Is Defiance Real?

I have been thinking a lot about defiance lately.  Is it real when it comes to young children?  Most parents would emphatically answer, “Yes” to this question.  I am not so sure though.  According to, defiance is defined as “A daring or bold resistance to authority or to any opposing force.”  To me, this means being able to stand up for what we believe is right.  This is usually a good thing.  Yet, when people discuss children as being “defiant,” it is always viewed as a very negative thing.  In fact, most Christian pro-spankers tell parents to spank/hit children mainly for “defiance.”

Are young children truly being “defiant” when they refuse to do something we want or say, “No!” to us?  I tend not to think so.  Why?  Because defiance is very subjective.  What one person views as “defiance,” another person views as developmentally appropriate behavior or an indicator that something much deeper is going on within the child.  See, to judge whether or not children are being “defiant,” we must look into their hearts.  Only God can do this.  In fact, when I looked for defiance in the Bible, I couldn’t find it.  The Bible talks about all types of sin, but defiance doesn’t appear to be one of them, especially when it comes to young children.  Why would God leave defiance out when in so many Christian families defiance is in the center of most “discipline” sessions?  Defiance must be stopped at all costs in most Christian homes.

If you have read any of my previous articles, which are now being made into a book, you know that I emphasize that God created children to behave certain ways in certain stages for a reason; mainly for survival in this broken, sinful world.  Infants must cry in order to communicate.  This is not sinful or manipulation as some Christians claim.  It is how God designed infants to communicate with us.  A toddler trying to gain independence in his world is not sin; it’s how God designed toddlers to learn that they are separate beings from their parents.  They do not have good communication ability, so they say, “No!” and act out in order to be heard and become their own people.  This is not defiance.  So many behaviors are labeled as “defiant” when, if we could look behind the behavior, we’d see a whole host of valid reasons as to why children are behaving in a certain manner.

I am currently reading the book entitled The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog by Dr. Bruce Perry.  Dr. Perry is a psychiatrist who has worked with a great deal of traumatized and abused children.  When many of his mentors and colleagues would diagnose children with Oppositional Defiance Disorder and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dr. Perry would look beyond these children’s behaviors and symptoms to see that something much deeper was happening in these children’s traumatized brains.  As I’ve said many, many times in my previous work, most people do not understand how vulnerable the young, developing brain is.  Children may appear to be resilient because they appear to bounce back from traumatic events faster than adults do, but this is actually a lie.  Children are not resilient.  The same behaviors in traumatized children are taken quite seriously in adults, but are labeled as “defiance” in children.  “Despite lengthy histories of domestic violence, repeated interrupted familial relationships often including the loss of parents to violent death or disease, physical abuse, sexual abuse and other overwhelmingly distressing events, few had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  PTSD did not even make it into the ‘differential diagnosis,’ a list included in the case report of possible alternative diagnoses with similar symptoms that each clinicians considers, then rules out” (Perry, 2006, p. 35).  Now most parents reading this are thinking that their children are not traumatized.  Since 80-90% of children are still spanked/hit, I must tell you, they are traumatized to some degree.  So are children who have been left to cry-it-out.  Some traumas cannot be helped such as natural disasters, death of a parent, or witnessing violence by some stranger, however, most traumas also happen due to harsh parenting that God never intended.  Dr. Perry studied baby rats and how even a small amount of negative stress proved to be harmful to their developing brains.  Human brains are more complex than rats’ brains, so think how much more impacting negative stress impacts developing brains of human beings.  Brain scans of spanked/hit children show brain damage compared to children who were never spanked/hit.  “It reminded me of what Seymore Levine had found in those rat pups, where a few minutes of stress could change the brain for life.  How much more powerful, I thought, must the impact of a genuinely traumatic experience be for a child” (Perry, 2006, p. 36).

Since God, in His infinite wisdom and love for us, created us to have the best chance of survival in this harsh and broken world, He created our brains with the ability to protect us when danger threatens us—be it real or perceived.  There are two ways in which God has designed our brains to protect us from danger.  The first is known as “fight or flight.”  Our bodies release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to get our hearts beating fast and our bodies are truly ready to fight or fly—run.  Infants do this from birth.  This is why it is so harmful to leave infants to cry-it-out.  These stress hormones wreak havoc on developing brains and bodies with repeated exposure.  It’s the same for adults.  This is why fear is definitely not from God (2 Timothy 1:7).  Constant fear kills.

The second is called dissociation.  While the body reacts the exact opposite of fight or flight, it still isn’t good for young or old bodies when it happens a lot.  During dissociation, the brain slows everything way down.  Our heart rate slows.  We don’t feel pain.  We feel as if we’re in a dream-like state.  This makes us curl up so we appear smaller to whatever is threatening us.  Infants left to cry-it-lout eventually do this when no one comes.  It is anything but natural.  And wreaks havoc on young and old bodies when it happens constantly because our bodies are not working at their optimum levels.  Again, fear kills.

