July 23, 2010 at 8:12 am 3 comments

Obedience. The holy grail of raising children. Well mannered, polite, obedient children is the goal of many, but I think if they gave it a little thought, more parents would toss this goal aside, maybe even drop it like a hot cinder. Why? Because requiring children to demonstrate absolute obedience to authority results in adults that are fearful, mindless sheep.

When children are young we, the parents, are the authority, and it feels good that when we say DON”T, they… don’t. We tell ourselves we know better, that we are teaching them how the world works, that minding their parents is the most important lesson we can impart. But what happens later when we are no longer the authority? Or if we aren’t present? If our children are taught to follow orders and their standard authority is at work, running errands, or watching tv, they will have no choice but to seek out an alternative authority. The tricky thing is that parents don’t get to choose who that alternative authority is. Often a boyfriend takes up the position, or a pack of peers. We cannot require them to obey our every command while at the same time teach them to think for themselves.

So what does a parent do?

1. Demote obedience in the hierarchy of child behaviors and instead relish the moments when your children challenge your ideas, ask questions, and assert themselves. These are desired qualities that will serve our children in the long run as they become adults and are given the opportunity to make their own decisions. If they are given enough room to think for themselves during childhood the likelihood of these decisions being good is high.

2. It seems counterintuitive but to have more control you must let go of control. With fewer rules to resist, children resist less. Many of us have created numerous and senseless regulations that are needless. Rethink your own list of “don’ts” and see which can be loosened. Whenever it is safe, give your child freedom to explore and discover natural consequences. When given time to move freely and think independently a child will be more open to following reasonable guidance.

3. Use NO sparingly. This word is most potent when used only in critical moments, such as immediate safety situations. Watering it down by automatically using it at every turn renders it useless. And even if your answer is negative there are ways to frame it so that  there is less friction to brace against.

Yes, I will be able to read you a story, but I want to brush my teeth first. (Instead of: No, not right now.)

That’s a possibility. Let me think about what our next steps might be and I’ll let you know how we can fit a trip to the park into our day. (Instead of: Well, we have a lot to do today, probably not.)

Yes, I hear that you want to go to the library very badly. I’m not sure we have time today but I know it’s important to you and I will work to make that happen as soon as possible. (Instead of: No, not today.)

For further examples of saying YES more, and No less, look here. For more on the hazards of an automatic NO look here.

4. Use empathy as a way to teach empathy. “Good” behavior or obedience, can be achieved by encouraging empathic behavior. A child that can recognize feelings as they occur for others automatically considers how their choices are contributing to those feelings. This often results in actions that we have come to consider “polite” or “proper”. A child that recognizes another’s pain and feels bad for bumping into them will naturally apologize. An enforced Say your sorry! isn’t necessary. When given the information that Aunt Flo feels sad when kids chase her cat, an empathic child will, more likely than not, stop chasing the cat. A rule that declares NO CAT CHASING isn’t required. The most effective way to develop empathy in children is to treat them with empathy.

The related topic of manners can be found here.

5. Look for the underlying need behind the action. When a child is driven toward a particular action, and especially when they won’t stop doing that action, even when you have asked them not to, there is a very good chance that a strong need is their motivation. Look and listen closely, open your mind to strange possibilities and you just might be able to offer information and an alternative solution that meets that need.

I see that you’re banging that hammer on the wall… I am concerned about making marks. Are you wanting to fix something and be helpful? Hmmm. Can I set you up with the work bench outside? (Underlying need: purpose, effectiveness, or creativity)

Honey, I asked you to stay out of that tree. It isn’t strong enough to hold you. Are you wanting a challenge? Shall we go to the park where you can climb that dragon’s tower? ( Meeting the underlying need of: freedom or competence)

Please stop hitting your sister. She doesn’t like it and is getting angry. Do you want her attention? Can I help you find a way to get that in a different way? (Meeting the underlying need of: love, to be seen, or companionship)

A complete list of needs can be found here.

6. Offer as much information as possible. Disobedience is often due to a lack of understanding, something easily remedied when the parent is willing to take time to explain. We often have very good reasons for asking our children to do something, or to stop doing something, but don’t share them. Providing information allows children to see the thought process behind our decisions.

Tommy that stroller was built for a baby doll so I’m pretty sure it can’t hold you. Will you climb out of there?

Elizabeth, I notice that the cat is putting her ears back and swishing her tail. I think that means she doesn’t like the way you are petting her. Will you try something else?

7. Respect children as human beings and treat them accordingly. Children are not pets to be directed with barks and commands. They aren’t even yours, they are theirs. They have their own opinions, thoughts and desires and recognizing this will go a long way in getting them to do anything.

Letting complete obedience go might feel like a scary thing. Many of us are attempting to meet our own underlying needs by controlling our children. But the benefits to our children of rethinking this goal are well worth it. In the moment, explaining, using empathy, and offering alternatives can feel trying and time-consuming but I think that most of us would trade those few minutes and extra energy in exchange for independent, bold, thoughtful, and spirited children.


Entry filed under: parenting principles. Tags: , , , .

The Power of Words Incredible Capabilities

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gray  |  July 23, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you for continuing to write such real and useful parenting thoughts on your blog. I look forward to your posts every day and use your advice and examples to help my husband and I learn how to be the type of parents we want to be. This last post was such a great summary of so many thoughts you’ve shared over the months. I am going to pass on this link to many of my like minded mommy friends. Thank you. Your children are blessed to have such thoughtful parents to raise them!

  • 2. kris laroche  |  July 24, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    here here to what gray said.

  • 3. Myers  |  July 27, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Powerful stuff … grateful to you for articulating this so beautifully, and for giving me hope that there is another option instead of just blindly enforcing obedience in children, as many of my friends do. I shouldn’t really say “blindly” — many of them have perfectly good reasons for doing so, but your thoughts on what sort of adults you’re raising your children to be (the part about teaching them to obey authority and how that’s quite dangerous when you, as the authority, are then replaced by another authority — not to mention the risk of teaching them to be sheep when one teaches blind obedience to authority) has encouraged me to ask both myself and my friends a number of questions: What is the purpose of teaching a child to obey you without question? What are you encouraging in your children by doing so? Who do you want them to be in the long run (what kind of adult do you want them to be)? What’s your vision for them?

    Thank you for your thoughtfulness and your excellent writing ability!


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