Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic Activity: Dealing with Disobedience



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Ways to cultivate a spirit of willing obedience in your child.


Obedience is another problem which demands honesty from parents as well as from children. It is practically impossible to explain obedience to a very small child. He has to learn it through restrictions and moderate punishments. But along about four (and a wild age it is), he is capable of considering obedience as a real, though intangible, virtue. The ideal way of introducing him to the idea of obedience is the story of the Boy Christ in the Temple. It is perfect because it was an occasion when Jesus was not doing something that was wrong but something contrary to the wishes of Mary and Joseph. Then if we relate it to the Fourth Commandment, "Honor thy father and thy mother," we can show him how, even with Jesus Who was God, the command applied. His perfect obedience returning to Nazareth to be "subject to them" is something to ponder, and we can tell the story in terms of their own lives — deciding what chores He probably helped with, what His town was like, His routine (like ours) of work, meals, prayer, play, and rest. And when we read St. Luke's words, "And Jesus advanced in wisdom, and age, and grace, with God and men," we can help them to see that obedience is not just rules to obey but the way to wisdom and grace.

Like everything else, however, it has to be repeated and repeated. One of the big troubles is that we are always demanding obedience now, and not then. Our own inconsistency is often more confusing and blameworthy than their willfulness, and if we are entirely honest we have to admit that many times we abuse obedience by demanding it in things where it is not entirely reasonable. It is good to remember why we want them to be obedient. We are used to thinking of it in terms of living in a society where there are laws to be respected, with obedience at home as training for obedience in the world. But we don't really want to teach them these things just so that they will stay out of jail! We want them to love obedience, because in obedience to duly-constituted authority they are obeying God from Whom comes all authority. And obedience in all things is the way to peace. It is one of the least understood of all the virtues (especially in adult life), one of the least loved, and I think it is the most beautiful. Because it covers everything, and perfect obedience can grow only out of love.

When our children are in a nice quiet mood and we are talking about things in general and get around to saints, one of the things they love most to hear is how St. Thérèse loved obedience so perfectly that if she were writing when the bell rang, she would put her pen down and go, not even stopping to dot an "i." And for a while — say, a few hours — we have utterly lovely obedience in our house because everyone is imitating Thérèse.

Obedience is not usually so lovely, however. It is dull, no fun, and very, very hard. This is as it should be. We aren't going to grow strong by doing things that are easy. So we can remind them that even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, wept and sweat blood at the thought of the obedience asked of Him. And He asked His Father to take away the hard thing He was supposed to do. But then He said, "Not My will, but Thine," because more than all other things, He loved doing the will of His Father. Later, when the story of His Passion and Death was written in the Gospels, it was written: "He was obedient unto the end."

So if there has been disobedience, there must be a punishment, and like the Lord High Executioner we must try to make the "punishment fit the crime." Depriving them of privileges is about the best way because it gives them time to reflect about what they might have been doing if they hadn't been disobedient. And when it is time to punish, there must be the understanding that the punishment is retribution made to God as well as to parents. It helps to have it explained.

"You see, dear, mothers and fathers have to be obedient to God's will too. It would be easier, sometimes, to let you do what you want. Much pleasanter for you and less trouble for us. But God has given you to us for a while on earth, and because He wants you to be a saint, we must try to teach you all the things which will help you be a saint. Obedience is one of them. When you are big you will have people you will have to teach. Maybe children, maybe other grown-ups. How will you teach them obedience if you don't know what it is yourself? How will we ever be saints if we are disobedient? Every time you obey, it makes it that much easier to obey the next time because your soul is forming the habit and you are using the graces God sends to help you with obedience. You can learn to love obedience if only you will work at it and pray about it. Remember the obedience of Our Lord when He was only twelve, quite near your own age. Pray to Him and ask Him to help you. He can teach you to love obedience."

Our John is much given to lamenting in the middle of a punishment, "Now things aren't nice any more. Everything's spoiled." Precisely. It started with original sin and everything, but everything, was spoiled, beginning with man's sanctifying grace all the way through the order in nature. Disobedience has only one function — to spoil everything.

There is a difference between disobedience and "not paying attention," and it is very easy to fall into this trap and hand out punishment when it really isn't due. Disobedience is a form of rebellion. Not paying attention is a very human weakness (which, I grant you, needs correction — but doesn't belong in this class). There is a story told of Susanna Wesley which helps us remember this. She had asked one of her many children again and again to do something, and the child, absorbed in something else, failed to do it. When she asked again, her husband said to her: "Susanna, I have heard you ask that child to do that nineteen times already. How is it you have the patience to ask him the twentieth?"

And she replied: "But at last he has done it; so you see, if I had not asked the nineteen times, he would not have done it the twentieth." It takes that discernment to tell the difference between disobedience and inattention, and that kind of patience. No wonder Susanna Wesley was famous for being a good mother.

Then there are temper tantrums. Not all children have them, although all lose their tempers from time to time. What we are concerned with here is children given to consistent displays of temper (a subject on which I am an authority). Many times a temper tantrum is just another way of trying to obtain attention, and for the very young the best method is to ignore them. Usually leaving them alone to carry on without an audience is more effective than trying to reason. But if it continues (and there are children who come dangerously close to harming themselves in a fit of temper, banging their heads on the floor, etc.), a firm hand is called for.

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961