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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Obedience does not equal respect

There's been a lot of talk about obedience lately, hasn't there?

At one end of the spectrum, we have the ratbag fringe advocating whipping your baby with whipper-snipper cord to teach him to obey you- excuse me while I throw up, and then cry bitter tears for that sad and deluded segment of the human race. (I'm betting that all the people reading this think that's totally appalling, so I won't go on and on about it, because it makes us all sick to the stomach.)

At the other end- well, I guess you could say there's me. I actually worry when children are too obedient, and I worry even more when adults expect and want children to be unquestioningly obedient.

I think a lot of people confuse 'obedience' with 'respect'. When their children don't do as they're told, the parent or carer feels hurt, insulted or not respected. And of course, there are times when we need our children to obey us immediately- when there's serious imminent danger, you need the power of "STOP"- but let's not confuse that with a child who doesn't pick up their toys, or won't practise the piano or do their homework, or still hasn't taken the garbage out, or breaks curfew. (To give "STOP" power, you need a respectful relationship with your child and you need not to overuse that word.)

So first, let's explore the difference between obedience and respect, shall we?

I'm going to start with a special needs child I used to teach, the adorable "Bodie", aged nearly 5. Bodie looked, to all accounts, like the most disobedient child on the planet- climbing the furniture, opening forbidden drawers, hitting other children and so on. Bodie had as-yet undiagnosed Aspergers with ADHD. His 'disobedience' was actually a response to inappropriate stimuli- a noisy room, too many colours and lights and toys at once, many children he didn't know, many demands with which he literally couldn't comply ("look at my eyes" was one) and some metaphorical or colloquial demands he translated literally (such as "hop up" instead of "stand up").

Now, I'm sure you understand that you can't rate that sort of disobedience as a lack of respect. In fact, it's a perfect example of one of the mistakes we make when experiencing disobedience from neurotypical children too- we haven't considered the child's frame of reference.

When we order an adolescent not to associate with another child who we consider a bad influence, for example, we aren't taking into account the very significant knock-on effects of peer group pressure and exclusion from a clique. Fear can present as disobedience, and the last thing we want is to make our child choose between fear of peer group ostracism and fear of us.

Similarly, when we order a toddler to stop playing because it's time to leave, we need to remember that this child is experiencing a hugely important time of rapid learning- and you may have just interrupted an important and fascinating process of intellectual growth that you haven't even noticed, because you're too stressed yourself. To get respect, we need to disempower the concept of obedience in our own head, and instead model respect by considering the child's frame.

Once I understood where Bodie was coming from, I was able to see his disobedience as a response not to me, but to unreasonable demands due to my lack of insight into his needs. This is always worth considering when your child isn't obeying you. Once I'd got myself inside his frame, although he couldn't always obey me, he did show me respect in his own way. From Bodie, respect looked like cuddles, and smiles, and occasional eye contact, and using my name (that was HUGE). The children's story I shared in this post is about Bodie, if you'd like to get inside his frame too. (No, it's not his real name!)

Next in my thoughts about obedience, I want to go to another special needs child- my own son, who is gifted/talented (and if you don't think that's a special need, you need to read this). My ex-partner (not his father, I might add) considered him the most disobedient child on the planet, because he almost never obeyed an instruction at once- sometimes not at all. Meanwhile I was unable to support my ex's displeasure and present a united front, because I didn't value obedience for its own sake. (Which is just one reason we're not together now- but I digress!)

What was going on in my son's head when he was given an 'order'? First of all, as a gifted person he is a deep thinker, and was from a remarkably young age. He would consider the implications of the 'order' from both practical and emotional viewpoints before acting. Was the 'order' something that would fit in with his immediate needs? Was it a good idea? Did he agree with the underlying intent? Did he respect the person giving the 'order'? Was he being manipulated?

Now, your immediate reaction to that might be 'what a thoroughly unpleasant child', to have such thoughts. Well, actually that's exactly the way I wanted him to think.

(I'm not saying it was always easy to be his mum. Sometimes the easy way is the wrong way.)

First, he was considering his own frame (was the 'order' something that would fit in with his immediate needs?), which meant that he was taking responsibility for his own welfare. He wasn't going to grow up like me, always jumping to everyone else's aid to the detriment of his own wellbeing.

I have to add that he is now the first to offer a hand when anyone genuinely needs help, so he is walking that tightrope very well these days after practising from an early age.

