Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Suggestions for Dealing With Disobedient Children

Including those that the bible recommends.

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The bible has the following recommendations:


(Deuteronomy 21:18-21:21) 

18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and [that], when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:

19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;

20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son [is] stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; [he is] a glutton, and a drunkard.

21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

I do not take such a stern view.

The admonition offered above was undoubtedly an expression of the frustration parents often feel dealing with a stubbornly disobedient child. I have often heard parents say that they felt like killing their kid, which I have not thought to take as an expression of fixed intent, but rather simply as an emotional response to a difficult situation. If a parent has more than one such child, the feeling is compounded. Sigmund Freud reported the case of a child who was bound by his father into devices he had contrived to discourage unnecessary movements and unwanted behaviors. No detailed description of these devices survive, but they are known to have included iron bars and straps. The father was an authority on exercise and physical health and might, for that reason, have felt free to engage in such unconventional methods of discipline. The child grew up to become a famous jurist, who then, unfortunately, developed a paranoid psychosis. Freud gave a well-known psychoanalytic account of his illness, which was a psychotic depression, without having the advantage of ever having spoken to him or, indeed, to anyone else whoever spoke to him. As I remember the case, Freud thought these restricting mechanical devices should not have been used, and I agree with him.

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I have no doubt that dealing with a disobedient child as the bible suggests (I think the reference to gluttony and drunkenness suggests an older child) would, in fact, discourage such behaviors in other children who might witness his execution; but I think that, with the exception of certain families in the Middle East that I read about in the newspapers from time to time, no sensitive parent would be prepared to go so far just to encourage other children in the neighborhood to behave properly. And I’m sure also that it is possible to build a mechanical device that would so restrict and restrain rebellious children that they would have no choice but to obey—at least until they reach adolescence—but this too is an over-the-top response. (Most of the parents I know would be hard-pressed to invent a device to limit the use of a child’s cell phone.) But the issue is not how to command obedience, but rather how to encourage a child to be generally obedient, but not so inclined to bow to authority that he/she grows up to be slavish.

More specifically, we would like our children to grow up to be more or less civilized. We would like them to feel comfortable doing what they are supposed to do. We do not want them to wonder all the time whether it is safe to break one or another rule. If they are stopped by a red light in the middle of the night, they should not be inclined to look around for a policeman to decide whether or not it is safe to drive through the light. That sort of thinking is undesirable not only because every once in a while it leads to getting in trouble, but, more important, because it is a waste of time. There are other things to think about, even when waiting for a traffic light to change. We would like our children to follow the rules most of the time without questioning them.

On the other hand, we do not want our children to grow up to be the sort of people who do whatever they are told, no matter what they are told. And no matter who is telling them. We do not want them to fall in with a group of kids who will pressure them into bullying other kids, or using drugs, or smoking. We would like them to stand up to unreasonable pressures. And to unreasonable authority. We would like to think that they would blow the whistle if they were to see a boss harassing an employee, or resist if someone pressures them into going along with improper or illegal behavior. We would like our children to refuse if a teacher encourages them to tease one of the other children (such things happen.) We would like to think we would resist if ordered by a superior officer to torture a prisoner; and we would like our children to grow up to be that sort of person also.

It is not even the case that we want our children to obey us all the time, no matter what the circumstances. Sometimes, as parents, we may not understand a child’s needs and wishes, and children should not be so intimidated by us that they will not or cannot argue their case.

How can parents help their children to grow up understanding these distinctions? First, the parents, themselves, have to determine which of their children’s undesirable behaviors are really important enough to discourage and which other misbehaviors are trivial.

It is fair to say that there is one continuing dispute that defines the relationship between children of every age and their parents. Parents want to protect their children and mold their behavior into what seems to them to be proper. Children always want to assert themselves in their own ways. They wish to be independent—to the extent their age and circumstances permit. In order for them to grow up successfully, they have to become independent of their parents—which means developing over time their own values and attitudes about religion, about sexuality, about work, and about whatever else they think is integral to who they are. Inherent in those contrasting wishes is conflict to a greater or lesser extent, depending on just what the wishes of the growing child are and on how insistent his/her parents are. Such conflict can be minimized, but not eliminated completely.

Still, children start off with a desire to please their parents. Conflict often develops when parents are unclear about what they really want. These conflicts, then, do not come from a test of will, but from a failure of communication. Consider what happens when parents put a child--let’s say a six year old—to bed.

“It’s time to go to sleep,” a parent says.

About ten minutes later: “I told you, it’s time to go to bed.”

Another ten minutes, after a trip to the bathroom, a last drink of water, and a question about whether whales are bigger than dinosaurs. “Listen,” in a loud voice, “I really mean it, GET TO BED!”

There is nothing wrong with this conversation. The parent was communicating exactly what he meant. Initially, he meant something like, start getting ready to go to bed, later on he meant, we are about ten minutes away from my really wanting you to go to bed; and, finally, he meant, go to bed. The child learns the difference between being told to do something (but not really)—and being told in a way that suggests he is truly expected to comply. If the same child runs into the street after a ball, his parent will respond immediately as if he wants the child to GET OUT OF THE STREET NOW! And the child will have learned, hopefully, that this is one of those occasions when he is truly required to do as he is told.

Suppose that child’s parent is one of the few people who always, unambiguously, expect their children to obey all the time. I have seen this rarely. The child is likely to grow up then stunted in a way—without initiative or courage. But, more commonly, I have seen parents who are hesitant to be firm with their children. The children then become regularly disobedient and may seem spoiled and willful.

