Controlling Chaos vs. Obedience Training for Young Children

10 05 2009

I love training my children.  There are few things more exhilarating than watching a self-centered, flesh-dominated, God-hating, sin-loving little hellion steadily transform into a soft-hearted, God-loving, others-serving contributing member of the family.  I often joke when holding a new baby in our family that I can’t wait until they get to be about 9 months old where I can begin to discipline them.  As much as I enjoy cute cuddly babies (as anyone who is friends with me in facebook can attest) I enjoy even more the process of training young children.

But I’ve noticed more and more lately that my passion is not shared by many around me.  This has confused me for a long time but I think I’m just now beginning to see possibly why.  Most parents actually don’t train their children and Christian parents seem no exception, but almost all parents still discipline their children.  When I would see a parent discipline their child I assumed it was for the purpose of training, but as I’ve observed more and more families over time, I’ve discovered that their discipline is not really training. It’s for the purpose of controlling chaos.  The two couldn’t be any more different.

Here’s an example.  You’re at a public place with your kids and a couple of friends and their kids and you begin to realize your child is being too rowdy, loud and disruptive.  You call to your son Johnny as he walks by saying, “Johnny, come here, I want to talk to you.”  But he’s having too much fun so he ignores you pretending to not hear.  “Johnny,” you call more loudly this time.  He ignores you again.  Now you’re realizing you’re causing as much noise as he ever did and he’s quieting down so you go back to your conversation.

I’ve seen this scenario so many times and it has often puzzled me.  My thought hasn’t been judging the parent but seriously curious as to why they were willing to let that perfect training opportunity pass them by.  I treasure the rare moments when my children deliberately defy me or my wife because they provide the perfect moment to reinforce the child’s need to obey his or her parents.  But, in the above scenario, I’ve watched parents ignore sometimes 10 opportunities in a 30 minute conversation.  What is going on here?

This is my hypothesis.  These parents aren’t trying to train their children to obey, they are trying to control chaos.  Their discipline is based on the amount of chaos they can handle at a given time.  Deliberate disobedience is far less of a concern.  Therefore the child learns to monitor their parent’s mood and the situation closely knowing that the things they can get away with are not dependent so much on them and their behavior as on their parents and the environment.  This is a disaster for kids.  It makes the parents patience and tolerance the real trigger for discipline instead of the child’s behavior.  It trains kids less how to obey and more how to manipulate a situation.  This leads the child to routinely push his or her parents to the edge since they have been systematically trained to find that edge of tolerance and keep their parents there continuously.  How exhausting for the parents.  How destructive for the children.  And when they see an obedient child their reaction is, “I wish my child had that temperament”.  So they blame their child when they have spent years training their children to behave in this manner.  There’s a much better, easier way.

Parents need to intentionally train their children to obey.  This is a very simple process.  All you need is to 1) believe two passages, 2) have three disciplining tools and 3) to embrace one management style.

Here are the two passages –

1. Proverbs 19:18 – “Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death.”

2. Ephesians 6:1-4 – “1Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2″Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— 3″that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” 4Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

The three discipline tools vary greatly from child to child but for each child there needs to be tools at at least three levels of intensity.

1) Intensity Level 1 – A tool when you are trying to train a child in a new behavior (i.e. to remember to clear their plate). We typically use only positive reinforcement here.  We give our kids a marble (= $.50) to reinforce each time they do something new we’re training them in.  When they get 30-40 marbles we head to a toy store to buy let them get something special.

2) Intensity Level 2 – A tool that represents when they are reverting in a behavior they’ve already been trained to do.  This, in our family, is usually simply taking away a marble.

3) Intensity Level 3 – This is a training reaction when they are doing something dangerous like run out in a busy street, hitting another child or …. deliberately disobeying their parents.  Yes, disobedience belongs in this category of intensity (if you don’t believe me read above verses).

“But I would be doing level 3 intensity constantly.”  With some kids it can last a couple of years, others a couple of months (and they all occasionally slip) but it will be worth every bit of energy to 100% of the time react to disobedience with the highest level of discipline you believe is healthy for your child.

But if you are going to discipline in this way you need to, as soon as possible, macro manage your children and not micro manage them (Ephesians 6:4).  What this simply means is you can’t create 1000 obedience/disobedience scenarios for your children daily.  The older they get you need to give them more and more freedom and not dominate them but understand the goal is for them to grow up and wisely make decisions on their own allowing for feedback and discussion to disarm the disobedience bomb from going off when it doesn’t need to.  But they have also learned to respect and obey their parents and have learned they can control their will to do the right thing in almost any circumstance.  That is the ideal state in which to begin to train a child how to walk in the Spirit and in obedience to their heavenly Father.

No one is hurt more by controlling chaos parenting than the children.  It is selfish of parents to make their own needs the basis for when and how their child is trained.  Please consider giving your children the gift of obedience training.