Yet, these systems produce life when used only occasionally when it is absolutely necessary.  Sadly, traumatized children get these systems activated more than they should be, and the behaviors associated with both of these systems are often mistaken as defiance.  A common example is when a parent tells a child to do something and the child refuses even though he/she knows a spanking will come if they don’t comply.  The parent often asks again with the threat of a spanking or other punishment if the child doesn’t do it.  The child freezes and gets that (heartbreaking to me) “deer in the headlights” look on his/her face.  Most parents view this as “defiance” and go on to punish the child for not complying.  But is this truly “defiance” as defined above?  Knowing that threats cause our brains to be activated to protect us, what if the child was frustrated that Mom wanted him to stop playing immediately to get ready for bed and he chose to exert his God-given autonomy by refusing?  Only past experiences taught him to that doing this leads to pain, so his brain “freezes” to protect him from the impending doom.  He cannot react until it’s too late and Mom is dragging him off to his room to be spanked/hit, hence, reinforcing this template in his brain, and setting him up for further failures.  What if certain phrases set off these systems?  And for highly traumatized children, any number of sights, sounds, smells, touches could activate these systems causing them to truly be unable to respond appropriately to situations, and yet, Christian, and even secular, “experts” have convinced many that this is “defiance.”  Only leading to more traumas.  John 10:10 tells us that satan comes to steal, kill, and destroy.  What a perfect way for him to do this than to use our God designed protection systems against our children.  “The aggression and impulsivity that the fight or flight response provokes can also appear as defiance or opposition, when in fact it is the remnants of a response to some prior traumatic situation that the child has somehow been prompted to recall.  The ‘freezing’ response that the body makes when stressed—sudden immobility, like a deer caught in the headlights—is often misinterpreted as defiant refusal by teachers because, when it occurs, the child literally cannot respond to commands.  While not all ADD, hyperactivity and oppositional-defiant disorder are trauma-related, it is likely that that the symptoms that lead to these diagnoses are trauma-related more often than anyone has begun to suspect” (Perry, 2006, p. 51).

I am not implying that children do not test us as they most certainly do.  But this is developmentally appropriate for children.  We need to remain firm but gentle when they explore and test us.  They need to feel secure in their worlds.  Sadly, it seems too many adults are looking so hard for “defiance” that they push it onto children.  After all, it is easier to label certain behaviors as “defiant” and punish our children for it.  Yet, by doing this, we judge, which Jesus told us not to do in Matthew 7:1, and we usually wrongly judge our children causing them to suffer for it.  This is not what God intended for us at all.  We harm our relationships with our children and we harm their relationships with God.  Jesus sternly warns against this in Matthew 18:6-7 which states, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!”

It is for all of these reasons that I believe that “defiance” is a made up religious and medical term that is used against our children.  You never hear it used in speaking about adults.  Yet, as soon as children begin acting in a manner that we don’t like, the term, “defiant” comes rushing out of our mouths.  When we are “defiant” as adults, it’s usually because we are insecure, tired, confused, frustrated, or anxious.  Or, sometimes we just want five more minutes to finish up what we are doing before having to move on to another activity.  Children are human beings with feelings too.  It is our job to guide and discipline them instead of spanking/hitting them for things that they may not even be able to control because God created them that way.  When we look for defiance in our children, we are setting them up to fulfill a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We need to treat children as the God created human beings that they are.  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart” (Jeremiah 1:5a).


Perry, B. (2006). The boy who was raised as a dog.  New York, NY: Basic Books.


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  1. […] This data exemplifies the problem with a field that can only define what is normal by identifying what is abnormal. By definition, anything that doesn’t conform to norms (in any setting) will cause friction.  The source of the friction is always attacked and ordered to adjust but little is done to determine whether those imposing norms need to make adjustments themselves.  There is also little examination about rebellious reactions to inconsistency (often those establishing rules don’t exemplify the behavior they expect but nonetheless have the authority to sanction those who don’t conform to arbitrary rulemaking – imposed or witnessed).  Undoubtedly defiance seems irrational to those who are being defied but asserting that the person causing the disruption enjoys being disruptive avoids responsibility for being a source of friction.  A more in-depth explanation can be found in Is Defiance Real? […]

