Teach them to obey

One of the very best life lessons I’ve ever learned occurred when James was just becoming a toddler. We were at my mother’s farm when James took off running across the yard.  Being concerned for his safety, I instinctively ran after him as I had seen a hundred other mothers do, calling out, “Stop!”  To my surprise, however, Jack said to me, “Don’t chase after him. Make him come to you.”

These are probably the most challenging words Jack has ever spoken to me. I was stumped. How could I possibly make this new toddler come to me? I have since learned, however, that not only can I do it, but that I must.

Little did I understand it then, but my urge to chase James was counterproductive to the very obedience I was trying to instill in him–as well as constituting a threat to the safety I so deeply wished for him.  In his mind, he had initiated a fun game with Mommy and the merriment of the moment far overpowered his young habits in obedience.  He interpreted my chasing as mere playing along–following his lead.  It is no wonder that the spectacle of my chasing completely erased any sobering effect that the command “Stop!” might ordinarily have had on him.  As Jack would point out later, even things like the plaintiff tone I had used (pleading rather than commanding) and the repetition of the directive are all signals to the child that “Stop!” doesn’t really mean “Stop!”—or, at least, it doesn’t mean it yet!

James’ running that day just happened to be in a safe direction, but had he ventured toward the road where cars come speeding past, I’d have been powerless (because of the mixed signals I was sending) to modify his behavior, or even to communicate the danger to him.  It would soon become clear that the very best habit of interaction that I could instill between James and me is that of instant obedience to my commands.

Laura Ingalls Wilder aptly illustrated the blessings (to parent and child alike) of trained instant obedience in an episode from Little House in the Big Woods that involved Ma, Laura, and a bear. After Ma and Laura had retreated safely to the house from a dangerous run-in with a bear, Ma said:

He didn’t hurt us. You were a good girl, Laura, to do exactly as I told you, and to do it quickly, without asking why.

You see, Laura and Ma, lantern in hand, had mistakenly assumed that the large, shadowy figure that was blocking their gate was their cow Sukey. Ma realized first that it was a bear, and not wanting Laura to entice the bear to a chase by running and screaming, she told her to turn and walk toward the house.  Laura obeyed.

Laura’s obedience on this occasion, however, was no stroke of luck; it was the result of deliberate and continual training in obedience.  Ma and Pa Ingalls certainly reaped the rewards that day of having made the consistent effort to train their girls. Can you imagine Ma’s sense of relief in the aftermath of this episode?  What a great affirmation this must have been as to their paradigms of good parenting!

Charlotte Mason mentions in Parents and Children a mother who claimed, “I always finish teaching my children obedience before they are one year old.” And Miss Mason added, “Why not? Obedience in the first year, and all the virtues of the good life as the years go on…”

Consistency, I have learned— even for the smallest child—is a key to training obedience. Never give in and never give up. And good habits, as Charlotte Mason said, are the best schoolmaster.

Every habit of courtesy, consideration, order, neatness, punctuality, truthfulness, is itself a schoolmaster, and orders life with the most unfailing diligence.

Jack, who taught James that “the better you obey, the more I’ll allow you to do,”  likes to tell this story to illustrate the wisdom and benefits of immediate, unquestioning obedience.  As he recalls the story, it was about a World War II Navy captain whose ship was towing a disabled ship using a huge steel cable.  From his vantage point above the deck, the captain could watch both the ship under tow and the sailors hard at work with various tasks on his own deck.  Upon noticing that the towing cable was beginning to unravel under the great stress of the load, the captain shouted “Everybody down!”  The entire crew on the deck immediately dropped face down on hearing his command.  Immediately afterward, the cable snapped and cut like a whip just a couple of feet above the ship’s deck—just above the prone sailors.

There had been no time for explanations or for cajoling.  Nor had there had been any of the plaintiff bargaining that so many parents employ today when they unwittingly seek their children’s approval for each command:  “Time to get down now, Oh-KAAAAY?”  To seek the child’s approval in this way is to communicate that he is free to choose whether and when to obey. To give such latitude to a child is nothing short of cruelty, for he cannot help but to wield it foolishly.  He must first learn to obey, and only later, to judge for himself.  Because the captain had the crew so well trained as to obey without delay, he saved many lives that day when nothing short of immediate obedience would do.

Looking back on that day in Grandma’s yard, perhaps it would have seemed an unlikely time and place to learn a major life lesson, but that was the day when I adopted a new paradigm that would prove over and over to save our family from the strife and dangers we see so many others suffering. From time to time, we all come to a fork in the road in our journey as parents.  It thrills me now, years later, to have affirmed over and over the benefits of the new road I took that day.  As the poet might say, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

This entry was posted in Character, Parenting, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Teach them to obey

  1. Yes! James has a smart mom and pop, that’s for sure. I remember coming home from playgroups when my kids were little and asking my husband if I were too strict. I felt like I was the only mom in the city who didn’t chase the kids around the playground when it was time to go, begging and bribing them to cooperate. My husband, like yours, encouraged me in instilling obedience and I’m really glad I had his voice of encouragement.

    I love the story you write about Laura and Ma. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books have been one of the biggest influences on my life. I had forgotten about the episode with the bear ( I had to ask my kids to remind me!).

