Question:

I need some advice on how to handle a sassy daughter. Time outs don't work (even long ones!) and she is too old to spank. She is a very sensitive child with a sharp tongue and quick temper, constantly testing the boundaries. My husband and I are having a hard time figuring out how to discipline and even guide our 9-year-old little girl. (My stepdaughter for the past two years.) We realize that maybe her situation has caused some of this controlling behavior, but still, how do you deal with it?

Answer:

"Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6).

Most of the time when a parent is stumped as to why a child behaves as he or she does, you can look at how they are training their child and find that they are unknowingly encouraging the behavior that they do not want. We seem to understand how to train an animal, but when it comes to children, we become flabbergasted.

Time-outs have become the all-purpose tool for discipline children, but as you are discovering time-outs don't often work. There are two main reasons:

  1. If your daughter is not socially connected to the family in the first place, isolation from the rest of the family doesn't change her situation from her point of view.
  2. If your daughter's room is filled with activities, she can spend her time-out doing things she likes, barely noticing the time going by.

Time-outs can be useful in some situations. A child emotionally out of control needs to be isolated from stimulation until they calm down and you can discuss what is going wrong. Time-outs also work well on a child who is behaving badly to get attention from others. But no single punishment should be considered adequate for all situations.

Nor should you arbitrarily rule out some forms of punishment just because a child has reached a certain age. If you go through the Scriptures concerning spanking (or the use of the rod) you will not find it setting an age limit on when it should stop being used. (See "Discipline of Children, Spanking" for a list of verses to examine.)

So let's step back a moment and examine what happens when your daughter turns sassy.

  1. Are you showing partial acceptance? Many parents, not wanting to deal with a problem, will ignore back talk or sassy behavior until they are pushed beyond their limits. Usually, the limit comes because of their personal mood or the quantity of backtalk they receive.
  2. Are you inconsistently showing disapproval? Some parents don't always punish bad behavior. As a result, the child learns to gamble on getting away with bad behavior because there is always a chance that she might get away with it.

What I would like to you consider is that you might be telling your daughter by your own behavior that sassing is acceptable in some cases. You mentioned "her situation" and that has me wondering if you are excusing some of her bad behavior because you feel guilty over what she faced in the past.

You and your husband should pick one or two specific behaviors that you want your daughter to stop using and decide on an appropriate punishment. Only pick one or two, because your daughter needs to master a few things at a time. Next, sit down with your daughter and tell her that these behaviors are no longer acceptable and when they do happen, this will be the consequence. Finally, when the behavior occurs, follow through immediately -- without anger or yelling. A calm objective approach is seen as reasonable by most children.

What kinds of punishments are available to you?

  • Rebukes: Not yelling, but a stern reprimand why a certain behavior is wrong and instruction as to correct behavior. This requires an older child who can reason well. (Colossians 1:28-29; Titus 1:13; Proverbs 28:23; 17:10).
  • Spankings: These are especially effective if reserved for extreme behavior or behavior that comes about because of a lack of thinking on the child's part (Proverbs 22:15; 10:13). While it will halt bad behavior, it needs to be combined with rebukes so that correct behavior will be learned in the future (Proverbs 29:15).
  • Confiscation of goods or removal of privileges: Even children do cost/benefits analysis. It can cause a child to reflect. "Since you are behaving like that, I can't let you go to the party. Parties are a privilege for well-behaved older children, but you are acting like a bratty three-year-old." (Notice that the responsibility is placed on the child.) (Ezra 7:26; Jeremiah 5:7-9).
  • Repayment: When a child causes damage or harm, she should be held responsible for the repairs. If funds are not available, the child repays the debt she caused by working (Exodus 22:1-6).
  • Shame or embarrassment: This is very effective with teenagers who are easily embarrassed. (Isaiah 47:3; Jeremiah 13:26-27; Nahum 3:5-6).

Question:

I've deeply appreciated all the excellent advice you have offered, we have made a strong decision to apply the Scriptures to our family. I feel I have a lot to think and pray about. I have allowed a lot of inconsistency and acceptance of her mouthy behavior.

Even though I feel it is rare, and a bit embarrassing too, to begin spanking over 5 or 6, we are determined to begin to follow God's system for training her. I would like to ask, please:

What sort of trouble will you run into when you first start this type of discipline? How quickly can you expect results?

I believe prayer has a lot to do with it. Yesterday she was smart-alecky when her friends were present. This serves to show that she is "cool" and independent, and doesn't have to answer to anyone, which is, of course, a bunch of nonsense. I prayed with a friend this morning about the situation and I feel that God gave me a ton of grace for the day.

Thanks for taking the time to reply!

