I grew up in an authoritarian family, the kind where the most important thing for children to be is obedient. We played games and made cookies and ate strawberries out of the garden and hiked to a nearby creek to play, but the expectation underlying all of this was that we obey our parents—always. And the word was used—frequently. When dropping me off at a friend’s house to play for the day, my mom would tell me to “be a good obeying girl.” Mom would read aloud out of Proverbs, and remind us that children are to obey their parents. And if we didn’t obey? If we didn’t obey, there were consequences—consequences that frequently involved a wooden paddle. And yet, I realized recently that the word “obey” plays literally no role in my own parenting.
I have two children. Sally is in grade school and Bobby is in preschool. It didn’t take long after first starting out on my parenting journey to realize I was going to have to reinvent it entirely. I suppose I just didn’t realize how entirely.
Let me ask this: What is the purpose of valuing obedience in children? As I see it, there are two potential functions: First, to prepare children for a world in which obedience is an important trait, and second, to lesson the difficulty of caring for children, which is of course a lot of work. We no longer live in a world of hierarchies where obedience is important. I mean sure, we have to obey traffic rules, or complete the tasks assigned to us by our boss, but we can understand the reasons behind that. Obedience for its own sake no longer plays a large role in our society. Instead, we live in a world that values curiosity, problem solving, entrepreneurship, and a willingness to stand up to authority when the situation merits it.
What of the challenges of caring for children? Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of times where I very much want my children to do a specific thing—such as cleaning the living room, say—but in the end, I want them to do these things because they understand why doing them is important. I want my children to learn underlying principles and values—for instance, that if you don’t clean up a mess you make, someone else has to, and that making others clean up after you is not kind. It’s a bit like the difference between immediate gratification—getting my kids to clean up the puzzles and games they scattered across the living room the instant I ask—and delayed gratification—helping my children grasp and grapple with the importance of cleaning up after themselves, both now and in the future.
I remember very clearly, some years ago when my daughter was three or four, a time when she wanted to take her hot chocolate upstairs, and I said no. When she objected and asked why she couldn’t, I told her I didn’t want her to spill while carrying it up the stairs. She responded that I could carry it upstairs for her, and then set it down, and then she could drink it. That was the moment when I realized that there was no reason to lay down ultimatums rather than explaining my reasons and allowing for discussion. It turns out that my children actually care about my needs and my concerns, and that they are genuinely interested in finding solutions that meet all of our needs. And what an important skill that is to foster!But surely, I can’t always explain my children into doing what I need them to do, can I? Not always, no. And yet, even as I reach for other tools in my parenting workbox, I’ve never had to settle on “just obey me” or “because I said so.” There’s a certain element of trust and respect involved—knowing that I make a habit of caring about their wants and needs makes them more likely to give on an issue when I insist—and there are times when I tell them that we have to do this now and I’ll explain later. And besides this, when the situation is truly urgent, my children can tell from the tone of my voice, or my facial expressions, and they act accordingly.
My husband often says that he’s not raising children, he’s raising adults. After all, our job as parents is to prepare our children for adulthood, not simply to mitigate the challenges of raising children in the here and now. Would it be easier, technically, if they did what we said instantly and never talked back or voiced their own opinions or needs? Sure! But it is our responsibility to prepare our children for adulthood, not to do whatever makes parenting the easiest in the moment.
Of course, parenting really is hard work, and the divide between making children convenient for parents and teaching children life skills isn’t always so simple. There are times I’ll tell my children that we simply must make it out of the grocery and into the car and get home, because [insert reasons here], and that that really does mean they have to leave the aisle with the summer water toys, or stay by the cart as we cross the parking lot. I try not to get into situations where I’m taking on too much—say, taking both kids on multiple errands to highly stimulating places after a long day. Still, it happens sometimes, and when it does my stress level rises. My older child now recognizes this. “I can see that you’re stressed out, mom, what can I do to help you?” she’ll ask. And that in itself—recognizing when a person you care about is in distress and stepping in to help—is an important life skill.
In the end, I don’t want obedient children. I want children who are curious, confident, and compassionate, children who know how to communicate effectively and value cooperation and compromise. To some of you, this is all completely obvious. And yet, it’s so very different from how I was raised that I sometimes shake my head in amazement at where I am today. When I first set out to discover a different way of parenting, I never imagined that this journey would lead me to give up the very concept of obedience. And yet, here I am.