“But Maman, I don’t feel like it!” Indeed, for 7-year-old Therese, this argument was quite serious! Would Mme. Martin, weary of the battle, give in to her little general?
On the road, we have to stop at a red light whether we are in a hurry or not, whether we feel like it or not; in the same way, it is absolutely necessary for our little ones to learn that in life, we first do what we must and not what we want. Teaching this is an art, for a child’s obedience and dependency must be developed and oriented towards full maturity, and not servilely cultivated.
What is the goal of obedience? To bring a child to do good, and more profoundly, to bring him to want the good. Obedience, therefore, is not a goal in itself; it is a means, and it is to be practiced in good measure, according to a child’s age and capacities and depending on the circumstances.
A small child who has not yet reached the age of reason needs to acquire certain automatic reflexes: he does not yet know what is right and what is wrong. His parents will teach him what he must do and not do through their reactions to his actions: a smile from her mother will encourage Catherine, who was the first to come when called; his father’s tone of voice will stop Benedict when he starts answering back to an order. For the early years, renowned educators speak of “training.” This word offends our ears, but it is a reality: the child does not yet have the use of his reason and he must acquire reflexes (that will become virtues later on): “yes” means yes; “no” means no! If his parents say something, it should be put into action immediately. For example, if Isabel’s mother gives her a cookie and she forgets to say thank you, her mother will say, “Thank you, Mom,” so Isabel can repeat after her. If she does, her mother’s smile will encourage her to continue this habit. But if Isabel refuses to say thank you, her mother will take back the cookie and firmly repeat, “Say, ‘thank you, Mom.’” Her mother must not give in no matter what; the reflex must be formed: “when Mom says something, I obey immediately.”
Later on, when a child has reached the age of reason, his parents need to educate him more profoundly by forming his judgment: the child must learn what is true, good, and beautiful, and what is wrong, so that his will may be formed by tending towards that which is good and avoiding that which is wrong. Orders are to be given when the child strays from the right path or to show him what he should do. But when an order (a good order!) is given, it is not to be justified or discussed. The child must learn to obey willingly without “but’s” or “why’s,” simply because his father or mother asked him, out of love for them and love for God.
To be obeyed, an order must be in proportion to a child’s capacities. We cannot ask the same thing of everyone. Asking more than a child can do is a way of exposing him not only to disobey but also to get into the habit of disobeying.
There is one area in which submission is certainly within a child’s ability, and that is not giving in to his willful desires. Here is an example from the life of Sister Lucia of Fatima:
“Maria Rosa raised her strictly and never gave in to her whims. One day, she made beans for lunch. Lucia refused hers, saying she did not like beans. ‘Well! My little girl,’ her mother answered, ‘we don’t eat only what we like; we eat what’s served.’ Lucia stubbornly refused. Maria Rosa was inflexible. So the child left the table without eating anything and was tormented by her hunger all afternoon. ‘At suppertime,’ she would later write, ‘I thought my mother would give me what she had made for supper: rabbit stew with rice. But she pulled my plate of beans out of a drawer and said to me, ‘Take these; your plate is going to stay here until you eat them, and you will have nothing else.’ When Lucia had eaten half of her plate of beans, her mother took it away and gave her some rabbit stew, saying, ‘You have overcome your willful desire, now you can eat with everyone else.’ ‘It was a lifelong lesson for me,’ she wrote. ‘I was never tempted to say, ‘I’m not going to eat that because I don’t like it.’ Sister Lucia concluded in her Memoirs, ‘At that time, I did not yet know what it meant to offer sacrifices to God, but that was how He prepared me. I thank Him and the mother He chose for me.’”
As for the circumstances, they affect the educator more than the child himself! Some mothers let everything go when they are in a good mood. They give no orders, they tolerate and put up with everything. But when they are tired or irritated, orders rain down, along with shouts and spankings! This, dear parents, is not education! Children must learn to obey for the good, not depending on our passions. Orders must therefore be given calmly and wisely.
What an encouragement to obey if a child also knows (they sense this very well!) that his parents exercise their authority out of love. It is so much easier to obey someone who truly loves us! But true affection is not weakness and, as everyone knows, “he who loves well, chastises well.”
An order should be clear, precise, and heard by the child! Do not ask several things at once; one thing at a time.
Nor is it necessary to give too many orders. A good educator gives few injunctions, but when he gives one, he expects to be obeyed and the children know it. No father or mother should let an order go unfulfilled.
When parents who are respected and loved voice a desire, it is as effective as an order and lightens the family atmosphere that would be weighed down by a flood of precepts. We mustn’t hesitate to appeal to our children’s goodwill. For example, instead of saying, “Peter, set the table,” his mother can also “vary” the wording and with a big smile ask her five little ones who are playing next to her: “Who wants to make Mom happy?”
Obedience is not to be bought with rewards (“make your bed and I will give you a piece of candy”) or begging (“Please, Anne, just obey…please!”); it is due. If, once in a while, you wish to reward an obedient child, do not promise the reward when giving the order (that would ruin the spirit of submission and risk making him act only for the reward); offer it to him “freely” afterwards; it will be a lovely surprise and will motivate him to do his duty well at all times.
All of this will maintain the child’s respect for authority and make it easier to obey.
We have to admit that from a very young age, all children, however charming, are more inclined to follow their own desires than to obey; and without the patient, gentle, but firm help of their parents, they could become little monsters who give in to all their passions…what a catastrophe both for their earthly life and for eternity!
The first seven years set the tone. Do not wait, dear parents, until your child is older to teach him to do good and refuse evil.
Acquiring a spirit of submission has repercussions on a person’s entire existence. We will have to obey our whole life long, be it to the alarm clock in the morning, to the rules of the company we work for, or (and especially) to the commandments of God and of the Church. And the stakes are high! “But if thou wilt enter into (eternal) life, keep the commandments,” Our Lord tells us (Mt. 19:17)…No one is dispensed from obeying, and it is something we learn during our earliest years.