What does the Bible say to do with a rebellious child?

Question: "What does the Bible say to do with a rebellious child?"

The child who exhibits a rebellious streak may be doing so for a variety of reasons. Harsh, unloving and critical parenting will nearly always result in rebellion of some sort. Even the most compliant child will rebel—inwardly or outwardly—against such treatment. Naturally, this type of parenting is to be avoided. In addition, a certain amount of rebellion against parents is natural in teenagers who are slowly pulling away from their families in the process of establishing lives and identities of their own.

For the purposes of this article, however, it will be assumed that the rebellious child is one who has a naturally strong-willed personality. He was born with it, it’s part of the way God created him, and everything he does will reflect that fact. The strong-willed child is characterized by an inclination to test limits, an overriding desire for control, and a commitment to resisting all authority. In other words, rebellion is his middle name. In addition, these are often very intelligent children who can “figure out” situations with amazing speed and find ways to take control of circumstances and the people around them. These kids can be, for their parents, an extremely trying and exhausting challenge.

But fortunately, it’s also true that God has made them who and what they are, He loves them, and He has not left parents without resources to meet the challenge. There are biblical principles that address dealing with the rebellious, strong-willed child with grace and good humor. First, Proverbs 22:6 tells us to “train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not turn from it.” For all children, the way they should go is toward God. Teaching children in God’s Word is crucial for all children, who must understand who God is and how to best serve Him. With the strong-willed child, understanding what motivates him—the desire for control—will go a long way to helping him find his “way.” This child is one who must understand that he is not in charge of the world—God is—and we simply must do things God’s way. This requires parents to be absolutely convinced of this truth and to live accordingly. A parent who is himself in rebellion against God will not be able to convince his child to be submissive to his heavenly Father.

Once it has been established that God is the One making the rules, parents must establish in the child’s mind that they are God’s instruments and will do anything and everything necessary to carry out God’s plan for their families, and His plan is that they lead and the child follows. There can be no vacillating on this point. The strong-willed child can spot indecisiveness a mile away and will jump at the opportunity to fill the leadership vacuum and take control. The principle of submitting to authority is crucial for the strong-willed child. If it isn’t learned in childhood, his future will be characterized by conflicts with all authorities, including employers, police, law courts, and military leaders. Romans 13:1-5 is clear that the authorities over us are established by God, and we are to submit to them. Also, a strong-willed child will only willingly comply with rules or laws when they make sense to him. Give him a solid reason for a rule, constantly reiterating the truth that we do things the way God wants them done and that is not negotiable. Explain that God has given parents the responsibility to love and discipline their children and to fail to do so would mean the parents are disobeying Him. Where possible, however, give the child opportunities to help make decisions so that he does not feel completely powerless. For example, going to church is not negotiable because God commands us to gather together with other believers (Hebrews 10:25), but children can have a say in what they wear, where the family sits, etc. Give them projects in which they can take charge, like planning the family vacation.

Further, parenting must be done with consistency and patience. Parents must try not to raise their voices, or raise their hands in anger, or lose their tempers. This will give the strong-willed child the sense of control he longs for, and he will quickly figure out how to control you by frustrating you to the point of making you react emotionally. Spanking often fails with these kids because they enjoy pushing parents to the breaking point so much that they feel a little pain is worth the price. Parents of strong-willed kids often report the kid laughs at them while they are being spanked, so spanking might not be the best method of discipline with them. Perhaps nowhere in life are the Christian fruits of the Spirit of patience and self-control (Galatians 5:23) more needed than with the strong-willed child.

No matter how exasperating parenting these children can be, parents can take comfort in God’s promise not to test us beyond our ability to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13). If God gives them a strong-willed child, parents can be sure He hasn’t made a mistake and will provide the guidance and resources they need to do the job. Perhaps nowhere in the life of a parent do the words “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) have more meaning than with the strong-willed youngster. Parents of these children have to spend lots of their time on their knees before the Lord asking for wisdom, which He has promised to provide (James 1:5). Finally, there is comfort in the knowledge that strong-willed children who are trained well often grow up to be high achieving, successful adults and bold, committed Christians who use their considerable talents to serve the Lord they have come to love and respect through the efforts of patient and diligent parents.

Recommended Resource: The New Strong-Willed Child by James Dobson.

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What does the Bible say to do with a rebellious child?