Elisabeth Elliot’s Guide to Verbal Authority

When it comes to teaching obedience, Elisabeth Elliot stands out as a solid source of wisdom and advice. In many of her newsletters, books, and radio programs Elisabeth Elliot states that the key to achieving obedience in children is establishing “verbal authority” – that is, getting your kids to listen and obey without yelling, threatening, bribing, counting down, or repeating instructions. She bases her advice on her own upbringing, her experience as a mother, a variety of very old parenting books, and perhaps most heavily on biblical teaching itself. It appears that the wheel need not be reinvented.

Her four principles for establishing verbal authority are:

  1. Speak the child’s name

  2. Establish eye contact

  3. Speak in a normal tone of voice

  4. Speak only once

In The Shaping of a Christian Family, she expounds a bit on these principles – although, really, not much detail is needed when they are intended to be taken quite literally:

SPEAK THE CHILD’S NAME: 

“Our parents called us by name. When we heard our names spoken, we listened.”

For this, I think a pause is helpful. So you say the child’s name, pause, and wait for them to say “yes, mom.” If they do not respond, say the name again.

ESTABLISH EYE CONTACT:

“Our parents looked us straight in the eye. Eye contact held our attention.”

“Both Daddy and Mother were careful to see that they had our attention when giving instructions. It is both useless and unfair to issue commands to a child when you have not got his attention. Who has not seen the impatient father yelling at a child who appears to be deaf to his voice? Very likely the child is used to being yelled at and knows that many delays are possible before force will be used.”

This is why it’s useless to give commands from another room. You have to be in the same room and establish eye contact in order to know that they are actually HEARING you. If you aren’t in the same room, call the name and wait for the child to come into the room before giving the instruction.

SPEAK IN A NORMAL TONE OF VOICE:

“Our parent’s commands were given in a normal speaking voice. One mother told me her children paid specifically close attention when she spoke in a specially quiet voice. This, they knew, was serious.”

“The right tone is exceedingly important. I knew a young mother who habitually shrieked at her children, even if all was well and she only wanted to ask one of them to close the door. She seemed to have no other form of address to them but a shriek… On the only occasion when I ever tried to carry on a conversation with her she shrieked at the children to be quiet. When there wasn’t the least reduction of noise she laughed and said to me ‘Look at that! They don’t even HEAR me!’ Poor children. How could they?”

“There are different ways of issuing commands. A calm, matter-of-fact, and loving manner is much more likely than a stern and imperious one to inspire willingness to obey.”

Yelling accomplishes nothing. Pleading with the child in a whiney voice accomplishes nothing. You are an adult. Talk like one!

SPEAK ONLY ONCE:

“The common but very bad habits of repeating commands and raising the voice not only exhaust the parent’s patience so that he then punishes in anger, but also teach the child that he need not pay attention until he has heard the command many times, and heard it shouted. Examples are all around us of children who pay practically no attention at all.”

It is unnecessary to repeat commands if the former three principles were followed. The child will have heard you call their name, stopped what they were doing, and turned to listen to your calm instruction. They know what you just asked; They heard it. Whether or not they choose to obey is up to them, but there is no reason to repeat clear, concise instructions. The next step, should they choose inaction, is not to repeat the command they already heard and ignored but rather to address the disobedience.

More from Elisabeth Elliot:

Elisabeth Elliot’s four principles are similar to the ones I discussed in Discipline Delay Tactics. Or perhaps it’s not so interesting after all; I am sure my own thoughts are just combinations and reproductions of the variety of things I’ve read on the subject. And of course, in my limited experience, this advice does actually work (not perfectly, but certainly better than anything else I’ve tried). So it’s really no surprise that we would come up with very similar suggestions for effectively gaining obedience from a child.

In any case, she has much more to say on the subject than the short clips I typed up here. And she says it so much better than I ever could! I’ve linked to a few resources below. The videos are obviously quite… outdated… but the advice is very relevant.

Audio Sermon on Obedience
A Peaceful Home (Part 1)
A Peaceful Home (Part 2)
The Shaping of a Christian Family

And to end with a quote from that book (which I’ve seen online credited to her, but she clearly states is from an anonymous writer),

“There is no nobler career than that of motherhood at its best. There are no possibilities greater, and in no other sphere does failure bring more serious penalties. With what diligence then should she prepare herself for such a task? If the mechanic who is to work with “things” must study at technical school, if the doctor into whose skilled hands will be entrusted human lives, must go through medical school . . . how much more should the mother who is fashioning the souls of the men and women of tomorrow, learn at the highest of all schools and from the Master-Sculptor Himself, God.”

Our work here is important. We must be diligent and intentional.

 

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3 thoughts on “Elisabeth Elliot’s Guide to Verbal Authority

  1. Hi, thanks for this post, very spot on for me right now. I’m already following the first 2 principles, but I tend more and more to yell and repeat myself and I can see how I’m becoming increasingly frustrated, angry, and exhausted. My question is: how do you address disobedience? I used to spank my children but I am feeling more and more uncomfortable with this, although it seems to be the only threat that works for them.

    Like

    • Hi Claire-

      I spank for disobedience. I don’t threaten it (e.g. “if you don’t come now, you’re going to get a spanking!”), it’s just the known consequence for disobedience.

      I sometimes use other consequences in addition to spanking though – and what works there depends on the kid. You have to find the kid’s currency (the thing they care about) and then work with that. For my oldest, it’s separation from the family. She HATES being sent to her room, so this is effective as a consequence. With my second I tend to send him to bed early (for a nap or bedtime). This works on two levels… he hates missing out on reading stories before bed and usually when he is acting out it’s because he’s overtired anyway.

      They key – whether you are spanking or taking away privileges – is to be consistent.

      Like

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