On Coming When You’re Called and Fear-Based Obedience

On Coming When You’re Called and Fear-Based Obedience March 3, 2015

Yesterday I argued that we sometimes hold higher expectations for our children than we do for ourselves. One example I gave was when parents expect their children to jump up and come immediately when called while they themselves feel free to take a moment to finish something when someone else calls them.

I grew up with parents who expected obedience to be “immediate, complete, cheerful, and without question.” Anything short of this was considered disobedience. Half of my many siblings are still minor children living at home, and for them this is still the rule. The last time I visited home I spent a good deal of time with my youngest siblings (they’re still elementary age) and was struck by how jumpy they are.

At one point, I heard my mother calling my youngest sister, whom we’ll call Anna. It was pretty clear my mom was having trouble finding her, as I heard her calling “Anna!” all over the house over the next several minutes. My youngest brother, whom we’ll call Jonah, turned to me with a worried and extremely empathetic look and said “Uh oh, Anna is going to be in trouble!” At another point during my visit, I was sitting by Jonah engrossed in an activity with him when my mother called him. He jumped up immediately and left the room so fast that he upset what we were doing.

Why do my siblings obey my mother’s summons so quickly, jumping to answer her every call? The answer is simple: If they don’t, they’ll be in trouble, and “in trouble” is not a place they want to be. They’ve also been taught that God requires children to obey their parents, which means that disobedience to their parents (no matter how slight) is disobedience to God, but their jumpiness contains a sort of nervousness that makes it obvious they’re not just obeying because they believe God wants them to.

My parents tend to phase out spankings at my youngest siblings’ ages, but it doesn’t take the threat of a spanking to be afraid of getting in trouble. In my parents’ house, being “in trouble” means being lectured and berated, having your privileges revoked, receiving some form of punishment (writing sentences, for example), and facing a sort of emotional warfare. Because my siblings are homeschooled, there is no break or respite when they are in trouble. In my own experience, the only way to get out of trouble was to be profusely apologetic and almost ingratiatingly submissive.

And so when my youngest siblings jump to obey my mother’s call, they are motivated in part by fear of what will happen if they do not. It’s possible that my mother might be upset and deny it if I pointed this out, but I suspect instead that she would note that our obedience to God is rightly motivated in part by fear, because he is a fearful God to those who disobey him. Like the Pearls, my mother is big on this idea that a child’s relationship to her parents is a model for her eventual relationship with God. And besides, for her, the point of punishments like spanking is to make children fear the consequences of disobedience. In other words, my mother may not see my siblings’ fear-based obedience as a problem.

As my own children have grown, it has become striking how different the relationship I have with them is from the relationship my mother has with my younger siblings who still live at home. Her relationship with her children is built on authority and obedience; my relationship with mine is built on mutual respect and trust. Yes, there is love in both cases, but the feel is very different.

At one point during my last visit, I mentioned some of these differences to Judah. “You know, I do things differently at my home,” I told him. “I don’t expect Sally to drop everything and come running immediately when I call her.” I tried to explain that we focus on things like cooperation and compromise, that I see myself simply as Sally’s guide, and that I don’t have a problem with her questioning me, but this was so far outside of Judah’s frame of reference that he had trouble understanding it.

“But the Bible says ‘children obey your parents,'” he said finally.

“The Bible says a lot of things,” I replied, at a loss for what to say.

And from there conversation drifted. I didn’t feel that I could adequately take on Judah’s appeal to the Bible without betraying my parents’ trust—they allow me to be alone with my siblings under a sort of understanding that I won’t work to actively undermine what they are teaching them. But it does make me realize, once again, how much of what they are being taught is based solely on “because God said so.”

Though I am far from perfect, I try to base my parenting on mutual understanding, empathy, and respect. I don’t require my children to jump every time I call and I don’t want my children to be afraid of me, or of what I might do. I find the entire idea nauseating. If I call Sally and she says “Just a minute!” and then doesn’t come, and I am inconvenienced as a result, we have a conversation about that—not a lecture, a conversation. I remind her that just as I try to consider her needs, she should try to consider mine, and she pitches in with her own thoughts or ideas. On the flip side, when she’s asking me for something and I tell her “Just a minute!” I make sure that I’m not just saying that to put her off.

And yes, as several commenters pointed out on yesterday’s post, we also try to be specific—“I just need five minutes to finish this data entry” or “Hang on, let me finish gluing these hearts on first”—and then following through, as that is part of showing respect for those around us even as we are shown respect in turn. And yes, there are times when the response will be “No, this can’t wait, I need help now,” but even this doesn’t go one way! There will be times when I need something from Sally immediately, and times when she needs something from me immediately.

So much of parenting is about preparing children for adulthood—teaching them to navigate things like relationships, housekeeping and personal care, academics and jobs, teaching them how to handle their emotions, expectations, and feelings in a healthy way, and so forth. I just don’t see immediate fear-based obedience as playing any part in this.

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