“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he won’t depart from it.” - Proverbs 22:6
Most parents have heard the verse about training up a child in the way he should go. The question is, how exactly do you train up a child?
There are two distinct parts to training a child:
Training a child's behavior
Training a child’s heart
To train up a child in Christian discipline and instruction, you need to do both. In this article, however, we’ll only discuss how to train a child's behavior.
I first started teaching elementary school in 1983. To be totally honest, for the first two years, I did not have good classroom discipline. At the time, my strategy was just to handle behavior problems as they came up. The problem was, they came up all day long. I would waste so much time each day dealing with misbehavior.
But by my third year of teaching, I finally figured out that if I would spend time at the beginning of the school year training my students exactly how I expected them to behave for each situation, their behavior improved dramatically. I called these times of instruction “Training Sessions.”
I trained my students how to politely line up, quietly work in the centers, and clean up at the end of the day. I trained them how to behave properly in the bathroom, the cafeteria, and in assemblies. I taught them exactly what they should and shouldn’t do, and then we practiced the correct behavior over and over. The result was, I had a classroom of incredibly well-behaved students.
After nine years of teaching, I had my own children. I realized then that the same basic discipline techniques I used at school would transfer to parenting. At home, I trained my boys what the correct behavior was for bedtime, clean-up time, and meal time. I trained them how to behave in a store, at church, and in a restaurant. I used the principles of training so many times, good behavior became ingrained in their minds.
It’s funny. I thought I was so smart to figure out that training was the secret to good discipline. It was only after I had my own children that I realized that’s what God had said to do all along. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he won’t depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)
I once heard a Green Beret say he had to train for every conceivable circumstance. He would practice over and over exactly what he was supposed to do until it became second nature.
Parents can apply this same principle of training at home. You can train your children how you expect them to act in every situation: bedtime, clean-up time, shopping, mealtime, and general obedience.
With training you’re being proactive, not reactive. You don’t wait until the bad behavior happens. You train your children the correct way to behave before any misbehavior takes place. And if your children have already acquired some bad habits, you can train them to develop new, good habits.
Some critics of training argue that demanding things be done in a certain way restricts children's individual freedom and stifles creativity. But without a solid foundation of right behavior and self-control, children are not going to be free to accomplish what they really want to do. French hero General Charles de Gaulle said, "Only the disciplined are free." Think about it. Who is more free? Someone obeying traffic lights or someone who is not obeying traffic lights? How free do you want your children to be? Free to break household rules? Free to be on drugs? Free to get pregnant?
Good behavior doesn't come naturally to children. It must be taught—and preferably taught before a problem arises.
A great way to train your children in correct behavior is with Training Sessions. Training Sessions are just a time when you instruct, demonstrate, and have your children practice the correct behavior. You also clearly state the consequence for wrong behavior. Then, you have to constantly remind your children of the correct behavior. Think about how many times you’ve had to remind your kids to say please and thank you. It’s the same principle.
The first rule of a Training Session is to schedule it at a neutral time, not when the poor behavior is taking place. Plan the Training Session when you have plenty of time, and both you and your children are well rested and in a good mood. So if you’re training for bedtime, don’t do it at night when everyone is tired and cranky. Instead, have the Training Session in the morning or afternoon when your children are more receptive to learning.
Then make the Training Session fun. A Training Session involves role playing and pretending. Kids are acting out the good behavior and they love to do this.
Training Sessions don’t have to be long. In fact, if you’re training young children, make them short—but do remind them of the correct behavior frequently.
Training Session Specifics
There are 4 things to do during a Training Session.
Give Specific Instructions
The first thing to do in a Training Session is to teach your children exactly how you expect them to act for a certain activity. Be very specific. Teach your children what they should and should not do. (Think about the Ten Commandments. Some of the rules tell you what you should do; and some tell you what you shouldn’t do.)
For instance, instead of giving a vague, general statement such as, "Be good in the store," you need to tell them specifically what ‘being good’ means. Can they touch things—or not? Do they have to stay right beside you—or not? Can they ask you to buy them something—or not? Spend a few minutes instructing them in exactly what they may and may not do.
One of the specific things I trained my boys to do in a store was to respond respectfully if a request was denied. For instance, if they asked for Pop Tarts and I said no, they were trained to say, “That’s okay, maybe some other time.” Not only did it sound polite, it helped develop their self-control.
State the Consequence
Then, if possible, tell them the exact consequence they will get for not following the rules. Having a preplanned consequence works best when training for a specific activity like bedtime or shopping. However, sometimes it’s not possible to foresee the most appropriate consequence for a particular situation. Just make sure your kids know that there is a 100% chance of some sort of unpleasant consequence if they disobey. Then, if they do get a consequence, it will have been their choice. When they chose to disobey, they chose to get a consequence.
Be sure to ask questions along the way to make sure they clearly understand what to do. Ask questions like: “What are you supposed to do when I tell you to clean up? What’s going to be your consequence if you don’t?”
Practice the Correct Behavior
After instructing, have your kids practice the correct behavior. So if you just instructed them how to clear off the table after a meal, practice it. Have them practice rinsing off the dishes and setting them in the correct place. Have them practice wiping off the table without knocking crumbs on the floor. Train them specifically how you want it done.
After a Training Session
After a Training Session, there are still 4 things you need to do:
Remind Them of the Rules
It's amazing how simply reminding your kids of the rules before a certain activity takes place will help them remember to do the right thing. If you wait until they’re screaming or upset, it really won't have much effect. So before you go anywhere or do anything, go over the correct rules of behavior. Be sure to also mention what consequence they will get if they break a rule.