    You have a very good looking family!

  2. Kay Pelham says:

    I’m very grateful for my common sense husband. Becoming a father relatively late in life, Jack had many years to observe and grow in wisdom. He is a very solid, no-nonsense kind of guy; whereas his wife, though she had even more years to observe and learn, is more prone to fears and doubts. When I began reading CM I was amazed how much she sounded like Jack. I told him, “you’re gonna love this woman.”

    It tortures me now to see other parents giving in to their children. To hear them say 10 times “it’s time to go” “we’re going now” “ready to go?” and the horrible “I’m leaving you.” What? Who’s in charge here? And they convince themselves that they’re doing the child a favor when all the time it is they and their fears that are allowing the situation to happen. The parent is doing it for himself.

    Two of my biggest steps forward in this effort were changing my tone and cutting out saying, “Why don’t you…” I wasn’t really asking a question — I meant to be giving an order, but my son is very literal and what he heard was that he had a choice. I think the “Why don’t you…” was a subconscious effort to soften the command. Sort of a “Doesn’t her hair look atrocious today, bless her little heart.” 🙂

  3. Megan says:

    Thanks for the reminder and encouragement! Nathan is two now, and he decided to start his Terrible just last week. Ben and I are having to remember just how we dealt with the girls’ Terribles. Some of the battles are pretty funny. It’s cute to see his confusion when he realizes we’re not going to give in, no matter what shade of purple he turns. We’ve found that each kid has a different way of learning that Mom and Dad are the Supreme Power in the house, but every kid has to if a couple weeks of Terrible isn’t going to turn into a couple decades of it.

  4. Kay Pelham says:

    One of the excellent qualities that you instill in your child if you decide to tackle those “Terrible Twos” is the virtue of self-control. Yes, the “Terrible Twos” is a real thing — and may manifest itself differently in every child, but it kills me when people stand by and just excuse a child’s outrageous behavior and account it to the TTs and do nothing to help the child overcome and learn a very, very valuable lesson in self-management that will last a lifetime.

    I wish I had had a chance to go through a TT again. I learned so much with James. I wanted a go at it again. But it didn’t work out that way for us. I’ll bet you could tell lots of stories about days with your girls. Best wishes on your adventure with Nathan 🙂

  5. Pingback: Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival: Education Is a Discipline, Vol. 1 – Simply Charlotte Mason

  6. Jamie says:

    Love your examples here. I’d love to have a do-over on some parts of parenting my own, but it’s really never too late. Harder, but never too late. 🙂

  7. Carletta says:

    Our youngest is 15 months and is really trying to figure out if mom means what she says or not. Thank you for the reminder that he can learn to follow my lead at this young age, and it is an especially important lesson!

  8. Karen says:

    How did you get him to come to you? I still haven’t figured that one out.

  9. Ouch!!! A lesson I am in dire need of. We just finished Little House in the Big Woods. Would my children have listened to Ma? Probably not. Sigh. Still so much work to be done.

  10. Kay Pelham says:

    I was learning a lot as James was a toddler, but it was mostly my husband that made it happen. I wish I could have a chance to show what I learned with another one, but that didn’t work out for us. You’re right that it’s never too late. And the time to do it is right now. Since writing this post and reading other blogs that addressed the issue of obedience and discipline, I’ve seen how James and I have back-slid some in this area. I’m glad to have the wake-up call.

  11. Kay Pelham says:


    It is an important lesson. I think our tone says a lot and the tiniest little one can pick up on tone. I lacked so much confidence that I had authority over my child. Ridiculous, but true. Changing my tone and being careful about the words I use helps to change me inside, I think. Does mom mean what she says? If you only tell them once and then follow up the lack of compliance with whatever form of discipline your family uses, then they hopefully will learn that, Yes, mom does mean what she says. But if you repeat the “order,” then they will learn something else. We should never let words come out of our mouth unless we intend to have our mind engaged to see that the “order” is obeyed. What a waste of time if we don’t!

  12. Kay Pelham says:


    I asked Jack and we can’t remember on that particular day if it was my words or Dad’s words that made James come back. I learned the lesson that day, but it took a while for it really to become me. One reason that I was ineffective out on the open field that day with him was because I had not been practicing this at home. I believe that it’s worth it to intentionally practice this in the home. Give your child an order and if they don’t respond accordingly, use the discipline which your family has decided on so that they see you mean every word that you say. And you’d better mean every word that you say. It’s good training for us to not let idle words come out; to always have our mind in gear. It’s mentally and emotionally hard work to train your child to obey (some kids are more trying than others), but it is so worth it in the end — but you don’t even have to wait to “the end” to see the good results.

    Mostly, I had to change.

  13. Kay Pelham says:


    Six, right? Bless you 🙂


  14. Oh, how I am glad to find this post. We have issues that we are having to deal with in our home at the present moment & sometimes I slack. Thanks for the reminder to stay firm.

  15. Kay Pelham says:

    It really is the key to it, isn’t it? To stay firm. It has been good to think through all this again and see where we’ve been slacking — and to do something about it!

    Thanks for stopping by, Traci.

Comments are closed.