Note: This post first appeared in 2017 but has been updated.
The first three to seven years are the formative years in a child’s life. During this time you are building a foundation for the character of your child.
Your child will not be able to reason until around age seven. This means your focus should not be on reasoning with your child, but training your child.
A child below the age of reason does not choose to obey because they love Mommy or because the Bible says they should. They choose to obey because they are trained to and because cause and effect teaches that when they disobey life is hard.
These early years are crucial.
“Parents, you should commence your first lesson of discipline when your children are babes in your arms. Teach them to yield their will to yours. This can be done by bearing an even hand, and manifesting firmness. Parents should have perfect control over their own spirits, and with mildness and yet firmness bend the will of the child until it shall expect nothing else but to yield to their wishes.[i]
How do you “bend the will” of your child with mildness and firmness until your child expects nothing but to yield to your wishes?
The secret to bending, not breaking, lies in some simple measures.
I was shopping with my sister when she handed her nine month old baby to me and said, “She needs to sleep. Hold her tight on your lap and she will fall asleep.” I took Sarai from her and held her firmly on my lap, unsure that this would work. Trained to submit to restraint, she fell asleep in a few minutes.
Restraint can gain submission during a tantrum or when you need your child to be quiet in church. Don’t begin teaching this at church though. Practice at home so that when you go out your child will know what to expect when you hold her on your lap. If she wiggles and wants to get off, don’t let her. Your will must prevail.
This is a great way to get your child to obey. If your child cries because he doesn’t want to get out the bath, try singing, tickling, diverting his attention to a toy or a picture on the wall – anything to get his mind distracted from what he wants. Be sure you persist with what you want – getting him out the bath and dressed – while you distract. Don’t ignore or tolerate crying.
It was a relief for me to realise that rewards did not mean I had to take my kids out for ice cream or do something big. You simply hold something before them that they enjoy as an encouragement to do something they might not want to do.
For example, “Let’s put the toys away, then we can have lunch.” Or, “Let’s get dressed then we’ll read a story.”
At this age spanking takes the form of training as opposed to punishment. A switch on the leg or a tap on the hand for disobedience may be all that is necessary. Consistency is key. If you are not consistent you will be like the many others who say spanking does not work. They tried it once and then abandoned it.
Spanking has received a bad rap (pun intended) because it has been used in the wrong way. Done without anger and harshness it will not create rebellion in your child’s heart.
The rod of correction imparts wisdom, but a child left to himself disgraces his mother. Proverbs 29:15(NIV)
Related: To spank or not to spank
Tie heart strings with your children. Play together, work together. Delight in your children. Laugh.
Eye to eye contact is powerful at any time. Most times we only use it when displeased but it has the greatest force when used to express pleasure. Look your baby or toddler in the eye and tell him you love him.
The overall emotional climate of your relationship must be positive.
If your child cries because he doesn’t want to get out of the shopping cart, don’t let him stay. By giving in when your child cries you are training him to cry for what he wants. For the same reason demand feeding tends to strengthen self in a child. Having a consistent schedule for meals, play time, and bed time will create contentment and less crying.
“An infallible way to make your child miserable is to satisfy all his demands.” Henry Home
“One precious lesson which the mother will need to repeat again and again is that the child is not to rule; he is not the master, but her will and her wishes are to be supreme. Thus she is teaching them self-control. Give them nothing for which they cry, even if your tender heart desires ever so much to do this; for if they gain the victory once by crying they will expect to do it again. The second time the battle will be more vehement.”[ii]
A friend was amazed when my child accepted my refusal to his request with an “Ok Mom.” She said, “I can’t believe your child just accepted your ‘no’ without arguing or whining.” This should not be an unusual experience. A child can be happy when you say no – if their heart is submitted.
“A child should be so trained that a refusal would be received in the right spirit and accepted as final.” [iii]
Related: You don’t have to tolerate tantrums
If you lay a solid foundation while your child is young, discipline will be easier and you will enjoy your children.
Don’t be discouraged if you have not trained your children well. Start today to regain the ground you have lost.
With God there is always hope. I know, because I neglected the foundational years and had to work hard to correct my mistakes.
Remember that while you should be praying for your child, prayer will not take the place of duty. You must do your part. God blessed as I cooperated with Him and I soon saw wonderful results in my children.
What is your weak area in disciplining your baby/toddler? Are you giving in to crying?
[i] Testimonies Vol 1, 218, Ellen G White
[ii] Child Guidance, 92, Ellen G White
[iii] Ibid, 273