3 Ways to Help Kids Connect Obedience with Joy

Obey? What does that mean?” The boy I was tutoring stared at me in confusion.

I had just been telling him that he should do his homework to obey his dad—until I realized I was using a foreign word. I was stumped. How had this boy gone seven years without hearing the word “obey”?

It actually made sense. Many non-Christian homes, including his, omit this word from their vocabulary. They might even shun it altogether. Obedience has baggage, after all. It’s linked to rules, to consequences, and—worst of all—to authority.

The word “obey” is out of place in our don’t-tell-me-what-to-do society.

But Christians should have a different reaction to the word. For us, obedience means blessing, not baggage. And the ultimate authority who was our Judge is now our Savior.

For Christians, obedience means blessing, not baggage.

Obedience draws us into all the blessings of being part of God’s covenant family. But obedience goes against our sin nature, so we have to teach our kids how to find joy in it.

Here are three ways to help your kids connect obedience with joy.

1. Tell Them Why

“Because I said so” is reason enough to obey God. Yet in Fatherly love he lets us in on his big-picture plan for obedience. In his Word he shows us why we should obey. And he tells us to do the same for our kids.

When the Israelite children asked their parents, “What are these stones for?” God told the parents to explain all he’d done for them in the wilderness (Josh. 4). Obedience and teaching must go hand in hand.

This doesn’t mean obedience is subject to negotiation. “Obey first, questions later,” we rightly tell our kids. They must obey whether they understand or not. But it’s our job to help build that understanding, imitating the beautiful covenant love that God has for his people.

I think about times when I’ve disobeyed God and he’s lovingly revealed how obedience is for my protection. Kids will naturally see obedience as a killjoy unless we highlight the benefits. When we build understanding, we build trust. And trust renders obedience a joy.

2. Speak Carefully

When was the last time your child come up to you and said, “Mommy, could you please lecture me again? I love it!”

Not recently, I assume. Too many words can burden our kids.

I once had a friend tell me she tries to give instructions in five words or less. Her purpose was twofold: to teach her kids to listen well the first time, and to prevent herself from lecturing or venting.

I like to take my “five-words-or-less” and physically put them into my boys’ hands. I hold my hand closed, look my 4-year-old in the eye, and say, “I’m going to give you your special job for the day. Are you ready?” His eyes sparkle, he holds out his hand, and I say, “Be quick to listen.”

I open my hand into his and close his hand around the imaginary word bundle. He giggles and holds his fist closed. I ask what’s in his hand, and he repeats it back to me. We take a minute to talk about what the phrase means.

Throughout the day, as I work on that specific skill with him, I ask what’s in his hand, and he remembers. If my words are a gift, obedience is a joy.

3. Listen Well

One of my sons’ frustration over obedience was reduced when he became old enough to talk. Suddenly, when he spoke, he had the ability to be heard and understood.

Sometimes kids don’t use words correctly. They fuss, complain, and vent. But rather than shutting them down, we say, “That was not a respectful way to ask. Please try again in a respectful voice.”

Kids must be shown how to use words. But it’s only worth it for them if they know someone is ready to listen. When they make an effort to use their words, we must ensure they’re met with attentive listening.

When our children make an effort to use their words, we must ensure they’re met with attentive listening.

Think about the gracious way God deals with us. Psalm 62:8 says, “Pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.” When our kids pour out their hearts to us, do we listen? Do they see us as a refuge? The joy of obedience comes from feeling known. When we listen to our kids, we represent the God who listens to and knows us. Obedience flows from the joy of that deep, secure relationship.

When we speak carefully and listen well, we help our kids connect the dots between obedience and joy. We show them obedience is not about rules for rules’ sake; it’s about relationship. And as we forge that relationship with them in the context of joy and discipline, we pave the way for their relationship to God.

Editors’ note: 

This article is adapted from Sara Wallace’s new book, For the Love of Discipline: When the Gospel Meets Tantrums and Time-Outs (P&R, 2018).

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