Posts tagged ‘obedience’


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.


July 23, 2010 at 8:12 am 3 comments

flock, child, flock!

So I spend my day offering these girls choices, and giving information, information, information. I loosen my own tightness about how I think the day should go, I follow them as they follow their instincts. I listen to their ideas with the intention of actually maybe even doing that idea. I do this so that they become roundly thinking adults, people that think for themselves. But do you want to know the “drawback” to this plan?



This is Echo explaining to me that she had decided to wait for me outside of the bookstore while I went in for supplies. She had found a curb just the right height, she was all settled in, and felt her plan was a pretty solid one. I looked at her and thought oh man, this whole independent thought thing, argh. I gave her information about what that would actually mean (not letting on for a minute that I wasn’t actually ever going to go in without her), and it took awhile. It took time to neutrally demonstrate what it would be like for me to walk away without her. (I’d like to be clear this was not the classic threat: Fine! I’m going in without you! Bye! ).


And here she is later in the evening, disgruntled because she decided that the Feeleez packages we were packing needed three buttons not two, and I disagreed with her. She honestly felt the packages needed three buttons. The humming flow of our little work party ground to a halt as we discussed, and discussed, and discussed.

Times like these, and countless others, I wonder why I am teaching independent thought. It seems to take forever and essentially means the kid doesn’t do what I want a lot of the time. How does this serve me? There are kids that silently follow their parent through endless errands, that carry out tasks without dissent, that obey. Why not teach obedience?

And then my mind flashed forward a decade or so. If she is obedient… when I’m not around who will she obey? Who will she dutifully follow without question?






No. I’ll take feisty, thought out, defiance any day over blind obedience. Next time she “defies” me, I will imagine her not clumping into a herd of identically dressed teen girls, not stuffing her inner doubts or opinions and agreeing with her boyfriend (or girlfriend), not doing anything she doesn’t want to do. For this I think I can wait patiently in the bookstore parking lot one thousand more times.




November 10, 2009 at 5:00 am 4 comments

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