"I thought I told you to clean up this mess!" The backyard still had toys scattered everywhere, but my children just carried on as if I hadn't spoken a word. I was getting frustrated. I was getting mad. Then my husband came to the rescue. He got those same kids moving with two words: treasure hunt. In no time, they had those toys picked up and stowed away in the "treasure box." That was when I knew that words could change a reluctant attitude into a joyful and willing one.
If you feel like pulling your hair out because your children seem to ignore you when you ask them to do something, the problem might not be their disobedience. It might be that your children don't sense any authority in your words.
Putting power behind your words doesn't mean you have to turn into a dictator. On the contrary, as my husband's "treasure hunt" proves, sometimes a light touch can be the most effective motivator.
The Bible makes a good case for the impact of the spoken word. God created the world with his words: He said, "Let there be light" and there was light. Jesus' word was powerful, too. At his command, the seas were calmed, the sick were healed, the blind could see, the deaf could hear, the demons fled, and the dead came back to life.
Jesus also used his words to change hearts. When he spoke to a group of fishermen, they dropped their nets and followed him. When he spoke to a woman caught up in a life of sin, she turned toward a new life. As parents, we can learn a great deal about putting more power in our words by observing the ways Jesus inspired change in those he spoke to.
State the consequences
When Jesus told someone to do something, he followed up his command with a clear result. Sometimes it was a reward: "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men (Matt. 4:19). Other times, it was a negative consequence: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" (Matt. 7:1). There was no question about where a decision would lead.
Putting the consequences hand in hand with our instructions acts as an extra boost to get kids moving, too. For consequences to have any impact, they need to be related to the behavior so your children can start to understand the cause and effect nature of obedience.
What to say:
Instead of "Brush your teeth," try "After you've brushed your teeth, I'll read you a story,"
Instead of "Don't walk away from the cart," try "If you stay close to the shopping cart, I'll let you choose the cereal."
Instead of "Don't run ahead," try "If you run ahead of me, you'll need ride in your stroller."
Give positive alternatives
We often tell our children what we don't want them to do, but Jesus didn't stop there. When he said "Do not worry," he added, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt. 6:31-32).
Our children can get discouraged hearing "no, no, no" all day. Children, especially toddlers and preschoolers, need us to help them figure out what behaviors are acceptable. We need to clearly tell them what we want them to do, not just what they shouldn't do. Our children really do want to please us. If we limit our commands to scolding them for what they've done wrong, they won't know how to do what's right.
What to say:
Instead of "Don't throw the ball in the house," try "Let's see if you can roll the ball to Mommy."
Instead of "Quit yelling at your brother," try "Calm down and use a respectful voice."
Instead of "Don't touch that vase!" try "Let's leave the vase alone and find your tractor instead."
When Jesus taught his disciples something new, he gave them specific instructions. Take prayer for example. Jesus taught his disciples the words to say and the attitude with which to say them. He said, "When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father. When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans. This, then, is how you should pray: 'Our Father in heaven '"(Matt. 6:6-9).
Our children also need clear, specific instructions to help them follow through. A long list of commands can be confusing for children, as can vague demands. Break your requests into smaller, more manageable steps and your children will be more likely to do what you ask.
What to say:
Instead of "Clean up your room," try "Please put your toys back on the shelf."
Instead of "Use better manners," try "Please chew with your mouth closed."
Instead of "Get ready for school," try "It's time to put your shoes on."
Speak the truth
Jesus started many statements with "I tell you the truth" (Matt. 5:18). He also said, "Simply let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no,' 'no'" (Matt. 5:37). His followers trusted that he meant what he said. Without this foundation of truth, all his other words would have been meaningless.
Children are surprisingly tuned in to the messages behind our words and they can recognize empty threats. One day I observed a mother and daughter at the playground. "Let's go," said the mom, but the child didn't want to go home. Out of desperation, the mother said, "Let's go, or I'm going to leave you here." The child's eyes lit up and she said, "Okay, leave me here and pick me up in two hours."
Discipline is only effective if children believe that what their parents say is true. If you undermine that trust, your authority will go right out the window.
What to say:
Instead of "You're going to stay in your room until it's clean," try "We're going to clean your room for a half an hour."
Instead of "If you don't come with me, I'm leaving you here," try "If you don't come with me now, we won't come back to the playground for a week."
Instead of "If you can't take care of your toys, I'm going to throw them all away," try "We won't be buying you new toys until you show us you can take care of the ones you have."
Use an Appropriate Tone
Jesus made his commands sound like commands. He didn't say, "Would you like to repent?" or "It's time to repent now, don't you think?" Rather he said: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt. 4:17).
This principle takes some discernment on your part. You'll need to determine what is negotiable and what isn't. Save your "I mean business" tone for those commands that are absolutely not open to discussion. But keep in mind that an authoritative tone doesn't have to be harsh, or even loud. Even a whisper can convey authority when you use it effectively.
What to say:
Instead of "Would you like to put your coat on?" try "Put your coat on now, please."
Instead of "Do you want to get in the car?" try "Walk to the car, please. We're leaving in one minute."
Instead of "How about getting your pajamas on," try "It's time to get your pajamas on."
Keep it Personal
In order to get our attention, Jesus left his glory in heaven, and came down to earth to speak to us face to face. He also used parables and stories to convey his message. His stories were always relevant to the lives of his audience. He spoke of shepherds and vineyards and farmsexperiences his listeners could relate to. He knew that he was asking his followers to live in a radical way and that they needed help to understand how to do that.
As parents, we often forget how important it is for us to connect with our children as we shape their behavior. Sometimes I find myself yelling my instructions from another part of the house, or while I'm busy doing something else. As a result, I end up repeating myself, and getting frustrated with them for not obeying.
When I stop what I'm doing, look my child in the eye, and clearly state what I want them to do, they usually obey right away. When you ask something of your child, take the time to make sure you have his attention, then talk to him face to face. If you're not sure he understands what you want, try explaining it again and give him a chance to ask questions.
Like Jesus, we also need to find ways to make our requests relevant to the lives of our children. Just as my husband got the yard cleaned up with an impromptu treasure hunt, inspire your children with a story or an element of fun to help them remember what you want them to do, or to motivate them to change their behavior.
What to say:
Instead of "You need to dust the furniture," try "Let's put on your favorite cd and clean up the living room together!"
Instead of "Get your homework done," try "Why don't we use these counting beans to help you with your math?"
Instead of "Get down here and eat your breakfast!" try "The first person at the table gets to sit next to Daddy."
Jesus knew his source for power. Before Jesus went to the cross to be crucified, he prayed, "Yet not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42-43). Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him.
We can all use a little divine help during the day. But keep in mind that our children need God's help too. One day I said to my son, "Stop bothering your brothers and sisters." He broke down in tears, "It's too hard!" Our children cannot obey on their own strength.
When tensions are high in your family, take time to pray with your children. Pray earnestly for yourself and for your children. Teach them to pray this simple prayer: "Dear Jesus, help me to do what Mommy and Daddy ask me to do, and help me to obey you. Amen." With God's power, we can all have the confidence to say, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13).
Grace P. Chou is the mother of five and the author of Disciplining Children with Confidence (Essence).
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian Parenting Today.