I can think of two kinds of parents who are never firm—and never clear—to their children:

  1. Very nice people who feel they should be able to reason with a child even when the child is too young to reason with. A three year old is stamping her feet while her mother explains patiently the reasons why she should sit down to dinner when she is called. The child is not listening, and the parent is not insisting that she listen. (I do not mean to suggest here that the way to talk to a child is by yelling. Yelling is not necessary in order to be firm.)
  2. In fact, the second kind of parent who is not usually listened to is someone who yells all the time. The child cannot distinguish those times when he is told to do something, but is not really expected to obey, from those times when he is.

A typical conversation I heard from across a street:

A mother, in a loud voice:  “I told you to come over here, Anthony. Anthony! You get right over here this minute. Did you hear me? I said, get right over here. Anthony! ANTHONY! If you don’t get over here… Anthony, I’m going to count to three. You better get over here by the time I… one…two… Anthony, are you listening to me? If you don’t get over here right this minute, no T.V. tonight...”  I could see Anthony, who was a little way down the block, bouncing a ball. He was not paying any attention to his mother, and his mother was content to sit on a stoop and shout at him.

I had no doubt that Anthony’s mother had cajoled and threatened him in many such encounters, during which Anthony blithely went on doing whatever he wanted to do.

Sometimes, someone who might well have been Anthony’s father comes to my office complaining that his wife is screaming all the time at their children. (Sometimes it is the mother of the obdurate child who complains to me about her husband’s screaming.) Both parents usually agree that yelling at the kids does no good, but the yelling continues. A parent screaming at a child indicates that something has gone wrong. Because the pitch and volume of the screaming is unvarying, the child cannot tell whether the parent is serious or not. Anthony’s mother was plainly not serious, otherwise she would have left the stoop and corralled him. Also, think what Anthony must be thinking when he hears his mother going, “one…two… three.”  It certainly suggests to him that he does not have to come to her right away. At the count of one. It suggests that one and two are not serious demands; (and, I suspect, he understands that three is not serious either.) And the familiar business of, “do this, or no T.V. tonight” suggests, if taken literally, that the child has a choice. Also, I am sure Anthony suspects that his mother will forget to take away the T.V, that night. Besides, he is thinking about bouncing the ball right not. Tonight is too far away for him to consider.

This is my suggestion for communicating clearly to a young child. Tell the child what to do. If the child does not respond, tell him again, insistently. (If this is one of the situations where a parent really wants the child to obey.) Then, I think the parent should make the child do what is requested of him/her. That way, there is no reason for the parent to become frustrated and angry. Certainly, there is no reason to scream. For example:

A child does not come down to dinner after being called twice. I think the parent should then go get the child. Turn off the television set, and bring the child to the dinner table.

A girl who is school age does not get dressed when told to do so—twice. I think the parent should take the time then to dress the child quickly, even aggressively.

If the child understands clearly what is really expected of him/her, that child will learn to respond appropriately. If parents follow these rules—which come naturally to most parents-- problems with disobedience do not happen. When they do not behave firmly, disobedience becomes chronic. When an older child becomes stubbornly defiant, the bible’s suggestion of execution may come to mind. (This thought is not entirely facetious.  Some years ago, when children were systematically discouraged from growing their hair long, one resistant young man was killed by his father, who had the last word by cutting his son’s hair before he was buried.)

Punishment is another way of underlining what the parent thinks is important. Different families use different punishments, depending, in part, on the age of the child. Young children respond to the time-honored “time-out,” that is, being confined alone to his/her room. Of course, there should be no television in the room. Every punishment should be unpleasant. But remember, the punishment is intended to say something clearly, not to inflict pain.

Corporal punishment: When I finished my child fellowship, I asked the other child psychiatrists whether they thought there was ever an indication for striking a child. Fifty percent, exactly, said, “yes”—and the other fifty per cent said “no.” In other words, there was nothing in our training that determined, one way or the other, the appropriateness of corporal punishment. I can say that, in general, those parents who believe in corporal punishment feel strongly about the matter; and those who do not believe in it feel just as strongly. Even those child residents who did believe in it did not think it should be performed methodically, with the intention of humiliating the child.

It is important to get kids to listen before they are adolescent. A recalcitrant child can be picked up and placed in his room, even if he/she resists; a teen-ager cannot. Sometimes, a sensitive parent balks at forcibly restraining a child.

“I put her in her room, but she comes out.”

Me: “It is important that you follow through on any punishment you have fixed on—otherwise you will not be taken seriously.”

“What can I do? She is stronger than I am”

“If necessary, lock her in her room.”

“I couldn’t do that! That’s awful.”

“Well, you have to follow through on a threatened punishment, or your daughter will not know whether you are serious.”

It was an additional few months of putting up with bad behavior before this mother took my advice. This is what happened. The mother called a locksmith, who was busy putting a lock on her daughter’s door when her daughter walked by.

“What is that man doing?” the girl asked her mother.

Her mother explained that the lock was for the purpose of keeping her in her room whenever she misbehaved.

The daughter never again misbehaved to the point where the mother had to consider sending her to her room.

Of course, a different set of punishments has to be used during adolescence. I have seen a number of older kids who when exiled to a room climbed out a window. (c) Fredrc Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at


Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.


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