The Blog

Why Obedience Is NOT My Parenting Goal

If my child doesn't have a clear and unwavering "no" in his vocabulary, how can he speak out against social injustice? How can he develop an equally compelling "yes," and know that his choices are authentically his own, that his voice is internally driven?
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
Frustrated little toddler
Frustrated little toddler

Often, when people hear that we do not use punishments, rewards, bribes, time-outs or arbitrary consequences to mold our children's behavior, they're confused.

How then, do we get our kids to "just listen," (read: obey)?
How do we get them, in other words, to do whatever we tell them to do?

The short answer is: We don't.

Our children often respond with a resounding "NO" to our requests, or announce, "I'm not doing that," when we share our plans for the day (sure, this can be disheartening or disappointing and sometimes embarrassing, but hear me out).

We don't get them to "just listen" because I don't really believe there is such a thing. "Just listening" means either that someone has been scared or bribed into listening... which is something I hope to avoid at all costs -- or that they genuinely respect the request or the person making the request, agree with it to a degree and are willing to go along with it... which is something I hope to cultivate at all costs.

Most of us were brought up with the authoritarian approach, rooted in the idea that "because I said so" is a good enough reason to do something without question. I don't buy that. I'm a radical progressive at heart, I don't believe that anyone should be blindly obeyed simply because they are bigger, stronger, older, wiser, richer, louder, scarier (all, in essence, variations of simply holding more power).

In fact, that idea scares the heebie-jeebies out of me: If my child is too afraid to question my authority, what chance does she have to stand up to peer pressure? To pressure from future bosses? Boyfriends?

If my child doesn't have a clear and unwavering "no" in his vocabulary, how can he speak out against social injustice? How can he develop an equally compelling "yes," and know that his choices are authentically his own, that his voice is internally driven?

From the very moment a child is conceived, the vast majority of the major decisions in their childhoods are being made for them by their parents: where they live, what they'll eat, sleep and do all day. That's just how the interdependency between parent and child is set up. And so much is under our jurisdiction in the early years -- their schools, toys, friends, clothes, meals... It is our job to keep them safe, to answer their basic -- and not so basic -- needs, to mentor and to guide. And often, it is our job to set and hold limits (with empathy). Limits such as respecting their and other's environments and bodies.

But is it our job to assert our will, indiscriminately? Often, when I read mainstream parenting advice, it sounds like they're teaching me to train a puppy, a soldier or a slave: ideas like, "Never let them question your authority," or "Hold a united front with your spouse," or "Once you've set a consequence see it through no matter what."

Please don't misunderstand: I'm not against limit setting.

I'm simply against arbitrarily setting limits or consequences, simply to assert our authority, and then (to add insult to injury) sticking stubbornly to those limits with more gumption and less maturity than the toddlers we're trying to parent.

Sure, consistency and reliability have a very real value in relationships. But so does flexibility.
Sure, assertiveness is a quality I admire. But so is reconsideration.

When I hear ideas like, "You're the adult," I interpret it to mean: "Take control with an iron fist," -- I feel that the very meaning of being "the adult in the room" is misunderstood at it's deepest level. Being the adult in the room means, to me:

Delaying our gratification: Taking a long view of our children's developing character and understanding that not all lessons can be taught right here, right now.

Remaining safely in the hub of self control and efficacy: not getting swept up with our children's (understandable) turmoil and upset. But rather counterbalancing these with an unwavering calm.

Reading between the lines: seeing the needs that are communicated through the behaviors and the defiance, rather than latching on to the behavior itself and attacking it.

Deep modeling:
offering alternative routes to problem solving such as negotiation and compromise rather than digging in our heals to overpower our kids.

Rather than focusing on getting my child to do as I say I believe I can focus on holding limits, where necessary, with empathy. I can focus on creating an atmosphere that communicates respect for both mine and my child's preferences, concerns and needs. I can focus on making it clear to my child that, whilst I cannot answer his every wish -- I care that he has them. This is not coddling. This doesn't at all mean that I think kids should always have their way, everything they want or that they should be obnoxious and demanding. I just don't think adults should either.

Some practical ways to make this part of your relationship?

Explain:
I know this is something we're told not to do. But I believe that explaining the reasons behind our choices is a critical respect that we pay the other person. I wouldn't dream of saying "no" to my husband's request simply because "I said so". Because this communicates a deep disregard for him. So to with my kids. Sure, young children can't process a lot of words -- but a short, succinct explanation such as "Because it's not safe" or "Because it makes me worried" or "Because I'm too tried" goes a long way.

Say no to behaviors, not to feelings:
Make sure you're setting limits on any destructive behaviors while still accepting the feelings that go with them. This communicates: "Your experience is important to me even if your behaviors need to be stopped." For example: "Oh man, you are so disappointed, I can't let you smash your brother's lego castle, let's go over here and snuggle."

Don't shut down defiance:
If your child responds with a clear "NO!" -- acknowledge their discomfort and try to explore it with them. Was it the way you asked? Was it the timing? Is there something that would make this suggestion more palatable to them?

Admire persistence: If your child repeatedly asks for something or tries to convince you to change your mind -- you can admire their perseverance and their creative assertions without giving into these. You can also reconsider, if they're making a compelling enough argument. Teaching them that good negotiation gets them what they want is a valuable and authentic life lesson.

Negotiate: Always look for a win-win with your child, where you both feel you're heard. Would you do this if I did that? Would you do it for a short amount of time? Would you do it if I came with you? etc.

Be transparent with your motives: This takes some real mirror-reflecting-honesty. If you're asking your child to do something, wear something, say something because of an ego-serving motive (such as because I want to look good in front of grandma and grandpa) communicate that to them. Or, if you're motivated by fear or some illogical reasoning -- communicate that too. ("I know you're totally trustworthy with the knife, but I get nervous when I see you holding it. Would you mind using the spoon instead?")

Acknowledge your adult prerogative: "I know you don't like staying with a babysitter, honey. But I can't leave you alone. It's hard to be 6-years-old, sometimes, isn't it? Sometimes adults get to make decisions that kids don't get to make and I know that can be tough." Of course, softening the blow with empathy and connection can sweeten a bad deal.

Sure, often we (I) don't have the patience or the emotional resources to embody this type of maturity. Sometimes I'm more four year old than my four year old is: answering him back with smarty-pants pokes, eye rolls or voice-raising. But then, let's call a tantrum a tantrum: I am tantruming. And it ain't pretty. And it warrants a heartfelt apology to my child.

So, if there's a question to be asked about "getting someone to listen to you" I think the answer is pretty simple: Have a listening relationship. Where you both listen, to each other. Not everyone's preferences and choices will always be met, including your own. But everyone will be "listened to".

How do you feel about obedience as a parenting goal? Is accepting defiance or the questioning of your own authority something you struggle with? I'd love to hear in the comments below or over at www.theparentingjunkie.com