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How to Teach Your Child Obedience (without Raising a Legalist)

  • Christina Patterson
How to Teach Your Child Obedience (without Raising a Legalist)

Becoming a parent has been the most satisfying and challenging gifts I’ve ever received. By far, one of the most challenging aspects of parenting is teaching my children obedience. It really is a balancing act of making sure I’m correcting them in a way to “train them up in the way that they should go” (Proverbs 22:6) while “not provoking them to anger” (Ephesians 6:4).

God commands children to obey their parents, so as a parent it is my job to help my children obey God by obeying me. Not in a selfish or self-serving way, but with a heart to honor God in all our relationships, especially the parent-child relationship.

As we are the ones teaching our children about God, we especially need to ensure that as we teach them obedience it does not get confused with legalism. I have too many friends that grew up in households that were so focused only on behavior modification that they grew up thinking God only wanted good works from them.

This thinking makes it incredibly difficult for children to understand and accept the Gospel message that says our salvation is by grace through faith and not our works.

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

As we teach obedience we can’t avoid talking about the actual acts we expect of our children, nor should we, but there are certain things we can do as parents to teach obedience without it leading to legalism or the belief that they can earn salvation and acceptance from God by being “good” or performing. Here are seven ways we can do just that.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Xavier Mouton

1. Do Not Discipline Without Communication

1. Do Not Discipline Without Communication

It is so important to talk to your child about why they are being disciplined if they have not been obedient. This lets your child clearly know what your expectations are and why they are so important. If they run across the street without looking both ways, it’s important to express the dangers of cars. Don’t expect your child to know what is expected of them automatically.

It is our job as parents to make this clear through healthy communication. This does not mean they will always do what’s right, but it will help them understand we want more from them than behavior or good works. This helps our children to learn that we hold the expectations we have because we love them and want the best for them.

Communication also includes being honest about your past with your kids. Let them know about your mistakes, its consequences, and why you don’t want them to go down the same path. If you did something right, share that too with its positive consequences.

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2. Lead by Example

2. Lead by Example

The next way we can teach obedience without legalism is to lead by example. If you don’t want your children to scream when they are mad, this is a behavior you should model. We are not perfect parents and won’t always get it right, but showing an effort to practice what we preach has significant positive impacts on our children. Show that you don’t expect certain behaviors from your children for no reason, but it is something that you practice yourself because you value it.

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3. Point Out Positive Behaviors

3. Point Out Positive Behaviors

To avoid legalistic parenting, it is essential to point out both positive and negative behaviors, not only one or the other. When people think of strict legalistic teaching, it always has to do with what you can’t do: “don’t do this,” “don’t do that,” “don’t say this,” “don’t go there.”

Unfortunately, as we lead children to obedience, our parenting can sound very similar, always telling them what not to do or pointing out what they are doing wrong. Therefore, it’s imperative to take time to notice when your child is doing something good and make every effort to point it out just as much as you would if they do something wrong.

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"If we only point out their failures, this will lead to discouragement..."

"If we only point out their failures, this will lead to discouragement..."

If we only point out their failures, this will lead to discouragement and an unhealthy focus on behavior modification without true heart transformation.

 

4. Discipline in Truth and Love

When correcting a child, there should be a healthy balance between love and truth. The truth is pointing out the incorrect behavior and making a plan to correct it. Love is showing forgiveness, grace, and understanding. Both are important. Parenting with truth and love teaches the truth and love God reveals to us.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Xavier Mouton

5. Remind Your Children Your Love Can’t be Earned

5. Remind Your Children Your Love Can’t be Earned

We cannot earn God’s love, and we should make every effort to demonstrate this truth in our parenting. I’ve learned that there is no better time to teach this lesson than when my child misbehaves.

As I correct them, I use it as an opportunity to show them that no matter what they do, I will always love them. I will correct and discipline them, but my love is never something I will take away from them or not show to them to get them to correct their behavior. This does not make me a doormat to be walked over because I will stand firm in my correction and allow them to face any necessary consequences, but I will always make it a point to let them know that I love them no matter what.

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"I wanted her to know my love for her was not dependent on her behavior..."

"I wanted her to know my love for her was not dependent on her behavior..."

When my daughter was small, I always said to her “I love you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I wanted her to know my love for her was not dependent on her behavior, a truth I hope will help her to also realize God’s unconditional love for her. It’s so important to me that my children understand that there is nothing they can do (or not do) that will make God love them any more or any less. He has already decided to love us before we were even born, knowing every mistake we would make, and He chose to love us anyway. I want to demonstrate this love through my parenting.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Eye for Ebony

6. Share the Gospel with Your Children

6. Share the Gospel with Your Children

The best defense against legalistic parenting is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No matter how young our children are, we need to be sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with them. We need to teach them that God loves them because He is love, not because of anything we do. Of course, we can demonstrate this through parenting as we’ve just discussed in the previous points but showing them with the truth of the Gospel message is even more important. Many children see church and Christianity as a list of rules. As parents, it is our job to ensure that they understand our faith is not founded in what we do, but who God is and what Christ has already done for us on the cross.

The Gospel enables us to be obedient not because we feel like we have to but because we want to out of a genuine understanding of God’s sacrificial and unconditional love towards us. The more we teach our kids about God’s love through the Gospel, the less chance they will have of stumbling over legalism.

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7. Pray for Your Children

7. Pray for Your Children

Legalistic-free parenting is rooted in prayer. Legalism is an attack from the enemy to hinder our relationships with God. Though we can practice all the tips above to teach obedience, the enemy may still tempt our children with legalism. The enemy doesn’t care if your children have good behavior as long as they don’t know Christ. Our focus as parents can’t only be good behavior. It should be children with hearts that love God.

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"Pray for the Lord to show you how to parent..."

"Pray for the Lord to show you how to parent..."

Although we cannot change our children’s hearts, we do have significant power in prayer. Pray for the Lord to show you how to parent, correct, and effectively communicate. Ask the Holy Spirit for specific ways for you to lead your children in the way they should go. Ask the Lord for opportunities to share the Gospel with your children, both in verbal and non-verbal ways. The Bible tells us:

“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” James 5:16 ESV

I pray these tips guide your parenting to be filled with truth and love that leads to children who sincerely love the Lord, not out of obligation, but from a true understanding of His love toward them.

Christina Patterson is a wife and stay-at-home mom with a passion to encourage women in the love of Jesus Christ and the truth of God’s Word. When she is not folding laundry or playing blocks you will find her with her head deep in her Bible or a commentary. She holds her masters in Theology from Liberty University and is the founder of Beloved Women, a non-profit providing resources and community for women to truly know who they are in Christ: His Beloved. She blogs at belovedwomen.org.

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