Free to Choose

October 26, 2011

Ahhh, I could sense a great disturbance in the force, as I hit publish on my last post. “Teach your kids to choose, as a higher value over obedience”? I mean, even the Bible clearly lays out the importance of obedience, right? Surprisingly, I have had very little push from this, but it is a common enough concern, I wanted to do a follow up post to clarify key issues.  These posts are not intended to help you pass a test, I want them to really help you in real life.

First let me say, that I am a trained Marriage and Family Therapist, with a decent amount of education and experience in Child Development and Personality Theory and all that junk. I worked for the Juvenile Probation Department for three years, and then, spent sixteen years in a successful private practice. I am also the father of four amazing grown kids, though you may have to ask someone else how they turned out, I am admittedly biased. I mention these things to clarify for new readers, or readers who do not know me personally, I am not only speaking from opinion, but from a certain amount of professional and personal experience.

They key issue is, without a doubt, training your children to use their will. Teaching them to choose can be done at every stage of development. Parents make two mistakes in interacting with their child’s will. They either overpower it, or they get into power struggles with it. In both cases, our children learn harmful strategies for choosing in life.

When I say teach our children to choose, even at the early stages we must communicate with our kids in such a way that they have an opportunity to choose how they respond to parental instruction (Do not eat from that tree, for in the day you eat from it, you shall surely die…). Children must have the opportunity to choose obedience or disobedience, and they should understand clearly from us what will be the outcome of either choice. We must make the circumstances clear and the cost clear, and then step back and be willing to follow through if our children choose the harder path of disobedience. This will help them learn the value of a good choice. It is not really a choice, if, as parents, we overpower their will.

We overpower their will, when the intensity of our emotion, the threat of punishment (not the same as discipline…) or shame, guilt, rejection etc. are too powerful for them to feel they have a real choice. When our emotional needs as a parent, or our fears and pain overwhelm our child’s newly developing will, they do not make a true choice, they comply, and thus take a position in life of compliance. This is not the same as choosing to obey. If you are in a restaurant, you can only order from the options presented on the menu. You will not order what does not seem to be an option. In the same way, if our kids cannot see the option of disobedience, they do not make a genuine choice. They learn instead fear and pain, or their will becomes paralyzed. They only do what others tell them, which is a dangerous way to grow up.

We get into power struggles when we are too invested in being right, or winning a battle, or feel that we must get them to obey at all costs. Too often the cost is relationship, and from the platform of a wounded relationship, we stay in a constant tug of war. I have always said never argue with a three year-old, because as soon as you do, you have already lost. They have brought you into their definition of the struggle, instead of you bringing them into yours. “Parents, do not provoke your children to wrath” describes this common parenting mistake. We teach our children that they are to use their will for resistance. This is also a very dangerous lesson, and sets them (and you) up for all kinds of pain and frustration.

Finally, I want to refer back to the distinction I made between discipline and punishment. Discipline is an overall strategy for teaching.  It may involve an intentionally applied consequence, but the goal is that the child learn, and it is therefore crucial that the child’s will be engaged, and be gently shaped by a parent in the context of a loving relationship. Punishment, on the other hand, is essentially parental revenge. We have had enough, and it is time this child pays a price for opposing me. This approach will result in the deterioration of relationship and ultimately both parent and child will suffer over the long term relationship.

God gave us the freedom to choose, because real obedience is an act of the will, made in the context of a growing love relationship. I once heard a teacher say that God is after a Bride not an army. He is looking for voluntary lovers not obligated servants. In raising our children we must assist them in the development of a healthy will, otherwise they develop a lifestyle of compliance or resistance. Neither of these are true obedience.


  • Marissa Star

    Mmm … And breath! Held my breathe through this whole post. It helped this Mama … Encouraged … Challenged (in a good way) … Good stuff!

  • Rachel

    I don’t have kids yet, but I am trying to absorb as much as possible about godly parenting before that time comes. Thank you so much for breaking things down so clearly and easily. I’m not sure how to keep parenting from scaring me, though… it seems like so much, and I am terrified of failing by forgetting one of the many ‘good parenting rules’. This post is on the top of my list of things to remember, so keep posting helpful real-life stuff!!

  • MichelleBenami

    There is no doubt in my mind that God is up to something. He has been speaking about this topic to me for some time. Something is stirring..a move of God through our children and their generation, which requires us to lead them in a certain path. I, for one, feel a need to tune my ear more to hear what He is saying…

  • http://jessicadromgoole.wordpress.com/ Jessica Dromgoole

    Tom and I walking out this parenting with our four children has at times seemed like a nightmare and then others the huge tremendous blessing it in fact is. This both uncovers issues in our parenting style and reveals answers to some unspoken questions that I know I have had regarding our children and how we are parenting them. I loved loved loved reading this entry. Thank you for sharing!!