Answer:

Not to pick on you per se, but it is amusing to see the "drive-through" desire that we all display from time to time. We live in a culture that wants instant results and it affects our thinking in so many subtle ways. Most children are smart enough to realize when certain behavioral avenues are no longer productive. They will quickly move on to other things. You'll see a marked decrease in bad behavior within a week or so. Generally, it is followed by a period of compliance and then it will reappear -- either because of lack of diligence on the child's part or to see if you really mean what you said. The reappearance varies, but I have often seen it come back one to three months later.

Yet, there is another factor you must consider. Many children respond in a sassy manner out of habit, not because they are really in a sassy mood, but because that is the way they have always responded to a particular situation. As you know from your own experience with bad habits, breaking them might take a while. This also is the reason why calm rebukes are needed. They help the child learn to replace bad habits with good habits.

When we start looking for quick fixes to our problems -- especially problems that we let develop for years -- we soon become inconsistent in our response. Thus the parent tries solution A for a little while, decides it doesn't work well enough, and then moves to solution B, then C, then D and then eventually throws up his hands and decides that there is no solution! The one advantage we have in following the Bible is that God has told us what works, so we are not left guessing. All that remains is for us to consistently apply the solution to the problem.

God warned Israel that when they strayed into sin, He would not relent from punishing them when they needed it. "The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation" (Exodus 34:6-7). If we accept that a certain behavior is wrong, then it remains wrong even if a child persists in doing it for fifteen years. It is not the length of time or the number of times that makes a certain behavior bad. If the behavior is bad, it needs to be corrected each time it appears. In other words, a part of parenting is being persistent. Keep the goal in mind: we want our children to grow up into godly adults. Too often people would like to have good kids if it isn't too much of a bother to them.

If I may be so bold, let me recommend that you layout a response plan to the sassing. Perhaps something on the order of:

  1. If she gives me a sassy look, I will remind her that such looks are not allowed. At times remind her that it will cause her difficulty in the future, such as behaving in such a fashion in front of her boss. Since you want the best for her, you are willing to stay after her because you love her.
  2. If her response is further eye-rolling or a sassy remark, then a punishment is given. If it was regarding something she didn't want to do, she nows has to do twice as much. Or, instead of a time-out, she remains home and her bedtime is moved up one hour. When handing out the consequence, word it so that the responsibility falls on her shoulders. "Since you decided to continue being sassy, you will now have to ..."
  3. If she continues to give you grief, then move to spanking. However, the other punishment remains. The spanking is for sassing back at her punishment.

By scaling it in this fashion, your daughter has the opportunity to exercise self-restraint in controlling a bad habit. In a real sense, if spanking is done, it is because your daughter chose it by persisting in her bad behavior. And, you can deliver the punishment objectionably because it is not about you, but about what she will one day become. Oh, and don't modify your response when her friends are around. They can learn too that bad behavior has consequences and your daughter will be mortified (because they won't let her forget).

Question:

We operate mostly on level three, if I ask her to do anything, she either screams, shouts, cries, or flat
out refuses.

Please give your thoughts about self-esteem, a young child is totally embarrassed if she is punished in front of her peers. Can’t the self-worth be shattered? What’s your experience? We just need to know what step is next.

Answer:

What you are describing would be normal at the beginning when discipline is first re-imposed after a long absence, but it would be odd for it to remain for months on end.

The difficulty with answering short e-mails is that I can't qualify my answers by asking background questions. However, assuming that this has been going on for a long while, then you need to sit back ask yourself the questions I would ask. You need to examine your response to her behavior to find out what it is that she thinks she is gaining by her tirades. Some common causes:

  1. The scenes get her less of a punishment.
  2. The scenes delay her punishment, thus she can continue what she wanted to do, at least for a little while.
  3. She doesn't always get punished, thus she has little motivation to stop because there is always a chance that this time she will get away with it. (The gambler's syndrome.)
  4. She thinks she is getting back at you by causing you discomfort.

The first three are answered by being both consistent and persistent in disciplining a badly behaving child. Ask any animal trainer what happens if you don't always demand good behavior from an animal and you will learn that the animal quickly grasps the idea that he can sometimes get away with doing wrong. For the poor trainer, it means extra long hours. It takes far longer to get the animal back to where you started than it did to train him in the first place. Our children are not animals, but they are smarter than any beast. It doesn't take much to lose control of a situation and they remember far longer that it is possible to get away with bad behavior.

The fourth problem is a matter of handling your own behavior. Discipline should be viewed as a consequence of bad behavior. It should not be looked at as a power struggle between you and your daughter. If such exists, you have given up far too much authority. You are the parent. It is your God-given job to raise up a decent human being. Any power a child has is solely because you gave it to her. If you can view the task of discipline in an objective matter and not get personally bent out of shape when it is needed, then you have taken away any "pleasure" your daughter gained in causing you discomfort. This is why I recommend mapping out your responses in advance when emotions don't play into the decision process.

