“Be a Good Obeying Girl”

When I was a child and my mother would leave me at a friend’s house or with a sitter, there was one thing she always said right before she left.

“Be a good obeying girl.” 

Of every virtue a child could have, the one my mother prized above all else was obedience. My mother was influenced by Michael Pearl’s book, To Train Up a Child, which stipulated that obedience should be immediate and without question—and with a smile. Partly I think my mother was attracted to the Pearls’ childrearing teachings because raising twelve children is no easy task, and training children to absolute obedience made things easier for her.

follow the instructionsFor a long time, I struggled with what to say when I would leave my own daughter, Sally, at a friend’s house or with a sitter. My mother’s words—“Be a good obeying girl”—would pop into my head, but I couldn’t say them. Unlike my mother, I don’t value children’s obedience above all else. In fact, I don’t really see “obedience” as a thing to be valued in general. Obedience can be dangerous.

But it’s not like I can drop Sally off at a friend’s house without her assurance that she will listen to her friend’s mother and follow her rules. If Sally refuses to come inside when outside playtime is over, or demands more goldfish crackers even though her friend’s mother has said that they don’t do seconds on snacks, or insists on coloring with markers in the living room even when she has been told that markers are only allowed in the playroom, that would be a problem. So when I leave her at a friend’s house, I want to know that she will listen and . . . and there’s that word I can’t bring myself to use. Obey.

I realize that this is partly a hangup on my part. I get that, and I own it completely. But I don’t think that’s all it is. I do think there’s an actual point to be made. We tell children to obey, obey, obey, and why? Because they’re children? How is this emphasis on obedience—“Because I’m the Mom”—preparing them for adulthood? Yes, we as adults have to “obey” the boss at work—but in this case we understand why we have to do what the boss says, there are limits on how much bossing around the boss can do, and we can (theoretically) quit the job if we hate it. And do we even use the word “obey” to describe those interactions?

To the extent that we do teach children obedience, it should be far more nuanced than my mother’s line—“Obedience is cheerful, immediate, complete, and without question.” Some orders should not be obeyed, and children’s questions should be accepted and answered because understanding the reasons behind a rule is a good thing. Negotiation, too, should be a possibility, and emotions should never be dictated. Teaching a more nuanced “obedience,” then, can be preparation for adulthood. Teaching cheerful, immediate, complete, and without question obedience is not.

Not everyone defines “obedience” the same way. When some people speak of children “obeying,” they mean the sort of obedience that involves questions, understanding, negotiation, and thought. When others speak of children “obeying,” they mean it in the way my mother always did. And because I grew up hearing “obedience” used that way, I cannot bring myself to use that word today. I understand that this bit is a hangup on my part, but I don’t think that makes it illegitimate.

After much thought, I finally found a phrase to use when leaving Sally at a friend’s house. “Make sure to follow instructions,” I tell Sally. Following instructions is something we, as adults, do regularly. When putting together a new chair, we follow instructions. When making a meal, we follow instructions. When setting up the internet in a new apartment, we follow instructions. When we take a yoga class, we follow instructions. When we see a “detour” sign, we follow instructions. I want to equip Sally not for a world where obedience is a virtue but rather for a world where following instructions for this or for that is a normal part of life.

I also tell Sally that every family has their own rules, and that when she is at a friend’s house she has to follow the rules of their house. I tell her this about school, too. This idea that different places have different rules, and that she has to follow the rules of the place she’s at at any given time, makes sense to her. At Granny’s house we don’t take milk in the living room. At Aunt Heidi’s house we put our shoes in the hall. And so on. These sorts of house rules are something we, as adults, also follow. Would you go to a friend’s house and break all of their house rules? I think not. So this, too, is part of preparing Sally for adulthood.

Finally, I make sure Sally knows that she does not have to follow instructions in certain circumstances. I’ve taught her that her body is hers and that she can expect to have her physical boundaries respected. I’ve struggled to find words to use to explain to her that she doesn’t have to follow instructions if it involves violating these boundaries, because I want to prepare her without scaring her or making her see the world as an evil and dark place, but I think I’ve gotten the basic idea across. She also knows she does not have to follow instructions if those instructions involve hurting another person, or doing things that she feels are wrong. Again, all of this is very real preparation for adulthood.

I realize that the significant differences between my approach and my mother’s approach are far more important than the semantic difference between being a “good obeying girl” and making sure to “follow instructions,” but that doesn’t make the semantic difference any less important to me. I can’t deal with the word “obey”—I can’t seem to strip it of all the connotations of my childhood—but teaching Sally to “follow instructions”—contextually, of course—that is something I can do.

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