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How Does a Mother Teach Obedience
to Young Children?

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Dear Dr. Horvat,

My reason for writing to you today is to ask you a question regarding disciplining young children according to their temperaments. I have been doing a lot of study on the subject of temperaments and believe that this is the best means to have a healthy relationship with my daughter and any future children my husband and I might have.

Right now, my daughter is 14 months old and we are having issues with obedience. K. is a sweet-tempered girl, very cheerful and eager to be involved in whatever I am doing around the house. My husband is good enough to allow me to stay home to care for her and most of the time everything goes very well. From what I have observed so far, I believe that K. has a blend of choleric and sanguine in her because she is active and cheerful, she can play by herself, but loves the company of others. She is caring and affectionate and loves for me to hold her, but she is also quite independent at times. When she gets frustrated or upset, she will usually scream for a couple of seconds or grit her teeth and grunt, but I can almost always distract her by helping her with whatever she is struggling with or leading her into another activity.

My two primary concerns now are teaching my daughter physical boundaries (no going in the street, coming when Mommy calls, etc), and helping her to learn to be quiet during Mass. Can you give me any suggestions on methods I might be able to use to get effective results in these areas? I appreciate your time and assistance and I greatly value your opinion.

     Sincerely,

     Mrs. B. S.

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Dr. Horvat responds:

Dear Mrs. B. S.,

From your letter, it is clear that you are trying to understand your daughter, and that you realize the importance of praising and encouraging her good inclinations. I do not think that you will fall into the error of excessive harshness.

On other hand, today many young parents, loving their children dearly, are too indulgent, always trying to be pleasant and amiable, fearful that the firm “no” followed by judicious punishment if the child disobeys is a “negative” form of child-rearing. This is a modern myth. It is important not to be afraid to use such punishment, especially for a child with your daughter’s temperament and at her early age. I recall to you the wise words of Holy Scriptures: "He that spares the rod hates his son; but he that loves his son chastens him betimes" (Prov 13) and “Chasten thy child while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare his crying" (Prov. 29).

Unless a child learns to obey promptly and without question, he or she will quickly become master of the household, disturbing the peace, tranquility, and order that should reign in the truly Catholic home. No matter how difficult or easy the temperament of the child, the mother needs to exercise the necessary firmness with her children, and the sooner the better, even at a very early age. Of course, a mother’s goodness dictates her conduct. But if she does not exercise her authority – through laziness, poor judgment or a mistaken notion of tenderness – she will soon find it is lost.

Even when they are very young, children can learn that certain things are forbidden to touch, or certain places are off limits. If you give the command, “Do not touch the lamp,” it is important that your voice have a tone of authority and gravity. Don’t be cajoling, undecided, or smiling. The child hears the command and realizes you are serious. A few minutes later, she may reach for the lamp again. Do not divert the child by directing her attention to something else. Repeat the command firmly: “No! Do not touch!” If she reaches for it again, she should be duly punished. The child needs to understand that the punishment is the consequence of disobedience.

If you consistently set boundaries inside the house, you will find your daughter will obey your commands not to enter the street, to stay by your side in the store, to be quiet at Mass, etc.

There are occasions when it can be helpful to divert a young child’s attention, e.g. when she is overtired and cannot respond normally, but not to assist them in disobeying a command. Children, who are more cunning than many parents suspect, will quickly learn that the mother lacks the will to exert authority. This procedure does not help the child to learn to be obedient.

Let me end by noting that the father is the source of authority in the family. His authority is the principle one; his wife should be subject to him. Please, take into consideration that your relation with your husband will deeply influence your child. If you obey him in the family life, your daughter will find it easier to follow your example and obey you and him. She will understand that obedience is a rule that must be observed. However, if you rebel against your husband and have frequent quarrels with him in front of her, she may well follow your bad example and also rebel against you.

Therefore, while punishment is certainly a good pedagogical method to form your child, it is important to remember that example is equally so. To form your child to be obedient, employ a psychologically balanced and consistent use of both.
Posted September 13, 2006

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