Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Disobedience or noncompliance?

"Why won't you just listen to me and do what I'm telling you?"

"Stop being so disobedient!"

I don't always say those things to my kids, but I've definitely been guilty of thinking them. When I'm not in that moment of frustration, I often wonder, "Was my child being truly disobedient?  Or was s/he not complying for a reason that I was too impatient to hear about?"

I'm a firm believer in treating others the way we want to be treated.  I also believe that our kids copy the behavior they see modeled.  So, if I'm loud, demanding, and impatient, I guarantee you my kids are going to be the same.  There's no sense in holding my children to a standard I refuse to hold to myself.  Not only is it illogical, it's unjust.

However, when I exhibit the fruits of the Spirit in my life (you know, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control...those easy-peasy attributes, right?), my children likewise follow suit.

Micah 6:8 states, "He has told you, o man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"

It is unjust, cruel, and prideful of me to expect immediate compliance from my children.  True obedience comes from a heart of love, a heart that counts the cost before submitting.  If I do not give my children time to count the cost, to consider what it is I am asking of them before following through, I am not giving my children the dignity they deserve.

For instance, I have a toddler who is so sweet, happy, and compliant by nature.  She is still learning words and meanings, so often when she is given an instruction, she will stand and look at me.  If she were my first child, I would have simply repeated my instruction a few times, threatened her with a spanking if she didn't "obey" and then followed through.

Now, I am aware that people in general and small children especially need up to a minute to process an instruction.  Yes, a full minute!  In my education classes, we were told not to fear the silence that followed a question to our class, as it could easily take 20 seconds for the students to interpret our query and then formulate a response.  Obviously, pre-school children require more time to process and formulate, and we are doing them a tremendous disservice by training them to respond like automatons.

Here's a recent example:  I brought my toddler to her high chair to eat breakfast. I had a small portion of waffle, already cut into tiny pieces and topped with syrup ready for her on her plate. I stood her in her chair and said, "Ok, sit down and eat."  She picked up her fork and began eating.  I reminded her to sit.  She squatted, then stood again, looking at me out of the corner of her eye.  Frankly, I was a little frustrated, as we've followed this routine ever since she could sit up by herself.  I put my hand on her shoulder and said, "You have to sit in your high chair."  She looked at me, squatted, and stood. 

My first impulse was to pick her up and place her in a seated position back in her chair, but my brain said, "She never does this.  There must be a reason."  I checked her diaper, and sure enough, she had pooped!  She was not disobeying me; she wanted to comply but did not want to sit in ickiness while eating.  Can you blame her?

So because I treated my toddler with dignity, she got a fresh diaper and could enjoy her breakfast more completely.

Here's another example where I didn't do so well.  My oldest son is a feeeeeeeler.  By that, I mean he has BIG FEELINGS about everything, to the point where he tends to either explode or shut down because he is still learning how to handle these giant feelings.  I also am a feeler, and I am empathetic to the point that I can actually experience another's emotions with them. Throw the two of us together and you can get some huge, spiraling, out-of-control emotions, sometimes.  Kind of like fireworks, only less pleasant.

Anyway, my son was having difficulty completing an assigned chore.  I was sensing his frustration and anger, and instantly became angry and frustrated with him.  From my perspective, I was asking him to do a fraction of his fair share around the house, and here he was, balking. I scolded. He exploded. I exploded back. He shouted, "You don't really love me! It's all just an act!"

Ouch. That got my attention. I immediately went into question and listen mode.

It turns out, I've grown careless in choosing my words, especially when expressing my disapproval and frustration of my son's negative behaviors.  Instead of focusing on the desired behavior and offering alternatives or simply correcting the undesired behavior, I was saying shouting completely unhelpful things. "Stop acting like a jerk!" "I've had enough of your misbehavior!" "Would you pay attention?" "Just do what I say - NOW!"

As a result, his behavior toward me had grown antagonistic. He felt unloved and unappreciated - and is it any wonder?

My son was complying with instructions, albeit grudgingly.  That is hardly true obedience. But who was at fault for the breakdown between us? Obviously, I was. I am the parent and the leader. He is the child and follower of my example. He lacks the necessary maturity to calmly bring my own misbehavior to my attention while being a model of good behavior himself.  Additionally, he felt that the foundation of our relationship (unconditional love) had crumbled, leaving him insecure and uncertain.

There cannot be true obedience unless the foundation of unconditional love is solid. True disobedience with such a foundation is extremely rare, and when it does happen, I've found my children are quick to express repentance and work toward reconciliation without any prodding from me.

It's time we Christians really look at the words we're using to describe our children's behavior. Delayed obedience is not disobedience at all. In fact, I posit delayed obedience is true obedience, because one who delays is counting the cost and choosing to submit anyway. Noncompliance is not following an instruction, while disobedience is counting the cost and choosing not to submit. Compliance and noncompliance happen on the outside, while obedience and disobedience take place is the heart. 

If we as parents are going to follow the instruction to "do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly," we must seek the reasons behind our children's unwanted behavior.  It is, after all, what we hope others would do for us.