Is My Slow-to-Respond Child Being Disobedient?

I recently received a question from a friend of mine, a mom of two boys -- one is 2-and-a-half years old, and the other an infant. She and her husband have been diligently training their older child to obey, but had a practical question about this. With her permission, I am sharing the situation (paraphrased for brevity), and my response.
“Our biggest issue with disobedience now is [our son] taking his time to obey when we ask him to do something. Would you consider this defiance? And if so, what practical methods should we use to discipline him – spanking, time-out, warning, etc?”
So, if a child is doing what we ask of him, but on his timing, is that obeying or disobeying? Great question, and is an issue that we've had to deal with many times over.

Don’t Ask, DO Tell
Be careful about how much you “ask” your child. I distinctly remember being taught this principle, before I was even married, by a man who was discipling me. Our heavenly Father doesn’t ask His Son (or any of us, His children) or His servants to do things. He gives commands.

Of course, we must be careful to not continually bark commands with gruffness, but we must not fool our young children into thinking that they are part of a democracy. A young child (especially through age 5 or 6) must be taught to submit to authority, as discussed in my previous post The Phases of Raising Boys.

Be Clear
When you do give a command to our child (or, even when you do ask them to do something), you must be sure that you are clear in what you expect. For a young child, “Clean up your toys” can have many interpretations. Better is, “Put your blocks in the bucket, and put your books on the shelf.”

Here are some tips to giving clear commands to a young child:
  • Be simple. Don’t overload his brain with a string of commands. At a young age, one or two steps at a time is age-appropriate.
  • Make eye contact. Lazy as I am, I'd rather call out a command from 15 feet away, even as I am walking out of the room. But I need to make sure to speak directly to him, including making eye contact. Train your child to look at you when you are speaking to him. It’s a life skill that will pay off his entire life.
  • Have your child repeat your command. If she can recite back what you told her, you know that you have been clear. You can have her repeat the command verbatim, or even better is to ask, “What are you going to do?” and let her verbalize it in her own words.
  • Manage your expectations. Simply enough, know what your child is capable of, mentally and physically. 
If you are not clear in you directions, it is harder to make a case that your child is being disobedient.

First-Time Obedience
I’ve learned from authors and speakers such as Tedd Tripp (Shepherding a Child’s Heart), James Dobson (The New Strong-Willed Child), and Ginger Plowman (Don’t Make Me Count to Three) that we need to say what we mean and mean what we say. But we often can confuse our children by training them to ignore our directions. How?

When the norm for your parenting is having to repeat directions 2 or 3 or more times, the child is learning to ignore your first command. He knows, “Mom doesn’t mean it this time. She always says it a few times before getting really mad.”

Ironic, isn’t it? We parents give mixed signals to our children about what we expect of them, and then we they don’t meet our expectations, we get frustrated. We cause our own angst!

Obedience is more than doing what one is told. A better principle that we need to train our children in is submitting to authority. Obedience is a physical and mental issue – hear what is said and do it. Submitting is a heart-issue. You can make your child obey, without reaching his heart. But God is concerned about the heart.

A Language for Heart-Level Obedience
Here is some language that I’ve (ahem) “borrowed” from other books and resources, that have helped us remember how to train our children in what true submission looks like. To obey at the heart-level, a child must obey . . .
  1. Quickly, Immediately, and Happily
  2. All the Way, Right Away, and With a Happy Heart
Pick which language you want (or any variation that works for you), and go with it. If your child violates any of these three principles (like by taking his time, or by stomping away grumpily), there must be consequences, for the purpose of training him in righteousness.

So, in the case of our toddler in question, if he has received a clear command that he is capable of obeying, and since he did not obey immediately, then he is acting in defiance against you. According to biblical wisdom (such as found in the book of Proverbs), he is not being childish, but foolish. This foolishness and rebellion of the heart must be addressed.

What do you think? What advice would you give this mom?

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image courtesy of hoyasmeg via flickr


  1. Well said. I agree completely! Thanks for posting.

  2. It's important for kids to learn to obey, but it's also important as parents to not to expaserate our children (Eph 6:4). How would you feel if someone asked you to drop what you're doing midway through an activity? So one thing I've learned is to give time frames, especially if they're immersed in an activity. "Johnny, we're going to leave in five minutes. In three minutes I'm going to ask you to put away your trucks and put on your coat." Then follow through with that. Maybe it's because my children are older (9,7, and 3), but everyone needs transition time.

  3. Ann -- that's a great point, and I appreciate you bringing it up. As much as possible, we try to give a "two-minute warning" (or, 5-minute, or whatever). Transition time does make it easier and is a show of respect.

    But even if we don't give them a transition time, they need to respond immediately. There are situations when there cannot be a transition, and our kids need to trust in our authority in those situations.

  4. Obedience must be taught to a child as soon as they learn to understand. But not all children that respond slowly are disobedient but one thing is for sure, there is something wrong. If you can’t make your child obey you easily then let other people do it for you, those people I refer are those people engaged helping troubled teens and kids.