For instance, if you go to the store, before you ever get out of your car, prepare your children how to behave. Your conversation might sound like this: "Remember how you are supposed to behave in the store. I want you to stay right beside me the whole time. Do not wander away from me. Remember also, you are not allowed to throw a fit. If you do, I will immediately take you out to the car and ______. (Name a specific consequence of your choice.) Now, let's review. Are you going to wander away from me? Are you going to throw a fit? What's going to happen if you throw a tantrum in the store?"
Get into the habit of reviewing correct behavior before every activity. Review how you expect your children to act at bedtime, mealtime, playtime, clean-up time, etc. By hearing and practicing right behavior frequently, good behavior will soon become a way of life.
An important element of the training process is to supervise and inspect to make sure your kids really are obeying. You can’t just tell your kids to do something, and then never check on them. Chances are great that after a while, your kids probably won’t be complying as instructed.
Be especially diligent at the beginning of the training process to supervise that they are behaving as trained. Your children need to be convinced that you will definitely be checking that they did what they were supposed to do.
Praise the Correct Behavior
In education, there’s a term known as The Law of Reinforcement. It basically means that if children get a desirable response to their behavior, they’ll repeat the behavior. For training purposes, it means that if children get praised and reinforced for doing the correct thing, they’ll repeat the behavior.
So when your children obey and act appropriately, be sure to give plenty of praise to reinforce the good behavior.
Enforce Any Consequence Incurred
And finally—and this is essential—enforce any consequence incurred. For training to be effective, you must keep your word, and carry out any deserved consequences. So if your children disobey, make 100% sure you follow through with the consequence.
Training Your Child to Obey
To illustrate a Training Session, here’s an example of what you might do to train your children to obey.
First, have your children sit down and explain to them that in the Bible, God commands children to obey their parents.
"Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” - Ephesians 6:1
"My son, obey your father's commands, and don't neglect your mother's instruction.” -- - - Proverbs 6:20
God also instructs children to respect and honor their parents.
“Honor your father and your mother,…” - Exodus 20:12
“Each of you must respect his mother and his father… - Leviticus 19:3
Have them memorize Colossians 3:20. “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” - Colossians 3:20
Then, teach your children that when you give an instruction, they need to do these 4 things:
Stop what they’re doing.
Look you in the eye.
Say “Yes ma’am” or “Yes sir” with a respectful attitude.
Do what you told them to do.
Note: You can train your children to respond with whatever wording you want. It might be “Yes Mom” or “Yes Dad.” Or, “Okay, I’ll do it now.” Or, “All right—I will.” Just be consistent with the wording.
The reason you want them to stop, look you in the eye, and respond is so that you know they’ve heard you. It’s also a matter of respect.
Then, be sure to tell them of the consequence they will receive if they don’t obey. Next, ask questions to make sure they understand what to do. “What are you supposed to do when I tell you to do something? What’s going to happen to you if you don’t?”
After instructing, have your kids practice the correct behavior. Make up different scenarios where your children have to obey. For instance, have them pretend like they’re playing. Then say, “Go put your backpack in your room.” They need to immediately: Stop what they’re doing. Look you in the eye. Say “Yes ma’am” or “Yes sir.” Then, get up, and put their backpack in their room.
Make the practice part fun. Make up different situations where your kids have to move a lot, and make a lot of noise. Then, when you tell them to do something, they have to obey instantly. So have them jump up and down and scream, and then tell them to stop jumping and screaming. Have them run outside, and then call for them to come back inside. Have them put underwear on their head, and then tell them to take that underwear off their head. Each time, they need to stop, look, respond, and obey.
Training for Specific Activities
Once you’ve trained your children how to respond, you can train them for more specific activities, like bedtime, shopping, or clean up time. Just train them exactly what they’re supposed to do for that situation.
Sample Bedtime Training Session
For example, let’s say you’re having a problem with your children resisting going to bed and then constantly coming out of their room after you’ve tucked them in. Again, have your kids sit down, and have a conversation something like this: “From now on, when I say it’s time to go to bed, you need to stop, look, respond, and then head toward the bathroom. Once you’re in the bathroom, you need to take a bath, brush your teeth, and go to the bathroom one last time. Then, you’re going to get in bed. Now once you’re in bed, you’re not allowed to get out of bed. You’re not allowed to call for me or bother me for any reason, unless it’s an emergency like you’re throwing up.”
Then, be sure to tell them the exact consequence they will definitely receive if they don’t follow the bedtime rules.
And ask questions along the way, like:
· What are you going to do when I tell you to go to bed?
· Are you allowed to get out of bed after I tuck you in?
· Can you yell for me if you have a question?
· What is your consequence if you don’t obey?
Finally, practice the correct behavior. Have your kids pretend to be playing, and then tell them to go to bed. They need to stop, look, respond, and then head toward the bathroom. Have your kids pretend to take a bath, pretend to brush their teeth, pretend to go to the bathroom, and then, get in bed. If necessary, do it again. Make sure they clearly know what they’re supposed to do at bedtime.
Then, sometime before bedtime, remind them of the rules of bedtime. Ask questions like:
· What are supposed to do when I tell you to go to bed?
· What is your consequence if you don’t?
After that, all you should have to do is simply remind them of the rules each night before bedtime. For the first week or two, be sure to supervise and inspect that they are indeed doing what you trained them to do. If they dawdle, and are not in bed at the specified time, make them start getting ready 30 minutes earlier the next night. And finally, don’t forget to give the predetermined consequence if they disobey.
To learn the second part of training up a child, be sure to read "How to Train a Child's Heart." And for more information about raising your children with Christian discipline and instruction, get Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.
Want to make new friends and connect with other Christian parents? Host a small group parenting class. It’s easy with The Parenting with Focus Video Course. Just watch the video and discuss the group discussion questions. Easy—and fun!