Delayed Obedience


One of the troubles moms can encounter once their kids reach a certain height and vocabulary is the constant “Why?” that follows when you tell them to do (or not do) something.

“Johnny, quit jumping on the couch.”


It is a perfectly reasonable question, and I was always happy to answer it AFTER the obedience.

“Quit jumping and then you may ask me why.”

I remember teaching my children how important it was to obey first and ask questions later. You never know what kind of situation might arise where instant obedience is crucial. I told my kids a story that I had read about a missionary who had looked out the front door to see his child playing beneath a tree in the yard. On the branch over the child was a very large and deadly snake. The father called to his son, “Johnny, drop on your knees and crawl to me.” Johnny did as his father said, and once he was out of range, his father explained the reason for his sudden and seemingly weird command. The point, I would tell my children, is that you must always obey me right away, without question. You may ask questions later. What might have happened if the boy had said, “Why?”

From this principle came what we called the “delayed obedience is disobedience” rule. Obedience must be immediate. If I told a child to set the table and came back to find the table still unset, the excuse of “I just hadn’t gotten started yet, but I was going to in just a minute” didn’t hold any water with us. That was disobedience. If we said, “Time to put your book down and get ready for bed” and the child just kept on reading….that was disobedience. It was no good saying, “I was just going to finish this page.” However, if the child said, “May I just finish this page?” that was not disobedience. That was a reasonable question.

Now why did we make such a point about obedience? There are several reasons, the most important one being that God tells children to obey their parents. We wanted our children to grow up obeying God, and obeying us was a means of getting there. He said to. The other reason is that we wanted our children to mature into self-governed adults. They learn to obey us, then they will obey God, and obey their boss or their teacher or the law. Obedience is a good thing. We provided the training wheels and our children became God-obeying adults.

This is why parents must insist on obedience the first time. We often reminded our kids ahead of time so they would be disposed to obey. For example, I had a few rules about going to the grocery store. On the way to the store, we would review those rules. At the check-out, if they had obeyed, I bought them some gum as a well-earned reward. If they didn’t obey, they were disciplined when I got home. If I did not follow through on what I had promised, then they would never believe me. Why should they?

Moms can’t be all bluster or the kids learn to totally tune her out. She says get off the stairs, but she will look the other way, and the child can continue on up, and Mom will forget all about it. What lesson does that teach about obedience? It’s only important when they are looking. But God sees always. We don’t just obey Him when we think He might be looking.

Children should take Mom’s commands very seriously. The only way this will happen is if Mom takes them very seriously. She must be careful of what she commands and faithful to see it through. This is one of the reasons why mothering is a full-time, demanding job with big-time consequences. It takes a whole lot of concentration to teach children to obey, and it has very big dividends.

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22 thoughts on “Delayed Obedience

  1. Thank you for another excellent post. I have been feeling like my home is a circus. I read Mothers Law and was convicted to work hard at being consistant all the time. Its exhausting! It really is! But im just starting to feel like my effort is paying off. I needed to hear this today as my eldest is 6yo and pushing for reasons why. Thank you for the encouragement and the advice. I thank God for it! These children are so precious and I want to do my best.

  2. Thank you for your posts, they’re all so valuable to me. We’ve just hit the ‘why’ response with our eldest (4yo). I will be using your line πŸ™‚

  3. This post was really right on time for me. I needed the encouragement to keep on asking that my pre-schooler do what I ask the first time, not the third or fourth…. by which time I’m usually asking in a very loud and not very friendly voice we could all do without!

  4. What a refreshing read in a time where first time obedience has become a thing of the past amongst many parents within the church (and blogging world). One popular defense for the ‘I don’t believe in first time obedience’ movement is, God does not demand first time obedience from us. That our lives are filled with Him allowing time and time again for us to be disobedient, and He exhibits grace, not consequences. This never set well with me, yes we serve a mighty God filled with mercy and grace. Without His grace we are lost sinners doomed for an eternity of suffering. Yet, He does demand obedience, and calls us to live lives of excellence, not perfection, but striving to live in His strength according to His good pleasure. Eve in the garden of Eden, did not get a ‘second chance’. Their were immediate and severe consequences for her knowingly disobedience. I thank you for holding true to biblical righteousness. I was starting to feel discouraged by what I read on many blogs! ~Erin from Greece.

  5. How Timely is this article! I have three children, a girl 8, a boy 6, and another boy 2. The eldest is strong willed and is pushing the limits with me, with the second one learning quick from her, and me. Knowing how to respond with even-tempered, encouraging actions for them is so needed today, and every day. I understand my precious ones aren’t robots but honor, respect and obedience just make life more joyful for everyone. Thank you for super practical help!

  6. Thanks for the timely reminder! We are just heading into the “why” stage with my oldest. I love the clear picture of the snake story! I think that one will stick with me and my kiddos for awhile. πŸ™‚

    As ALWAYS, thanks for sharing your wisdom with us!