Your concern about your daughter's self-esteem causes me to guess that you have given your daughter too much authority in the family. Have you ever looked at the definition of self-esteem? Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines it as "1) A confidence and satisfaction in oneself: self-respect 2) self-conceit." The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "Pride in oneself; self-respect." Roget's Thesaurus gives these synonyms, "A sense of one's own dignity or worth; pride, honor, ego, assertiveness, self-confidence, dignity, self-respect. An excessively high opinion of oneself; conceit, bigheadedness, egotism, superiority, self-admiration, self-adulation, self-love, self-regard, self-worship, vanity, self-importance." In other words, self-esteem is a fancier way of saying "pride." Your daughter has plenty of self-esteem. That is why she is demanding that things be done her way. Now read II Timothy 3:1-5 and see if that description sounds a bit too familiar.

Your job as a parent is not to instill self-esteem or pride in your child. The Christian's view of life is humility and concern for other people. It is not that we lack confidence, but we know that our confidence does not come from our own abilities, but from our confidence, or faith, in God.

The concern for self-esteem comes from the world. It is understandable that the world wants people to have pride because the world is under the influence of Satan. Pride is one of Satan's big tools to get people to sin. The San Jose Mercury-News, a while back, ran an article that started with this line: "Too much self-esteem -- not too little -- can be a key factor in determining aggressive and violent behavior." A bit later it was noted that the American Psychological Association "found aggressive people have unusually high self-esteem -- defined as 'a favorable global evaluation of oneself' -- especially when compared to their actual achievements." Did you know that the people in our jails have some of the highest self-esteem ratings?

See the following sermon outlines for more details:

So what if her behavior in front of her peers leads to her punishment? Who chose to behave badly, you or her? If her bad behavior requires a spanking, it doesn't mean she has to be spanked in front of her friends. But if you lead her off to her room, deliver the punishment, and she returns red-eyed, it won't take a brain surgeon to figure out what happened. If that puts a bit of fear in her friends -- good for you. If it embarrasses your daughter, then she is going to think long and hard before pulling that stunt again. An embarrassment is an effective tool for disciplining a child. See "Disciplining Children" for a list of verses on this and other methods.

Question:

Thank you for your long answers - after a couple of days of thought and prayer, we have started using your suggestions. We've picked two things to work on. We implemented spanking (three times ... but we made it sting) and what a difference, once she got over the shock that we spanked her little princess behind ... lol.

We were confused as to moral and disciple training with all the different worldly views. Your writing made biblical morals and discipline so clear to us. I have sat down to read all the scriptures, just so you know. I found Self-Esteem, The Sin of Pride, and Isaiah 47:3; Jeremiah 13:26-27; Nahum 3:5-6 to be particularly interesting: What an eye-opener! A child who has never had her will broken becomes a selfish child, and she will be throwing tantrums for the rest of her life. Our stepdaughter possesses inflated self-esteem and is headed for disaster. She needs to go through a humbling to bring her back in line. To deflate her ego she needs to be shamed. Embarrassment should be a calculated part of her discipline, as it serves to teach her humility. Correct?

Today, she is still not behaving! She was sassy in front of two of her friends. So I calmly asked her if she wanted another spanking this week. I put her to bed a little early. She said, "You embarrassed me in front of my friends." I said, "You embarrassed me by speaking to me in that way. There would have been no embarrassment if you had spoken politely. If you want to avoid embarrassment in the future you will always speak politely to me."

I would like to ask, please: How would you deal with her sass if she was yours? She has stolen her grandmother's purse too and lied about various situations. Where can I find more on how to use shame or embarrassment as a training tool?

Answer:

Remember that you have invested years' worth of time "teaching" your daughter that she can do as she pleases. A lot of bad habits have been instilled which needs to be broken, but it will take time. They didn't build overnight and they certainly won't go away overnight either.

An embarrassment is a useful tool in some situations. The problem is that we tend to latch on to something that works and then try to use that same solution to every difficulty. I wanted you to see that you were overly concerned about your daughter's self-esteem and that concern was creating the situations you were facing. Scenes or bad behavior to "show-off" in front of friends are a good place to use embarrassment because children are sensitive to what others think about them. They want to believe they are grown-up, but they need to face the fact that their actions are childish. Hence, you don't follow the script. A calm response to a tantrum demonstrates that real adults don't throw tantrums. A no-tolerance approach shows that she can't manipulate the situation to get away with bad behavior.

It sounds like you made great strides in the past few days. Now you need to work on your resolve to outlast your daughter. Each bad behavior should be met with a reasonable punishment delivered in a reasonable amount of time. "Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Ecclesiastes 8:11).

