Teaching our children obedience is one of the most explicit parenting instructions in the Bible. Paul in both Ephesians 6:1 and Colossians 3:20 commands children to obey their parents.

This same command from God is also embedded in the 10 commandments, stamped with God’s name and incorporating a promise.The reason for its emphasis is fairly obvious — how can a child ever grow up to obey a God they can’t see, if they do not first learn to obey a parent they can see?

Following this line of thinking further, parents are purposely put in a position where they establish the reality of God to a young child. A child’s first understanding of their heavenly Father will be shaped by how they view the authority and love of their natural parents.

Faithful parents have a unique privilege — to make God real to their children. In a sense we are like God to a very small child — think of it from their perspective; we have all the responsibility and care for them like God does. Furthermore, we make the rules about what is applicable in our house and we tell them that God is pleased when they obey — and they see we are also pleased by their obedience. We tell them God loves truth and hates lies, and they see we also love it when they tell the truth. As parents we tell them God loves and cares for them, and they see we love and care for them too. We tell them God’s Word is in the Bible. They cannot even read it, so we say phrases out loud for them to repeat when reading the Bible together. We emphasise to them it is God’s Word, but they are hearing it as our words they are repeating. We make God real to our children and by obeying us, they learn to obey God.

Obedience is not a natural part of our makeup. It has to be taught — and no one finds it easy to learn.

As adults, we still struggle with obedience to God’s commands, but we have a God-given opportunity that we can teach our children obedience early in their life and in so doing provide a natural transition to obeying God as they grow older and more mature.

A challenging thing to think about is that even the Lord Jesus Christ had to learn obedience. Our Lord was never disobedient, but because of human nature, obedience does not come naturally and so he “learned obedience through the things he suffered” (Heb 5:8 NET). God, as a Father, taught His only beloved Son and expects us, as godly parents, to teach obedience to our children — as well as be obedient children ourselves and be holy like Him (1 Pet 1:14-15).

The fact that obedience to a parent is linked with the promise of life in the 10 commandments has always stayed with me, once I learned the very serious lesson that obedience can be a matter of life and death to a young child. The horror of a child running toward the road and ignoring the command to stop is a heart-stopping moment. The sombre reflection later, when an incident is averted, is the realisation that the fault is not that of the child, but the parents, who are entirely responsible for not teaching obedience to their commands.

If Christ struggled to learn obedience — and remember he struggled until his sweat ran like blood — our children will naturally struggle too. However, there are some simple things we can do to help our children learn to be obedient.

Sometimes we can fall into the trap of wanting to sound like nice people in our own ears and so will sometimes ask for compliance when we really mean to command. We might say, “Would you like to pick up your toys now please?” This approach sounds very polite, but really the answer to that question could be, “No”, and we would have no right to get angry at such a legitimate answer.

If we want to help our children we are welcome to give options on occasions, but we should be clear when we are giving a command that requires obedience and carries consequences.

A key thing to help children learn is to have a set way of asking for obedience, so that the child understands that this is one of those times when obedience is being asked for instead of options being offered. Also included in this set way of asking is a requirement for the child to respond in such a way that they hear themselves take responsibility for carrying out the command.

Here is a recommended way to give instruction:

  1. Call the child and establish eye contact.
  2. Maintain eye contact and give clear instructions in one or two sentences.
  3. Expect a ‘Yes Mummy’ or ‘Yes Daddy’ verbal response.
  4. Encourage or hug them when the command is carried out.

This simple formula particularly helps young children learn and realise that they are being called to obedience. The eye contact and their verbal acknowledgement means that there are no excuses possible about not hearing your instruction.

The other positive effect of this instructional routine is that when children hear themselves acknowledging the command, they have a greater tendency to follow through with the instruction because they have said they would. Sometimes you see a visible struggle via their body language in not wanting to say ‘Yes, Mummy’ to the command, but once they make the acknowledgement, often it is like the struggle has been won in their mind as they have now agreed to comply and so then carry out the instructions with no further hesitation.

In this way we can often tangibly see that we are helping our children to learn to submit to the commands of a higher authority over their own wishes.

Another practical point to note, is that delayed obedience is disobedience — don’t fall into the trap of giving a one-two-three, or cajoling or bribing our children into obeying us.

A far better way to gain compliance without compromising on the principle of obedience, but being seen by our children as helpful and fair and just, is to perhaps give them a five minute warning where possible. For example, if our children are involved in a game at a friend’s place and we wish to leave, or they are playing in the backyard and we want them to come in for dinner immediately, we need to allow a satisfying way for all their investment and involvement in the game to dissipate. If we provide a five minute warning, they have opportunity to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion, with everyone knowing this is the last round, perhaps with more points or penalties, and then they will be prepared to comply.

Obedience is a difficult lesson to learn, and if we are characterised by the effort of making obedience attractive to our children by giving a warning of when we need compliance to leave the park or beach ahead of time, then on those occasions when for some reason we were unable to provide a warning but require instant obedience anyway, then our child is more likely to give it to us as they will see us as a fair and reasonable parent who tries to help them as much as possible.

Let us as parents take the responsibility of teaching obedience seriously, but we must do so in such a way that our children are drawn towards the concept of a loving and caring heavenly Father by the role that we play in representing Him to our children, demonstrating His character and making it easy for them to obey His Word because they have grown up obeying us.