Secondly, he was thinking for himself and assessing the situation before acting as a knee-jerk response (was it a good idea? Did he agree with the underlying intent? Did he respect the person giving the 'order'? Was he being manipulated?). Children who think like this are never going to join cults and herd-mentality groups like Hitler Youth. They are not going to be the 4-year-old child who, when told by a 5-year-old bully to put caterpillars down a younger child's pants, meekly obeys (yes, that is an actual incident). They are not going to die because an adult in a position of power involves them in a stupid game involving eating peanut butter, and they obey despite being allergic to it (that is also an actual incident). They are probably not even going to take the car out the day after they get their license and see how fast they can make it go, because they're considering their own welfare, assessing risk to themselves and not trying to please or impress someone who's not worthy of their respect.

That's exactly how I wanted him to grow up. It's not how my ex wanted him to grow up, though; my partner was trying to boost their personal self-esteem through control. I can see now that my ex-partner's alcohol abuse and manipulative behaviour (towards me and others) made that person unworthy of my child's respect; this was the real issue in my son's continuing disobedience. My son was actually giving me a message about my partner, if I'd only been listening.

And what about the little, irritating, everyday stuff? The 'not doing the piano practice' is one that's close to my heart, because that was me.

Here's a tip for you: if your child isn't practising their instrument at all, it hasn't captured their imagination and you need to either save your money or find out which instrument does motivate them.

And if they sound like they're just messing around on their instrument, rather than practising their exam pieces, butt out and leave them alone. (That was me.) They'll end up with a relaxed hand position, a more intimate knowledge of the instrument than any teacher can ever give them, and more than likely an ability to play by ear, which is the greatest gift a musician can have (because honey, when the wind blows the page over in the middle of the performance it's not an emergency). It's just like any other form of self-directed play- it's the best way of learning. Your child knows what he needs.

ORDERING a child to practise an instrument, or a sport, or maths problems, or any other activity for that matter, is not going to make them a prodigy or a champion. (How I wish I could emblazon that on my forehead so I was a walking billboard.) That is not disobedience. The definition of insanity is keeping on doing the same thing and expecting a different result; your child is just refusing to be insane. They're not motivated to do it, so they won't do the inner learning that's needed to succeed. It'll all be on the surface. LEAVE IT.

Homework not done? Let them fail. Read all about it right here- I wrote a whole post about that issue. 

And the garbage that hasn't been taken out, the failure to observe a curfew? Well, yes, that might be a respect issue. Did you involve them in the allocation of chores, or the imposition of the curfew? Did you speak politely? Did you thank them sincerely last time they contributed to the household or came in on time? Do you maintain a respectful relationship with your child at all times? If the answer to any of those is 'no', then yes, it's a respect issue. You're not respecting them as a human being with rights and needs.

You have to earn respect. It's not your right. If you can't treat your child with respect, you don't deserve their obedience.

Unquestioning obedience has long-term implications which are- in my opinion- universally negative. It wasn't what I wanted for my child. Is it what you want for yours?

POSTSCRIPT: Teacher Tom has just written an awesome post on the same subject. Here 'tis- go over and have a look! Teacher Tom on obedience


  1. It's so very nice to hear other parents discuss children as though they are human beings. Too often I see them discussed and treated as property.

  2. I know exactly what you mean, Arual. It's sad and frustrating.

  3. Thank you. I just stumbled onto your blog and it must be fate because this post speaks so clearly to the problems I've just started having with my 4 yo daughter, as well as some issues I'm having with a couple of children I babysit. Your description of Bodie might as well be one child in my care who I've suspected for awhile now may be Asperger's or something similar. I *know* all this, but boy, did I need a reminder to apply my knowledge to my own child!

    1. I'm glad it helped you, AK. And yes, sometimes the hardest thing is to get enough distance (emotionally speaking) from our own child to see what the problem is. It's SO easy to fall into a rut of repeating something that just doesn't work! Good luck with all your relationships with these children- they are lucky to have a carer who looks for answers.

  4. Just re-reading this . . . I think I will add it to a list of resources I'm composing for a post (if you don't mind). I'm kind of in a tizzy about "first-time obedience" right now.

    1. First-time obedience is about power of the adult, not about growth of the child. Absolutely use my words anywhere you can to get that message across.

  5. I agree here i think the problem with most parents is they confuse Respect with obedience and the children confuse freedom with disobedience, both go to extremes in order to achieve what is right and this usually ends up with resentment and anger on both sides and many don't want to admit it even to themselves and then when they have children they do the same as their parents did ending with the same results and the whole thing repeats itself.

    1. Equalizer, you're right. There's a LOT of confusion out there about what 'obedience' really means. And there are a lot of angry adolescents out there as a result of this.


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