Let me give you an example from my family's dog. We live in a suburban neighborhood, but we don't have a fenced-in backyard, neither did several of my neighbors because we liked the look of the open space. Hence, we installed an "invisible fence" around the perimeter of the yard. We followed the training instructions, but at the end of the month, our dog would still fly through the boundary if he saw someone he badly wanted to see. He thought the momentary shock worth it. I just about gave up on the whole thing as being a waste of money, but after several more months, I noticed that he left the boundary less frequently. By the time a year was out, he wouldn't cross the boundary, no matter what. It took time, but the consistent punishment for crossing eventually wore down his stubbornness.

Your daughter is approaching the turbulent years of adolescence. Now is the time to be her emotional anchor. (Dads are particularly good at this, but Moms understand where their daughters are coming from and understand why emotional stability is needed.) A calm and consistent approach to any misbehavior is critical to getting her through these years safely, even when it appears you are not making any headway.

You asked me how I would handle your daughter if she were mine. The answer is that I would do exactly as I have been advising you. I don't treat my children any different than what I teach.

Stealing should be treated as any other bad behavior. The child should be made to return the stolen item along with an apology. I assume she took grandma's purse to help herself to something that was in it. Whatever that was, she should replace it plus some extra. The Old Testament law required a thief to restore the item (or its full value if it was consumed) plus a fifth more (Leviticus 6:1-7), which should give you a good place to start. This would be in addition to some other punishment, such as a grounding, community service, or spanking. In no way should a child be allowed to profit from taking another person's possession.

Lying is generally done because the child believes she will be better off telling a lie than telling the truth. Your job is to make her understand that lies cause more problems than does the truth. When you discover that your daughter has lied, try to figure out what she thought was going to be the benefit and then use that as the basis of the punishment. For example, if she told you she dusted, but she had not, then it is obvious that her lie was to allow her to do as she pleased. The response would be that: one, she has to complete the task immediately; two, she will have other tasks to occupy her time for the next week; and three, her bedtime will earlier for the next week. If your daughter lied so that she could spend more time with her friends, the response would be a grounding that included no phone calls or Internet time for a week.

Any backtalk or breaking of the punishment is calmly met with more severe punishment, such as a spanking.

Question:

Thank you so much for this help. I see improvements when I’m consistent and predictable. We just gained full custody of our stepdaughter. We now have a long road ahead undoing early mistraining, but we trust in the Lord to guide us.

We have removed even the minor choices: which clothes to wear, which entertainment and books. I made all entertainment choices and brought them down to a bare minimum. She has to come to me and ask my permission for all the things. When she surges, I bring her to account.

I would like to ask, please: What do you do with a child that, after a spanking, cries out in anger, runs to her room, slams her door, scream, yell, throws or hit things and cries, "I hate you!"?

Answer:

Removing all choices from your daughter does not prepare her for making choices when you are not around. Your goal should be raising a young woman who wants to serve God of her own free will. You don't want a child who at the first moment of freedom runs off and leaves morality and the church behind.

Give your daughter a range of choices that you find acceptable. For instance, have her go shopping with you and talk about what makes a good clothing choice and what doesn't. Only purchase those things that you find acceptable. Then each morning she has the freedom to select what she wants to wear, but her choices are limited to those things you find acceptable because that is all that is in her closet.

Similarly, you might state that she can select X number of movies per month, but they must be either G-rated or she has to ask your permission in advance. This gives her the freedom to choose but allows you to monitor her choice. One thing we did was to stock our home with movies and books that my wife and I found acceptable. The children had free access to choose any of these items. Each month we went to the library or video store with them and we helped them locate good material. We always reserved the right to refuse to get something that we felt was unacceptable.

As she gradually demonstrates better choices, you can loosen the reigns gradually. Be sure to praise her when she makes a particularly good choice on her own.

Your daughter is used to getting her way with no consequences. It is reasonable to expect expressions of anger at being stymied for probably the first time in her life. Give her a bit of tolerant sympathy, but place limits on her self-expression. For example, I wouldn't permit violent expressions in my home - slamming doors, throwing, or hitting. When she calms down, explain to her that slamming doors is not permitted as it can cause damage. If she insists on continuing, you will remove the door for the next month. Now she is going to have to balance her desire to express rebellion with a loss of privacy in her room. One or two times is sufficient to cure this problem in most kids.

If she throws something, any damage is her responsibility to replace or repair. Hitting or throwing in my own home was immediate grounds for an additional spanking. Even though I raised four boys, all of whom are now black-belts in Tae Kwon Do, we have a very peaceful home. Not that we haven't had our share of problems, but hitting or throwing (outside of practice) has not been among them.

Beyond this, time is going to be your largest investment. She has a new situation to get used to and new rules to obey. It will take time for good habits to be established and bad habits to be broken. If you are willing to be consistent in applying the rules, she will gradually settle down into a new pattern of living.

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