TTUAC: Immediate Obedience or Death

To Train Up A Child, pp. 3—4


We live in a horse and buggy community where someone is always training a new horse. When you get into a buggy to go down a narrow, winding state highway filled with eighteen-wheelers and logging trucks, you must have a totally submissive horse. You cannot depend on whipping it into submission. One mistake, and the young men are again making several new pine boxes and digging six-foot deep holes in the orchard.

A horse is first trained to stand still and submit to being caught. He must not fear the bridle or harness. He must stand still while the thirteen children step in front of the iron wheels to climb into the buggy. When stopped at the end of a driveway, waiting for the traffic to clear, he must not exercise his own will to step out in front of eighty-thousand pounds of speeding truck.

You must anticipate and train the horse for all potential occurrences. This is done in a controlled environment where situations are created to test and condition the horse’s responses. The horse is first conditioned by being taken through paces. As you hold the bridle and lead the horse, you say, “Whoa,” and then stop. Since you have a tight hold on the bridle, he must stop. After just a few times, the horse will stop to just the command.

The trainer establishes the tone at which the horse will respond. If you scream “Whoa!!” then in the future the horse will not stop unless the command is screamed at him. One such farmer trained his horses with a wild, frantic bellow. Most of his neighbors, who speak quietly to their horses, find it difficult to control his horses because of their inability to raise their voices in vehemence.

What is this I don’t even.

Children are not horses. How many ways can I say that? Horses aren’t supposed to grow up to be independent adult humans interacting independently in the world. Children are. Parents should be preparing children for adulthood, not training them into total unthinking obedience. How is this so difficult to understand?


I was logging with a fifteen-hundred-pound mule that sometimes wanted to run away with the log. In moments of stress (actually I was panic stricken), I found myself frantically YELLING the commands. The owner would patiently caution me, “Speak quietly and calmly, or he will pay no attention.” I never did learn the art of calmly saying, “Whoa” to a runaway mule pulling a twenty-five-foot white oak log with my foot hung in the trace chain. The point to remember is that the animal learns to identify not only the sound but also the tone.

If you raise your voice when giving a command to your child, he will learn to associate your tone and decibel level with your intention. If you have so trained him, don’t blame him if he ignores your first thirteen “suggestions” waiting for the fevered pitch to reach the point where he must interpret it to be a real command.

Yes, you shouldn’t yell at your children. But you also shouldn’t train your children to obey your every word immediately and without question, which is what Michael is advocating.

Okay, quick story. My mother read me the Little House on the Prairie books when I was a kid, and one thing I remember her emphasizing was a time when Laura and her mother were outside after dark checking on the animals when they were approached by a bear. Laura could not see the bear, but her mother could. Laura’s mother told Laura, in an even tone so as not to set off the bear, to go back into the house, and without question Laura obeyed. My mother told my siblings and I that if Laura hadn’t been taught to instantly obey her mother’s every command, she could very well have ended up dead. This was an example, my mother told us, of why it was so important that children obey their parents immediately, absolutely, and without question.

But you know what I’ve learned since then? Children are really good at being able to tell when your tone of voice indicates that there is danger, and they are really good at obeying quickly in those circumstances. Michael seems to be unaware of that. Seriously though, as the mother of two young children, this is fascinating to watch. Bobby will toddle towards the road, a huge smile on his face, and if, as I get up to go after him, I say in a voice that is commanding and assertive, “Bobby, stop right there,” he will stop and turn back to look at me attentively. It’s not that I’ve trained him to obey my every command—I haven’t. It’s just that in a moment like that he can sense the urgency in my voice.

Also, this has been bugging me—would it have been so hard for Laura’s mother to say “Go inside, there is danger”? You could argue that Laura might have freaked out, but I would argue that her response—immediately going into the house—indicates that she understood from her mother’s tone that there was danger. And I think the fact that Laura’s mother could just as well have said “Go inside, there is danger” undermines the idea that the only alternative to children obeying their parents immediately whether they understand or not is, well, a greater chance of death by bear attack.

Communicating with your children about why certain things are dangerous really isn’t that hard. Sally has a healthy fear of cars—something I am still working on instilling in Bobby—not simply because I’ve told her to stay away from them but rather because she understands what could happen to her should she be hit by one. (Sure, Bobby is too young to understand that yet, so I just keep him close enough to ensure that he’s safe. That’s just how it works.) This sort of communication, rather than blanket commands without explanation, helps build a bond of trust between us, a bond of trust I hope will grown and expand and mature into something life-long. But the only bond of trust Michael wants to build between parent and child is the sort of bond of trust built between master and horse. And that’s just weird.

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