22 responses

10 05 2009

Hey Jeremy,

Thank you for this. I’m going to put those verses on my wall to remind me. Ben seems to get this, but I forget all the time. My knee-jerk reaction is to control chaos (that I hate) and not to TRAIN the child in those moments. I’m not looking at the future, I’m just worried about the moment. I really hope I can start getting trained in this so I can start training my children.

your sis

10 05 2009

jp – that’s awesome. way to turn a confusing, complicated, endless debate into three easy to read paragraphs. I love your phrase “perfect training opportunity.” I think I’ve used that phrase numerous time but have never had an entire parenting worldview that is based upon it. reading this is good motivation to re-vamp.

10 05 2009
Mike Edwards

Brilliant and biblical.

Or..brilliant because it’s biblical?

Anyway…Sherry and I have also found this material of recent happenings helpful:

The best book I’ve ever read on parenting is “Raising your Child and not your Voice”

It was by one of my brother’s college profs.

11 05 2009

can you do a training for every parent in america so teaching doesn’t suck so bad?

15 08 2009

excellent suggestion rhett. I was thinking the same thing!

12 05 2009
Renee Wood

I definitely fall into the habit of controlling chaos. So much so, that I’m wondering exactly what the “training” response would have looked like in your example. I get the marble suggestion, but can you walk me through how you would word the interaction?

12 05 2009

Thanks Jeremy,

This reminds of the verse in Proverbs:

My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.

The emphasis here being on love. That’s ground breaking.
When you discipline with the intent to ‘train’ you are actually loving your son.

Thanks for the insight.


12 05 2009

I think the biggest thing keeping me from training my kids instead of controlling chaos it my selfishness/laziness. I realized this and am trying to head it off with a similar (though very much more structured… because I like it) rewards system and I can’t believe the difference. Lavinia doesn’t care so much about toys, but the ability to earn a trip to the zoo or the park is worth everything to her. I haven’t given her any time-outs since then. I’ve also had more energy to reward her for good behavior and never let disobedience slide.

13 05 2009

Hi Renee,

Since my example included direct disobedience I would say “100% of the time react to disobedience with the highest level of discipline you believe is healthy for your child.”

This varies greatly at different ages, but I find the best way to find the correct intensity level, is with the example I gave regarding what you would do if your child constantly was running out into a busy street. Most parents would not ignore this even if the child eventually ran back to the front yard. I imagine you would stop and work hard to impress on the child how destructive that behavior is. I hesitate to get into actual discipline methods because they vary so deeply from child to child, situation to situation, and age to age. The only thing I’d say is the child should “break” under the discipline. If they don’t take it seriously you just taught them they can get away with it (the opposite of what you’re trying to teach). This is far easier to do when the child is young and gets harder and eventually impossible as they get older.

As a side note I think the majority of the “breaking” style discipline should be done by the father whenever possible (especially when training young boys).

14 05 2009

Sounds great! Can’t wait to implement this. 6 more weeks…

11 06 2009
Kiwi and an Emu.

[…] Jeremy over at From Eden to Zion has a very worthwhile post for parents called, Controlling Chaos vs. Obedience Training for Young Children. […]

29 07 2009


You mentioned 9 months as a time to start disciplining. My kids turn 9 months soon – how do you start disciplining them at such a young age?


2 09 2009

Though I know Matt’s comment was made way back in July, I figured he may jump back on and read this . . . so, here is my input on disciplining at such a young age.

I have a 15 month daughter and we’ve disciplined her from probably even before 9 months. At this early age our training has mostly looked like the way I would train a dog. We try to react quickly so the consequence comes as a direct result of the action she did. This way she begins to connect what things get good responses and what things get negative responses. We then (after she stops crying from being flicked by my unbelievably awesome middle right finger!) try to communicate why she was disciplined, which in and of itself takes discipline because for the first few months she probably has no idea what we’re saying. But, she now knows things she should not be doing. You can see that when she does them, she’ll look around to see if we’re watching and at that point 80% of the time all we have to do is say no and she stops.

8 09 2009
Drew in Tacoma

This was very helpful, Jeremy. I have some close friends who are struggling with one of their children. I was able to pass along a couple of really helpful insights from this post. Thanks!

13 09 2009

When my kids are driving me absolutely nuts, I realize that it is all my fault. They simply are what I’ve “trained” them to be. Michael and Debi Pearl absolutely (maybe that’s my word today) nail the whole concept that Jeremy is describing here in their book TO TRAIN UP A CHILD (maybe you’re reading/read it?). Although I’ve read it and I heartily agree and understand, it’s a lot harder to actually implement. Controlling the chaos is exhausting. I’m exhausted. But I gotta get to TRAINING better. Thanks Jeremy for getting the word out. I just stopped by your blog today. It’s been a couple years I think. Don’t read mine. I’m sleeping on them.

26 12 2009
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16 05 2010

I’ve been working hard on obedience training for several years. Progress is slow, but I agree with your post that it deserves 100% of our energy. I’ll drop everything and take whatever time it takes to deal with a level three.

30 05 2011
Marquis Grays

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15 07 2011

Very thorough post on such an important topic. It is unfortunate that so many people lack putting in 100% of their energy for obedience training. I cringe when I see other parents in public having issues controlling their children. Bookmarked!

7 08 2011
Unique Shower Curtains

Great post and wonderful thoughtful comments. Keep it up!

12 09 2011

Jeremy, I really like the marble jar idea. Where did you get that?

9 10 2014

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