The Perils of Obedience

Why shouldn’t kids obey their parents??

This writer is obviously responding to something I wrote previously. Let me make my position clear. Obedience should not be the goal of parenting. However, if we earn our children’s trust, they will trust our wisdom and respect our decisions in situations where we know more than they do.

When children are very little we have to protect them. When they are older, they need to learn to protect themselves. An important goal of parenting is to transfer the responsibility for our children’s lives gradually from our hands into their hands. This means we teach them values and skills which will enable them to make wise decisions. And at the same time, we continually earn their trust by showing wisdom and caring for them, and by not making the decisions they are able to make themselves. Obedience doesn’t teach anyone to make decisions; it only teaches them to do what someone else has decided is best.

When our children are little, we earn their trust. We feed or change our babies when they cry. They learn that we can be counted on to take good care of them. Because they trust us, they look to us to make the decisions about what is safe and what is good for them. Obedience isn’t a question, but our trustworthiness lays the foundation for them respecting us and being willing to trust our decisions about their lives.

It’s the same with our preschoolers. We bandage them when they fall and skin their knees. We cuddle them, read them stories, participate in games they design, and give them a safe bed to sleep in. And we set limits on their behaviour, always explaining why the limits are there. “Don’t run into the road because cars are going very fast and the driver might not see you and you’d get hurt.” “Don’t hit your brother because it hurts him, and you don’t want anyone to hurt you.” We teach them about the world and how it works, physically and socially.

Although we are setting limits, our goal is not obedience; it is responsibility, empathy, and mature understanding. We allow natural consequences to occur whenever they aren’t too dangerous, so that children will learn from those consequences. And we explain, explain, explain whenever we have to impose artificial consequences. “You don’t like bigger kids to hurt you, so it isn’t okay to hit your little brother. You need to take some time by yourself until you can control your behaviour and not hurt your brother. ”

As our children grow, they want to make decisions to the limit of their ability. If they’ve learned to look both ways when they cross the road, they want to demonstrate this knowledge. If we insist on holding their hands and telling them when to cross, we take away their sense of responsibility. They remain immature, looking for someone to obey and follow rather than gaining confidence in their own wisdom and skill.

Children grow up much faster than we would like, and we can’t make their decisions for them and protect them for ever. When the teen years arrive, our kids only have a few years to prepare for independent adulthood, and nature drives them to become increasingly independent. But if they’ve been taught to obey, they don’t know how to think through their decisions beyond “What do mum and dad say?” Their ideas of right and wrong are based on what they have been told rather than on deeper concepts like “Does it harm anyone?” So they move out into the wider world without any idea of how to make their own decisions. And they look for someone new to obey. Enter the peer group, or the charismatic adult leader, or the persuasive boyfriend. They transfer their obedience to someone new, who may or may not share their parents’ values. They haven’t learned how to evaluate someone’s values, or to make their own decisions, other than the decision to obey or not obey. They become followers. German psychiatrist Alice Miller (no relation) has studied the way in which the obedience-oriented child-rearing in the Germany of the 1930s led to the Nazi regime. People who were used to obeying their parents obeyed their leaders even when their leaders ordered them to commit unspeakable crimes.

If you want your child to become a mature, responsible adult who respects and cares about other people, teach him to think, evaluate and care, not to obey! If you respect your child’s individuality and developing ideas, encourage him to develop his own interests, listen when he disagrees with you and be willing to see when he’s right, love him even when he isn’t doing what you want, and handle his rebellion flexibly, your child will develop a secure sense of who he is, and he won’t be swayed by a peer group. It is a paradox that the child who can best resist peer pressure is not the obedient child, but the child who has learned to think for himself and to practise the Golden Rule (treat others the way you would like them to treat you) because it makes sense to him.

When our children are adolescent and older, there may still be a few times when we need to intervene to protect them. If we have earned their trust, and we very rarely ask them to obey us, they will be willing to trust our superior wisdom in these situations. When I was 20 years old I went on my own to India. I was quite naive about the opposite sex, and had newly found popularity among hordes of male foreign students. I wrote home that I was about to go on a foreign students’ trip where we would stay somewhere for several days. My father phoned from Canada (which was very unusual in those days) and asked me not to go, even though I really wanted to. He knew a lot more than I did about sexually frustrated young males. I’m sure that if he were an authoritarian father who always told me what to do, I would have ignored his advice, and bad things would have happened to me. I was angry, but I respected my father, and did what he asked. But only because it was so rare for him to tell me what to do, and I respected him. Later I came to understand his wisdom.

It’s a balancing act. We need to assess our children’s maturity and allow them all the independence they can handle, intervening to tell them what to do only in situations we know they can’t yet handle, and all the while teaching them what they need to know to take responsibility for their own lives. If we earn their trust and respect while empowering them to increasingly manage their own lives, they will become mature and responsible and will be self-directed individuals rather than blind followers.