all the animals” type of fun. I’m talking about the day-in, day-out routine of breakfast, chores, naps, and bedtime. I’m talking about the just-spending-time-together kind of fun where the children are helpers and the atmosphere in the home is happy and joyful.
Parenting doesn’t have to wear you out. It doesn’t have to be exhausting. Conflict in parenting is inevitable, yes. Some days you will be exhausted, yes! I’ve been there too! But those kind of days do not have to define the parent-child relationship. Cheerful, happy cooperation can become the norm and let me tell you, it is so worth the effort!
If you do start down this path of proactive parenting, you will be amazed at the change in your child! You will no longer be walking on eggshells every time you go out in public, wondering when the next “blow-up” or “meltdown” will occur. Instead, you will be able to relax, knowing that your child possesses the self-control to simply obey you. And maybe, just maybe, someone will even tell you “Boy, he’s so easy!” And you can smile politely and know that all your hard work at home is paying off. 🙂
Train for obedience and you won’t have to pick your battles.
Because the battles will no longer start.
“Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.” (Colossians 3:20)