The key to being a successful parent (and why raising an obedient child isn’t the most important thing)

On that November morning when my husband and I set out in the car to collect our three month old adoptive son from his temporary foster home, I had no idea what a profound journey of heartache and joy lay before us.

I was quite sure that parenting would come naturally to me and that we would easily overcome any difficulties our baby boy may have suffered before coming to our home. Besides, I thought to myself, how much could he have really been affected by events in his life? He was only a tiny baby!

I’ve learnt a lot over the years. And while I still think I was a good parent right from that first November morning, I know that I’m a much better parent now.

One conclusion I’ve come to along the way is that Christians sometimes overplay the importance of obedience in a child.

We’ve all heard the teaching. Children must learn to obey their parents. Otherwise they won’t know how to obey God. And the advice I find more concerning. The best way to teach a child obedience is through physical discipline. Spare a child the rod and you spoil the child.

Let’s be clear. I agree wholeheartedly with parental authority, appropriate boundaries and carefully considered discipline for a child. In order for children to feel safe, they need to know that they have a strong and responsible parent who is not afraid to say “no” to them.

I agree with all those who lament the breakdown of authority in today’s world. And I have deep concerns about a society that sees teenage rebellion expressed in risky and damaging behaviours as a normal and healthy rite of passage.

But when I take time out to evaluate my success as a parent, as I often do, my benchmark is not how obedient my children are.

Behaviour is the most basic way young children express their inner worlds. When they feel safe, they explore and make connections. When they feel angry, they may be aggressive or destructive. When they’re scared, they may withdraw or become clingy.

We saw particularly intense behaviours from our son in his early years because he had a language delay and couldn’t express himself in words.

When he was aggressive or destructive, my natural instinct was to get angry and want to punish him. But I quickly learnt that this didn’t help. In fact, the times our son’s behaviour was the most challenging were exactly the times he most needed love and reassurance. Inside his “disobedient behavior” was a scared little boy who felt out of control and needed someone to help him feel safe again.

I have come to realize that one of my most important roles as a parent is to come alongside my children, to try to understand the world from their point of view (which often isn’t at all obvious) and help them process and make sense of it all.

Sometimes I think of it like putting together two opposite sides of a magnet. Children naturally reach out for connection and have a God-given need for deep, intimate, secure attachments. But occasionally things get in the way that make it difficult for them to connect. Illness, trauma, everyday hurts and fears. Once the magnet gets buried beneath too many layers of debris, even if you hold the opposite magnet close by, you can’t feel the pull.

One of the most fundamental responsibilities of a parent is to carefully and gently clear away the rubble preventing a child from bonding, without hurting the child himself, and help him to reconnect.

When my son feels safe, connected and understood, it follows naturally that he can regulate his feelings and control his behaviour better. Obedience is the fruit of a secure, trusting relationship between a parent and a child.

When a child is disobedient, the last thing we want to do is to isolate him under a heap of shame and punishment. We need to ask ourselves what inner storm he may be battling, and how we can connect with him just as he is, where he is.

When you think about it, this is exactly how our Heavenly Father reaches out to us. He doesn’t look first at our behaviour, but rather at our hearts. God knows that we cannot hope to change our actions or let go of powerful addictions and destructive habits until we feel secure in His love. More than anything in the world, our Father wants to build a heart-to-heart connection with us, just as we are, where we are. He knows better than anyone that obedience can only possibly flow from a secure, healed and transformed heart.

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