Recently, a Christian father was telling me about the time his youngest son (about eight years old) was disrespectful to him and his mother and did not want to apologize. The child shut himself up in his room and was mad with his parents all day long.
The next day, the father thought of a plan to make his son apologize. He would take his two sons to the ice-cream shop and would use the “ice-cream tactic” to persuade his son. The “ice-cream tactic” is when you take your child to the ice-cream shop and tell him that if he does what you say, then you will buy ice cream for him; otherwise, there is no ice cream for him!
I asked the father if that had worked, and he informed me that things did not turn out as expected. His son determined not to apologize, the father did not buy him ice cream, and the situation continued the same until the next day—when, finally, the son decided to apologize. The father was relieved that the problem had come to an end.
I asked: “Do you think the problem was solved?” He answered: “Well, I believe so; didn’t my son ask for forgiveness at the end?” I pointed out: “Correct, but the real problem was not solved.” Then the conversation began again.
The Importance of Obedience
Throughout that process, there was a failure in teaching the child the importance of obedience. As the father had learned, this “ice-cream tactic” only “works” when the child wants ice cream more than he wants to persist in disobedience. This tactic (like other similar tactics) is inadequate since it gives a warm welcome to disobedience; that is, it provides a benefit for obedience (the ice cream), but lacks punishment for disobedience.
Imagine that our society only provided benefits for obedience but did not demand punishment for crimes. If the government offered a tax reduction to moral citizens, and tried to dissuade criminals by saying that they will not be given such reduction (the “ice cream”) if they continued in their crimes (but neither would they be punished), few criminals (or none) would choose the compensation instead of persisting in theft, rape, fraud, etc. The truth is that when punishment is not diligently administered, ungodliness abounds (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
Christian parents should teach their kids that, essentially, obedience is not an option; it is a commandment (Ephesians 6:1-3)! When parents do not teach obedience to their children, they teach them to sin. Although it is true that God does not impute sin to children (Matthew 18:3), early disobedience is the seed that will sprout as future sin (see Pearl, 1994, pp. 18-20).
But as the father objected, “is it not right to give our children options for them to learn to make good decisions?” Absolutely! However, Christian parents should not tolerate disobedience nor devaluate obedience. When it comes to your children’s education, would you allow them to choose if they want to go to school or not? When it comes to your children’s nutrition, would you allow them to choose chocolates and candies as their daily diet? Then, when it comes to their spiritual and moral education, why would Christian parents allow their children, who are still learning to discern right from wrong (Deuteronomy 1:39), to choose disobedience as an acceptable option?
The Urgency of Obedience
Additionally, there was a failure in teaching the child the urgency of obedience. Yes, the child apologized to his parents, but he did so under his own terms and in his own time. He apologized when he “got tired of being mad”—not when he needed to apologize. Did he apologize because he had reflected on his bad attitude or because he had come to the conclusion that his parents had received enough punishment and disdain? Regardless of the reason, the fact is that a lesson the child had indirectly learned is that obedience is not urgent.
Are we to raise children who become adults who only decide to do good when they get tired of doing wrong? Should our children become Christians who, when confronted for their sins, accuse their brethren in Christ as hypocrites, stop attending church services, and close the doors of their hearts to God—until, finally, when resentment, anger, and pride no longer satisfy them, they decide to come back? Should we promote the habit of making due authority (paternal, maternal, spiritual, civil, heavenly) wait until they (our children) feel they want to obey?
From an early age, children need to learn that obedience is important and urgent. When one of our daughters does not want to do a house chore or does not have a right attitude when asked to do something, she knows that she will be given healthy options to promote conscious and diligent decisions (not disobedience or delay.) She will be prompted to choose between (1) to do it, and do it with a right attitude and quickly and avoid punishment; or (2) to be punished and do it. Simply, once an adequate commandment has been given, there is no room for disobedience. Our daughters know that the wise decision is to obey the commandment diligently, avoiding disobedience that will only generate punishment without absolving them from responsibility. In other words, the choice is not between “to obey or to disobey not receiving a benefit,” neither between “to obey or to disobey being punished,” but between “to obey or to obey being punished.” Since they will have to obey in the end, then generally they choose to do it from the beginning.
When they are older, my daughters will have opportunities to make their own decisions with a higher level of responsibility, and such opportunities will demand their personal decisions to choose good or evil. But as they grow, and as their mother and I have the direct responsibility to train them in their way (Proverbs 22:6), disobedience and delay will not be acceptable options.
Pearl, Michael and Debi (1994), To Train Up a Child (Pleasantville, TN: No Greater Joy).