Why Do Children Disobey?

Learned Obedience

Our children can sometimes astonish us with how quickly and repeatedly they disobey. Shouldn’t they just naturally know better? We look at them and think, What’s the matter with you? Well . . . sin, of course, is the matter with all of us. Including children. Even the most adorable little tyke is a naturalborn sinner.

Sometimes we speak our frustration out loud: “What’s wrong with you?” But parents shouldn’t request that kind of explanation for misbehavior (especially since such indicting speech can instill irrational guilt in a son or daughter, like that experienced by children who are abused). What parents should be after is the child’s compliance with clearly understood standards.

Parenting with Loving Correction

Sam Crabtree

This guide offers parents practical steps and tips for wise, God-centered, and consistent correction aimed at transforming their children’s hearts.

Besides your child’s sin nature, maybe there’s nothing “wrong” with him. The problem may be that he has been repeatedly rewarded for behaving the way he does. He’s simply functioning according to the way God designed rewards and reinforcement to operate.

Children are not naturally obedient. The problem lies in the opposite direction. The little fellows are sinners—and sin hardens. The Bible talks about our daily potential of being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13). We’re told in that verse to therefore “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today.’” That’s true for our children, too; they require corrective exhortations.

Obedience must be learned. The good news is that it can be! Weary and beleaguered parents can take hope in knowing this: children can be taught to respectfully obey. Children require some assembly—plus clear instruction and guidelines, and the kind of training that demonstrates your genuine love.

We’re All After Happiness

Like you and me, children are naturally prone to pursue their own happiness without regard to what pleases God or anybody else. In their native sinfulness, they stubbornly disobey out of a desire to pursue pleasure in a way that isn’t constrained by any outside authority. In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal famously gave the world this reminder: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.”1 Children are no exception. They’re seeking happiness, and again and again they figure that disobedience will gain them more happiness than obedience will.

After all, what do we suppose makes us happy? We think we know, don’t we? Children believe the same about themselves. And they’re pursuing it. They esteem their own plan above all others, no matter how foolish that plan might be. I can speak from my own personal experience as a child: we’re born naturally foolish and in need of correction, just as the Bible tells us. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (Prov. 22:15).

The fall—humanity’s plunge into sin—threw all of nature into the need for correction. The culminating event of earthly history is when Jesus returns to make his grand correction, making all things new. But that hasn’t happened yet. Meanwhile, our children need correction. As we all do. We need correction because we affirm wrong things, or we affirm good things over against better things, or we affirm good things from wrong motives. That’s our bent.

When we honestly face up to this sinfulness in our children, do we then give up any expectation that they’ll obey us? No. But we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t obey us the first time, every time.

And when they don’t, we correct—or we should.

Christlikeness does not develop accidentally.

Does this require that I watch my kids like a hawk, looking over their shoulder all day long? No. Good parents enjoy empowering their children to try new adventures, expanding each child’s understanding of the pleasures to be found in God’s world. But parental permissiveness should never make allowance for defiant disobedience.

Why Do Parents Hold Back?

If correction simply means we identify unacceptable actions or attitudes in our child, and then act promptly and decisively to move that child in the right direction of compliance, why do we so often hesitate?

Sometimes, it’s because firm correction makes us feel guilty. No good parent wants to come across as a dictator.

At other times, it’s because we don’t see the value in corrective discipline. It seems to make little difference, so why bother?

At other times, we don’t want to upset the child.

And sometimes, we’re just plain weary.

I’m no stranger to any of those feelings. But a number of wrong assumptions may be lurking behind them. When our children are unruly and disobedient—when the moment’s ripe for correction—all kinds of fears and worries and doubts can cause parents to hold back. Like these:

My child will think I’ve lost my affection for him or her.
My child will stop loving and respecting me.
I run the risk of damaging my child’s self-esteem.
I’ll stifle my child’s personality, creativity, and drive to explore.
I’ll cause my child to be afraid of me.

If you’ve had those thoughts, it’s helpful to remember certain truths. For example, when a child is rebelling, the child in that moment is far less interested in your affection than in getting his or her own way. You might mistakenly assume that your affection and patience alone will miraculously remedy your child’s misbehavior. Yes, when pigs fly, oceans run dry, and December’s in July. Your child may not take kindly to you in the moment you apply corrective discipline, but a child’s love is swiftly rekindled—and deepened and solidified in the process of receiving wise correction.

Or let’s think about the danger of damaging a child’s self-esteem. I’m a strong proponent of building up a child’s self-acceptance. But that’s not the same as self-esteem. Self-acceptance is necessary and good, but self-esteem plagues the world. Prisons are full of people who esteem no one but self.

Children (like adults) are naturally self-centered. No baby in the nursery is crying because some other baby is wet or hungry. Infants come out of the womb entirely self-preoccupied and quite content to let the entire universe cater to them. Their selfwill is fully formed. They are us.

When we worry that our child will perceive our corrective discipline as unloving, we forget God’s higher wisdom about genuine love. He tells us, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prov. 13:24). When we refrain from correction, do we subconsciously think we’re wiser than God?

True love means that parents will give their children objective “outside” feedback on the true condition of their sinful little hearts: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Correction exists because errors and omissions exist, and because sin exists. Corrections are undertaken because of love. Love implements correction in order to protect the loved one from heaping up negative consequences, to his or her regret.

God knows that discipline and obedience are required before a child’s God-given abilities can truly flourish. It’s a misunderstanding to think that practicing firm, decisive, consistent discipline will interfere in any way with your children’s proper development. Christlikeness does not develop accidentally.


  1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Harvard Classics ed., trans. William Finlayson Trotter (New York: F. F. Collier & Son, 1910), 7.425.

Related Articles

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.