When our older children were little, we taught them what we called “obedience math.” It goes like this:
Obedience + Own Method = Disobedience
Obedience + Delay = Disobedience
Obedience + Incompleteness= Disobedience
Obedience + Bad Attitude = Disobedience
Obedience math sums up the saying, “Do what you are told, when you are told, how you are told, with a good attitude.” Thus, obedience math is not childishness but outright disobedience.
It is not childishness when a child is given a direct command, and he does something different than he is told. It is not childishness when a child is given a direct command, and he waits and does it on his own timetable. It is not childishness when a child is given a direct command, and he only does part of the command. It is not childishness when a child is given a command, and he complies but does it with a bad attitude. All of those are disobedience and should be punished.
Benchmarks for Determining Willfulness and Childishness
Through our years of parenting seven children, we have established a few benchmarks that have helped us determine if a behavior is disobedience or childishness.
1. Age of the child
One benchmark is the age of the one violating the command. If I tell my seven-year-old son to go unload the dishwasher right now, and when he comes into the dining room to put some knives away, he starts watching his brother play a computer game and forgets about his dishes, he is being childish. Seven year olds get distracted! He doesn’t need severe punishment for his infraction. He needs reminding and, perhaps, consequences, if he is characterized by getting sidetracked by computer games. However, if my fourteen year old is told to go take the trash to the corner and then come back and help his brothers straighten the family room, and he stops to shoot baskets for fifteen minutes, he is more than likely disobeying. He should be mature and responsible enough by that time to consider his brothers’ feelings as they do his portion of the work. He should be obedient enough to go do the job he is told, then come back inside and do the next job.
2. Direct command vs routine task
Another benchmark is whether the violation was of a direct command just given or a routine or schedule type command. For instance, when I tell my seven year old to go unload the dishes right now, and he decides he would rather go upstairs to play Legoes, he has directly disobeyed me and needs to be punished. However, when he finishes his morning routine and is supposed to go directly to the dishwasher and start unloading according to the schedule, and he sometimes starts looking at books instead, he is more than likely displaying childishness. He probably needs consequences, or a chore chart, etc., to turn that childishness around.
3. Intent of the heart
Another benchmark is the intent of the heart. Generally speaking, when a child violates a direct command or displays disrespect towards a parent, it is a malicious act. The child understood what was wanted of him, but didn’t care. He did not simply forget to do something or overlook something. He made a willful decision to do what he wanted to do rather than what was asked of him.
When a child displays childishness, he is usually not trying to “get away with something,” like in a pre-meditated instance of disobedience. This benchmark is actually the most helpful one because we can usually discern the intent of a child’s heart. We know our children well, and we often know what they are thinking and what drives them.
Think about negative behaviors that your child(ren) display today. How do they measure up in the childishness versus willfulness department? Once we start thinking of these things in these terms, we will also think differently about our disciplinary techniques.