Lessons in Parenthood: Week 8
Whenever someone pushes the ideal of an obedient child I think, “No thanks, I’m not trying to raise a robot.”
When I was a kid I remember obedience being one of the most desirable traits for a child. Somehow an obedient child was equal in meaning and value to a perfect child. Now, maybe that’s not how it was intended to be taught, but in my child brain that was how I perceived it. A good child was an obedient child and an obedient child was a good child. If a child was not obedient then that was a bad child, or spoiled child. The most valuable form of obedience was in the form of the child who did exactly what their parent told them to do without question or hesitation. There are various explanations to why obedience is paramount and they range from the child’s safety to religious reasons to respecting adults, however these reasons were not usually explained to the child.
Being a parent now, observing my own child, and being in the throes of toddlerhood I have a whole new perspective on obedience. And I’ve got to say I don’t like it. Not one bit. In fact, I never use the word “obey” with Olivia. I will never tell her she has to obey me, Luka, or anyone else. Ever. This came from a lot of thought, but it was an easy conclusion when I looked at the big picture.
What’s my end goal? By the way, I ask myself this A LOT in parenthood. What am I trying to get out of all this? Hopefully, all my decisions and actions in parenting will lead to my child being an honest, respectful, and loving person as an adult. This is the goal. The goal is that I don’t raise someone who then doesn’t care about people, who has no values in life, who ends up on the street, etc. I want to raise a child who will become a competent adult. To a degree they will be responsible for their own life past a certain point, but I believe that what I do greatly influences them in a good or bad direction.
Knowing that my goal is to raise this kind of person, I think of how every value I press upon them will play out in their adult life. When I think about Olivia and her life and future, I don’t want her to obey anyone. I want her to have a deeply intellectual relationship with authority in her life. Obedience teaches us to blindly accept and trust authority because it’s best for us. It teaches us to wholly surrender our free will. As adults we can choose to adopt this behavior because we believe it will benefit our lives, but as a child it is set upon them as a matter in which they have no choice. They must obey. Even as adults, we can find is enormously difficult to go against authority. Now what happens when we condition a child to obey authority implicitly? When I look at making them obedient I find that as more destructive than constructive.
There’s a famous psychology experiment that I think highlights this well. In the experiment they had people as test subjects send a shock of electricity to a person on the other side of the glass. The person did not actually get shocked, but acted as if they were in pain as part of the experiment. The test subjects were told to press a button that would send the shock and hurt the other person. The shocks were supposedly in increasingly stronger amounts and despite the persons cries and screams a shocking 60% of test subjects continued to the end to give what they were told was the highest form of shock. They were simply told to do it and they did it. Most did not stand up for themselves or the other “victim” to say, “No. I will not hurt that person.” Because someone in a place of authority told them to do something, they obeyed. This is also similar to the well known social phenomenon that we as humans just go along with the majority and don’t actually oppose someone even if that is something we perceive is wrong.
Now, I’m not saying that instructing your child to obey you when you tell them to go clean up their toys is going to lead them to be a mindless follower when they become an adult. My point is that it’s better to raise a child to understand, to reason, to use their intellect, than to simply do as their told. That can be hard to overcome once it’s been driven into you for all of your formative years. When Olivia has a job and is told to do something that goes against what she believes is right, I don’t want her to go along with it. I want her to question it. I want her to speak out, step up boldly. If she thinks she can do better I want her to have the courage to start something for herself. I want her to have no problems standing up for what she believes in even if that comes at a price. I want her to be fearless. I want her to develop her mind and never settle for less. For that I am willing to pay this price.
It’s not easy to parent this way. It’s not easy trying to reason with a two-year-old. Trust me, it would be so much easier to simply say, “You will obey. You will do it or else deal with the consequences.” Choosing to raise a child this way takes much more time, patience, endurance. It’s psychologically, emotionally draining at times. However, we as parents are usually willing to pay this price when we believe it’s for the best. And we as parents usually believe what we are doing is the best. It comes down to it that I really respect Olivia and her mind. She isn’t as developed as I am and she won’t understand all my reasons even if I do explain them. However, just because of that, I see no reason to dominate her will. Her free will is her most precious gift and I respect that in hopes that she too will respect it when she is grown.