Do We Like Obedience?
How important is it that our children are obedient? This from Annalisa Barbieri in the Guardian:
Most parenting books are about how to get children to do things well. By well, read obediently. When and how you – the adult – want them to do something: eat well, pee in the potty, sleep well (that’s the big one), behave well. The aim, it would seem, is to raise compliant children. Because, according to these books, obedient children = successful parents, disobedient = head hanging failures. But actually is an obedient child cause for concern or celebration? The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became by this question. Telling someone their child is obedient is (usually) meant as a compliment. But an obedient adult? Not quite so attractive is it? We have other words for that, doormat being one of them.
Alfie Kohn, author of ‘Unconditional Parenting. Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason’ says, “When I ask parents, at the beginning of my lectures, what their long term goals are for the children, I hear words such as ethical, compassionate independent happy and so on. No-one ever says mindlessly compliant.”
A compliant child becomes a particular concern, Kohn admits, when they reach adolescence. “If they take their orders from other people, that may include people we may not approve of. To put it the other way around: kids who are subject to peer pressure at its worst are kids whose parents taught them to do what they’re told.”
A very young child isn’t actually meant to be obedient all of the time, according to Roy. This is because their needs are often completely at odds with an adult’s. See that lovely wall you’ve just painted in £100-a-pot paint? That’s just one lovely big, blank canvas to a two-year-old with a contraband crayon, who doesn’t understand why you praise them so much for drawing on a piece of paper but shout at them for drawing on the wall. You think it’s a cold day and want to wrestle a woolly pully over your child’s head but actually the child isn’t cold and doesn’t want it. Imagine going to a friend’s house and you accidentally spill a drink and get shouted at, instead of them saying “oh don’t worry” and mopping it up. And yet…
There seems to be a real fashion for taming children and the reason seems to be fear: it’s not that most people are worried about one incident of wall-scribbling, but that they seem to fear what this behaviour will turn into if it’s not kept in check, as if all children are just waiting to grow up into sociopaths. One of the comments I get a lot, at the end of my columns for the Family section of the Guardian (when I have advocated understanding and a more what would be called ‘softly softly’ approach to a child) is something along the lines of ‘they’ll turn into a monster if you don’t put your foot down/show them who’s boss’.
“It’s not based on empirical evidence,” argues Kohn. “It’s a very dark view of human nature.”
So how important is obedience? This is a live debate in my head. And now out loud on the blog, hopefully!
On one hand, self-control is a key skill I want SBJ to learn over time, so he can flourish. In one of my favourite parenting books, Welcome to your Child’s Brain, the science journalist authors have a chapter on what behaviours and characteristics have been shown to be correlated with resilience and success in life (not doing drugs or crime, not being unemployed etc). It’s on loan or I’d quote it, sorry. But what stayed with me were the findings after meta-analysis. Empathy and self-control were the only two things that made a significant difference, which I found a useful addition to my thinking.
Learning to do what someone else tells you to (brush your teeth, get ready for school, put that down) whether you feel like it or not seems a pretty similar skill to learning to do what you know you sort of want to do and ought to do (study, do housework, make the important but daunting phone call), but sort of can’t be bothered to. Perhaps learning to turn one into the other is an extra step though.
On the other hand, I have really enjoyed reading two of the Love and Logic books that I mentioned in the pocket money discussion. In this parenting philosophy you don’t force your kids to do anything, really. You give them lots of opportunities to think things through for themselves, make their own choices, and live with the consequences. I’ll re-copy the classic example from Parenting with Love and Logic that is the foundation for all that they say:
It was a frigid Colorado evening, and my (Foster’s) family was heading out on an errand. Gathered at the door, my wife asked our six-year-old son, “Andrew, do you want to wear your coat?”
He said, ‘No, I don’t need my coat.” He was wearing a T-shirt. Modeling responsible adult behavior, my wife said, “I’m sure glad I’m wearing my coat.” Then she put on her coat, and the family got into the car.
Two blocks from home, muffled sounds came drifting from the beackseat – the unmistakable sounds of shivering and teeth chattering. My wife said, “Do I detect goose bumps in the backseat?”
“Y-y-eah-h-h!” Andrew stuttered. The next words spoken were some of the wisest ever to passs from Adnrew’s lips: “N-n-n-ext time, I’m g-g-g-oing to wear my c-c-c-oat!”
“Oh, honey, that sounds like a good idea.”…
Had my wife said, “Wear your coat. It’s cold out,” Andrew probably would have said, “No.” And she would have said, “I’m your mother, wear your coat.” Then Andrew would have been sitting in the backseat, warm as toast, hating her, and not learning a thing.
This chimes much more with how our parenting of SBJ is unfolding. We have turned out to be parents who stand back and let him figure things out, mostly with physical exploration at this stage. I suspect we will want him to do the same in other arenas as he grows, and learn for himself when following our advice and examples is a good plan (the mother in the example above doesn’t just hope Andrew will think of wearing a coat himself, she prompts him and models coat-wearing, stopping just short of forcing a coat on him).
And yet. I do really want him to be able to obey in a dangerous situation. If I yell ‘stop!’ at a busy road, I want to know he will stop. Is that just something that in this latter approach comes a little later, when he’s more a creature of reason, or is it a different category altogether and we can eat our cake and have it too?
As much as the Guardian writer looks down on parents wanting their children to be obedient for its own sake, who wants to be the parent of the kid in the playground who won’t follow instructions or requests? To be fair, the Love and Logic approach is not at all just-let-them-do-what-they-feel-like, but about providing meaningful consequences so kids learn for themselves to do what you could otherwise just make them do. I guess they’re aiming for self-discovered obedience, or obedience by a more circuitous route, that is more helpful in the longterm.
You can see from my circles of arguments that I don’t quite know what I think or what to do. You will have a range of approaches and opinions, and I’d love to hear them!
Remember to tell us why your approach Works For You without implying that other ways will lead children straight to jail, though, right? It’s all part of the patchwork parenting process (aka me stealing your good ideas. Ta!)0