  7. Thank you Nancy! It’s what I really need to hear at the moment (always really). Why is it so hard to be consistent?! I get so frustrated at myself for not managing consistency, because I know that the kids disobedience is actually my disobedience, for not following through with the consequences as I should. But as always, I will set my mind to it, and try again (in His strength).

  8. I am curious when and how to start instilling immediate obedience as a requirement. I have an almost 18 month old and often find that insisting she obey at all means I basically have to physically enforce her obedience. I believe this is fairly normal at her age and from what I’ve been told once my daughter understands that we are serious about her obeying us she will begin to obey our verbal commands more and more on her own. But am I missing something I should be doing right now?

  9. Did you discipline your children for asking why after a command was given? Or for not setting the table immediately?

  10. Thanks so much for this post.

    On a totally unrelated topic,
    are you able to put a “pin it” icon on your posts? It would be so helpful πŸ™‚

  11. I had a child whose first reaction was no but 3 seconds later was obeying. We have to watch that we are not too harsh in our expections. If I had tried to make him respond immediately he would have rebelled, whereas, ignoring the No, and concentrating on the correct physical response was what I felt was more like the parable about the 2 sons. Where Jesus praised the son who said he wouldn’t do something, but actually did it.
    Eventually he stopped saying No first.

  12. KT, sounds like you’ve got the right idea. When my children are that young, I try to never give them a command unless I am prepared to physically enforce it. Not necessarily with a spank (although that is sometimes necessary) but often just helping her obey. For example, “Susie, come here” and then if obedience is not prompt, get up and gently but firmly walk her over to where I was when I told her to come. Another important thing to remember with very small children is to always use clear language. “No, Susie, don’t touch that” as opposed to the often heard “Let’s not play with that.” Toddlers don’t understand subtlety!

  13. My question is similar to KT’s. My daughter is almost three and is generally good at obeying, but sometimes she’s slow and has already started her own form of “why” which is “why not?”
    I respond to her with saying “obey right away” in my slow toddler voice… Sometimes this works, and sometimes not. I do use timeout when she’s very hesitant to obey, but I don’t want to constantly be punishing her, I’m afraid she will get frustrated and discouraged. Am I wrong in that? What’s reasonable for me to expect while she still so young in her training?
    And how much grace should I have for her when she is tired? It seems like I truly can’t expect much from her when she’s too tired.

  14. Thank you for this great post. I do have a question about your story regarding the gum in the grocery store. Can you address giving our children tangible rewards for obedience vs. teaching them that obeying is the right thing to do regardless of a tangible reward right then and there.For instance, does going to the grocery store then become something that they always expect gum for (just using your example) or am I weaning them off of that as they get older? I want to avoid the attitude of obeying only for prize or becoming like bribery (as I’ve heard some parents call it laughingly), yet I know that we “run to obtain the prize” in our Christian walk. Appreciate your thoughts.

  15. Your insight and wise example are such a blessing. Thanks for being willing to share your “Godly Motherness” with all of us. πŸ™‚ It was truly a delight to get to meet you at the park a few weeks ago!!!

  16. Great post! I also have questions of my own relating to Donne’s and Alison’s questions. Also, I completely agree with clearly lining out expectations before going to the store and then following up accordingly. However, we live a fair distance from our nearest grocery store and I often have kiddos conk-out before we can get home and take care of it properly. What would be the best way to deal with this sort of situation? My kiddos can take a while to get their hearts in shape sometimes and I feel that home is the best place for that, but with the 2 and 3 year olds immediate action is pretty essential so that they aren’t missing the point, right? Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated if you have the time. Thanks! πŸ™‚

  17. Applying this principle (and many others) we learned from you has been so helpful in our home. This has helped in practical obedience/teaching, but also in our own obedience to God. It helped create calm during those young years for which I am so thankful.

    My question. My kids are now teenagers and seem to take advantage of the “obey first and then may ask why/appeal.” Everything is discussed ad nauseum and it seems to undermine obedience. The lines seem to be grayed regularly between obedience and their understanding the instruction or asking for their opinion to be heard. As they are becoming their own person while still under out authority how would you adjust this (or would you?) Is there another underlying issue we may be missing?

  18. Recently I was out in the backyard playing with my boys when I heard a strange creaking sound. It sounded like the noise had come from a large dead branch in the tree my4-year-old son was standing beneath. I said,
    “Zion, come here.”
    He came immediately, and the large branch fell where he had just been standing. Praise God for His protection, for Zion’s obedience, and for a wonderful lesson that I was able to use to talk about how “slow obedience is no obedience.”

    I’ve also learned this saying, and we use it with our kids a lot:

    How do we obey? All the way, right away, and with a happy heart.

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