  • Magdalena

    I wish I knew this before I read Growing Kids Gods Way which is all about obedience and right behavior

  • Jennifer FrNklin

    Want more! Got my wheels a turnin! Love it

  • http://amypenningtonphoto.com Amy

    Blown away by this new series. Reading through it several times and taking it to my Father to see how to improve my parenting skills during the middle of the game. I am so grateful for your insight. Blessings-

  • Jamie Cuffia

    Insightful as usual! God has placed this on my heart with my boys. Harder in application. It takes time and thought and not going with my first reaction in those “moments” Super encouraging. I have had a hard time knowing what this looks like and this is so simply put and totally makes since. Great food for thought!

  • Adrienne Klein

    Very interesting! I would love to hear more!

  • Cheryl

    I have 2 girls. One 9 and the other 4. With my first one I stifled her ability to choose when she was young. It was more important to be right and the arguing started around 4 yrs old and by the time she was 6, we were both out of control. I exasperated her (and vice versa). And then I began to understand the power to choose. And I really evaluated my parenting. So my 4 yr old is much different. Since birth she has had boundaries, but freedom to explore within those boundaries. I give her choices and she chooses. She is the most free and loving creature in the planet. At 4 she is confident, and funny and loves life. My 9 yr old doesnt have that since of freedom. So many thanks go out to the freedom ministry for helping me repair my relationship with my older one. If your parenting breeds fear or shame in your children – STOP.

  • http://www.bobhamp.com Bob Hamp

    Thanks Cheryl…great example and well said…you have plenty of time still with your 9 year old…enjoy her uniqueness….

  • Lauri Loving

    Yes! Amen… and thank for the encouraging word to continue choosing this good way. The way which is not neat and tidy… often if not always uncovers messes of the soul… and leaves us “uncovered” by appearances, convenience, and convention, yet still COVERED solely by Him and his ways if we are willing to risk it…. kind of way.

    -Choosing His cover only,

  • Jackie

    I was fortunate to have similar guidance when my children were very young. I was thankful to him then, as I am thankful to you now, Bob, for your message. Some of the great stories from all traditions (including fairy tales) speak of the journey of choice vs. obedience. I believe it’s the agenda of youth to continually make that choice as they internalize their own moral code. Our “ministry of presence” in their formation helps them celebrate the wise choices and recover grace-fully from the rest. As the parent of 26, 23, and 16 year old “kids”, it’s a blessing to see how God has worked in their lives by inviting them to choose His way. As one of His still-growing kids, I’m a much happier camper when I’m following Him out of desire vs. complying out of obedience.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you – for your book, for you, and for your ministry!

  • Jennifer Smothermon

    Well put! I like it! (from one MFT & parent to another)

  • Ted Crawford

    Obedience – scary word! For some of us, it’s the only logical alternative to a beating. At least that’s how we remember it and relate to it. I’ve got to say, however, that obedience is a description of behavior. WHY we obey is far more important, especially to God. Obedience out of fear is not what He wants. He wants obedience out of respect. A friend once told me that fear and respect are the same thing. It hit me that he was mistaken. If you obey someone merely out of fear, you’ll not hesitate to rebel, revolt, and rise against them if the opportunity presents itself. If you obey out of respect, you freely choose to, because respect comes from Love. I want to Love God like that, but it’s difficult for me to make it anything else besides the only logical alternative to a beating, and, as I’ve explained, that’s just not good enough. He deserves so much more. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” I like to believe that Solomon meant respect.

  • http://marie-embracingthejourney.blogspot.com/ Marie Burrough

    I just read this even though you posted it a few weeks ago. No coincidence. I needed to read this word right now. So timely.
    Thank you!
    ♥Maty

  • Brandon Pollard

    This blog spoke volumes to me as a dad, whose desire is to keep my 3 kid’s hearts at the end of the each day, while excercising grace and discipline (not punishment) for their lives! Learning that relationships are more important than my own moral victory in marriage, children, church and life.
    Thank you Pastor Bob for His wisdom!

  • http://www.bobhamp.com Bob Hamp

    My pleasure Brandon!! These posts on parenting seem to have hit a nerve with many!

  • Amy Rogers

    I so desperately needed this article tonight. We are training an incredibly strong-willed 3 year old little girl right now. She is “Tiny but Mighty!”. Kyle and I are planning to be there Wednesday night.

  • Justine

    This is good.. gonna show my hubby…

  • Cindy Sanders

    Wonderful message!