  2. Pam on March 18, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Hi Steph,
    Though I don’t consider myself to be “pro” spanking, I am pro-discipline, and I do believe that infrequent spanking can be part of an over-all discipline plan, when done properly and with love. I have raised two boys and I have two grandsons. I’ve also, taught children and volunteered to work with children in many circumstances. I care about kids and child abuse is a deep concern of mine. I was an abused child, in the forms of medical neglect, emotional necglect, emotional abuse, emotional incest, and sexual abuse by a predator. I also, found myself in several abusive situations as an adult and I agree that children are born with natural ways of standing up for themselves that shouldn’t be taken from them. We all need to be able to protect ourselves. I also, bellieve that children can be defiant and they need help in learning to use defiance as a way to protect themselves and not as a means of ending up in prision. Part of the neglect I experienced as a child had to do with discipline. I don’t remember any spankings but I was allowed to eat only candy to the point of having fillings in all of my teeth by the time I was six (I also, had absesses) and all of my teeth falling out by the third grade. My parents excuse this by blaming it on me and my refusal to eat so, they let me eat what I wanted and all I wanted was candy. I was also, sick a lot and they gave me alcohol as medication, I think it put me to sleep and I was less of a bother. The first time they gave me too much and made me drunk was when I was cutting my first teeth. They’ve always told this as a such a funny story…At three, I contracted strep-throat and it turned into Scarlet Fever. My parents kept me in bed and didn’t take me to the doctor until my grandmother came to visit and insisted they take me to the emergency room. I nearly died and spent the next year of my life in bed and had to learn to walk all over again. I couldn’t start school until I was seven but I was the size of a small four year old. However, being spanked isn’t something I remember. In fact, as long as my siblings and I stayed out of the way, we were pretty much able to do what we wanted. We got in trouble if anything interfered with them being able to drink and enjoy themselves. Right and wrong was defined by what bothered my dad and what pleased him and that varied with his mood and level of intoxication. These are some of the resons why discipline is important to me. I know what it is like not to have proper discipline.

    From what I’ve read here, I think you have another experience of child abuse that includes extreme, corporal punishment and it seems that was almost, the exclusive means of discipline. I would never support that and I don’t think it is Biblical. That kind of discipline is about a parent maintaining control over a child and discipline is about teaching a child to control themselves. I wish my parents would have responded to my refusing to eat by not allowing me to manipulate the situation and get the candy I wanted, all of the time, in place of meals. If that included a spanking done in the appropriate manner, I think I would accept that in place of the pain I went through with my teeth. However, I doubt spanking would be appropriate in teaching me to eat healthy foods. I would not handle my own children that way but they would not be given any treats if they didn’t eat their meals. I have seen children refuse to eat anything if they couldn’t have the treats they wanted even, to the point of being weak with hunger. Defiance is a part of human nature even, if that word isn’t in the Bible. Pharoah was very defiant towards God through Moses. God exacted some pretty stiff punishments on Moses.:0) I would describe defiance in a child as the refusal to obey when that refusal puts them or others in harm’s way. Children can’t be allowed to hurt themselves or another person. It is in some of those instances that I think spanking can be appropriate. I see too many children these days who are not being disciplined and I recognize them because they are like I was, and they have no respect for any authority and if no one teaches them better, that they can’t be the boss all the time and have everything their own way, they will meet a much harsher authority than a parent who sometimes, spanks their child, out of love. Those children are heading straight for prison. Though I do believe that spanking is a measure of last resort, that it should never be done in anger but carried out in a loving manner, and should not cause physical damage, I think there are times whe spanking is apropriate. Some parents do abuse their children through spanking but not all spanking is abuse. Their are also, those parents who refuse the responsibility of parenting and neglect to discipline their children and that too, is abuse. As a child abuse survivor, I tended to run in the extreme opposite direction of the mistakes my parents made and by doing so, I made my greatest mistakes as a parent. It is important as a parent and a survivor of abuse, to tailor discipline to the individual needs of each child and not be blinded to that child’s needs by trying to fix our abusive childhood through them.

    I believe God gave us all of our emotions and there are healthy uses for them all. The Bible teaches that wisdom and knowlege begin with the fear of God. It is important to recognize God as the ultimate authority and to fear what could happen to us if we defy His authority. The Bible also, teaches that perfect love castes out all fear. When we respond to the love of God, for us, through Jesus and love Him in return and show that love through willing obedience, there is nothing left to fear because obedience keeps us safe in God’s presence. This too is a picture of the parent/child relationship. God loves me and is faithful to discipline me and when I defy Him, I have suffered pain but when I repent of that defiance, He is quick to take me back into His loving arms and comfort me. I am thankful for the discipline I have in Jesus that I didn’t know as a child. My Heavenly Father loves me for my good and every bad thing He allows into my life is for the purpose of turning me back to Him. He is a perfect parent. I am not but I love my children for their good as God loves me. I love my grandchildren the same way. Tolerating defiance that puts them in harms way, isn’t love.

    I enjoy reading what you write and your perspective. I hope you don’t mind my expressing this small area of disagreement. I’m a frim believer in following the Spirit of the Law rather than the letter of the Law. True discipline is according to the Spirit and methods may vary from person to person, child to child, and still be of that same Spirit. Abuse is the same because abuse isn’t defined by actions only, but is the disregard for the boundaries of another, and the denial of responsibility in a relationship, and failing to recognize the inherent value of all persons.


    • Steph on March 19, 2013 at 1:43 pm

      Hi Pam,

      I have answered your comment. I believe Hermana Linda is posting it as a whole new post for me as it is long. But I want to thank you for your comment and for reading my work. May God bless you!


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