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 dictionary.com, 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.
Is Defiance Real? by Steph is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at whynottrainachild.com.