Obedience, Empathy, and the Laundry Hamper

Obedience, Empathy, and the Laundry Hamper September 25, 2014

I was chatting with a friend about the results of a recent pew survey when she asked a question I found very, very interesting.

I mean, if you teach a kid empathy, tolerance, and responsibility—do they need to be obedient? Or will they just do the things that are in the best interests of everyone? Like, “Hey, could you do the dishes?” “Sure.” Because they realize they should help out with the house. 

This is an excellent point.

Let me offer an example: I would like my daughter Sally to put her dirty clothes in the laundry hamper when she gets dressed. I could go about this by teaching her to be obedient and then telling her to put her clothes in the hamper. Or, I could go about it by teaching her to be empathetic toward others and to consider her role in the greater social whole. Then I simply need to remind her that putting her clothes in the hamper is what is best for the family as a whole (i.e., that way I can actually wash her dirty clothes without first hunting for them, and her room stays cleaner, which makes playing there more pleasant for both her and her brother, etc.).

I’ve often heard advocates of corporal punishment deride other methods of parenting as attempts to “talk” a child into obedience. What they miss is that obedience may not be the object. In my case, my object is to communicate overall ideas and inculcate certain values. I don’t want Sally to put her clothes in the laundry hamper because I tell her to, I want her to put the clothes in the laundry hamper because she understands her part in a greater social whole and how her actions affect those around her. (This doesn’t mean I’ll just assume she’ll figure out to do it without me pointing it out, of course—that’s where the talking part comes in.)

Every parent wants their children to learn certain values and exhibit certain behaviors. It’s just that just what those values and behaviors are varies. The pew survey found that consistently conservative parents tend to see teaching religious faith and obedience as most important while consistently liberal parents instead value teaching empathy, curiosity, tolerance, and creativity.

The things parents value in their children will affect how they parent—a consistently conservative parent will respond differently to a child questioning an command than will a consistently liberal parent (who frequently won’t frame things as commands in the first place), for example. In some cases both parents want the same results—the dirty laundry in the hamper, for instance—but will have far different ways of getting to that desired result.

Attempting to get a child to do something—put the laundry in the hamper, say—by talking to them and explaining why doing it is important—in other words, explaining why they should put the laundry in the hamper—is not a failure on the parent’s part. Corporal punishment advocates see it as a failure because they hold obedience as their primary value. Children must be taught to obey. But not everyone shares that goal. Teaching my children to obey is certainly not my goal, and hasn’t been since I gave up corporal punishment over four years ago. Instead, my goal is to teach my children empathy and to help them understand their role in the greater social whole and how their actions affect others. Given that goal, explaining a child into doing something is success, not failure.

If I spend five minutes having a conversation with Sally about where she puts her laundry and the end result is that she understands better how her actions affect others and resolves to put her dirty clothes in the hamper so that I don’t have to hunt it down, I have succeeded. Would simply ordering Sally to put her dirty clothes in the laundry hamper after she changes have worked? Would she have “obeyed” me? I’m not entirely sure, because I have never made teaching obedience a priority. Sally respects me and looks up to me, so she likely would have tried, but then because I don’t use punishments (which means there would be no paddling backing my command up if she forgets), she probably wouldn’t have remembered to do it longterm anyway. And besides, if I’d simply ordered her to put her laundry in the hamper, I would have missed an opportunity to teach her something bigger.

Corporal punishment advocates judge my parenting on the basis of their values (obedience first and always!), but then I don’t hold their values. I consider an individual parenting moment a success if I have helped Sally practice empathy and understand how her actions affect others whether or not there was obedience. In fact, I don’t usually ask for obedience. I ask for understanding. I ask for communication. I ask for empathy. I listen. We have a conversation. I foster a connection. I teach. We grow. The results may not look like success to someone who places primary importance on obedience, but then I was never going for obedience in the first place. I was going for something I consider far, far better.

Note: I know someone will ask about emergency situations, and whether I want my children to obey then, and so fort. I am working on a post to discuss this, because rather than being a problem this actually fits quite well with everything above, but is too long (and important) to be a mere footnote to this post.


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