How do I get a child to obey if it does not want to – a practical Example

by | Mar 5, 2020 | Education | 0 comments

When I told a boy at our school’s weekly collective lunch a few weeks ago to help me carry the table in, he ran away with the words :

“Nah, I’m not in the mood!”

At the moment I felt powerless and let another boy help me.

Before the next collective lunch I thought about how I could react in such a situation; and came up with a good idea:

t the following lunch table I asked the same boy again if he could help me. When he ran away again with similar words like the last time, I followed him and said in a calm – and quite confident – voice:

“Well, if you don’t help me, you won’t get any lunch, either!”

The boy looked at me in astonishment:

“But that’s not fair!”, he said.

I answered him,

“Well, I think it is unfair for you to simply run away and refuse to do what I tell you to do!

A short time later the table was in the right place and I felt quite good; the boy had done what I had told him to do!

At the monthly parents’ meeting of our school I told them how I had handled this situation; not all parents found my methods of education appropriate:

“At our school we don’t threaten!”

“Not giving food would have been unfeasible!”

I had to agree with them: Threatening is not really our way of dealing with children.

But what else could I have done?
My curiosity was aroused; I wanted to get a good answer to my question and asked the education expert Heinz Etter by e-mail if he could help me.

He offered me a Skype conference – together with all interested mothers and teachers of the school.

We did this a few weeks ago and I will now try to describe my “aha” experience from this conversation.

Of course, this consultation also dealt with topics that are only valid in the context of public institutions, such as our school. But there were some very interesting inputs that I would like to pass on to you:

As we have seen, this boy – let us call him David – showed clear resistance to a small order I had given him. The option of threatening David with not getting lunch was not really ideal for Heinz Etter either.

“It’s a threat that can’t be reasonably executed.”

How could David have been motivated to cooperate without threats?

We also asked Heinz Etter this question.

He told us:

Asking questions is always a good way to work with the child – especially when we as parents or teachers lack the necessary empathy.


I would have asked David in private:


“David, what exactly is your problem?” 


His answer would probably have been something like this:


“I always have to help carry this table out, and this every time while I’m having fun playing!


“In fact, I can understand you finding this unjust! Do you have any idea what might be the reason for this? Because you’re right, I like to ask you.”


“You don’t like me and you want to interrupt my cool game!”


“So as far as I’m concerned, I know that’s not true. I really like you. But I ask you preferably, because I know that you are the strongest. I can’t ask Silvio. Imagine what it would be like if he carried the table.
You know, the strongest two are you and me.
Come on. Let’s carry the table in together. It’s done in a minute.”

Etter explained further:

It is often difficult for us adults to muster up the necessary empathy, especially when we feel threatened in our role as responsible adults.

As soon as we put ourselves in the position where a child’s obedience or disobedience dominates us, the current situation is blocked and we put ourselves under pressure to react immediately to remedy the situation.

In many families the most common way to deal with such a situation is to send a child away:

” If you don’t do what I tell you to do, you will have to go to your room”.

“If you don’t behave well, you have to get away from me.”

Such an educational method is extremely problematic and counterproductive (as described here). But this reaction is epidemic. So many parents cannot get away from this concept when trying to keep control over their children.

In Heinz Etter’s book “Raising Children With Trust” I found a section that describes this topic in more detail:

“The question “why” is often asked rhetorically by a parent (the verdict being already contained in the question). “There is no reason for such behavior. I want to make you realize this by my question. If you thought about it – why you do it – you would certainly stop doing it.”

Therefore I would like to call for the launch of a new way of dealing with children, where we let the child know: I assume that you have good reasons to behave in this way, but I would like to bring some other facets of the argument to the table. p.84

With these wise but challenging words I would like to close this article.

In the next article I’ll go into more detail about this resistance, this counterwill: What it is, why it is not just children who feel it and how we can deal with it constructively.


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