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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Driving through stop signs, and more on obedience

The dialogue on obedience still hasn't stopped! It's flying round and round the blogosphere in ever-diminishing circles, and nobody is changing anybody's mind. Children are too disobedient these days, says one; children are too regimented, says another. They're out of control. Or, They're expressing real needs. 

And never the twain shall meet.

Somehow, in the midst of reading all this, I had cause to remember the day some nine years ago when my learner-driver son drove straight through a stop sign, while I rode shotgun with my mouth hanging open in shock. It wasn't just any stop sign, mind you; it was one of the most notoriously dangerous intersections on the whole Central Coast. People got killed there with monotonous regularity.

Children are out of control...

Oh, he heard about it from me, don't you worry. I screamed at him to pull over, and then I blew a gasket. As you do, when your life's just flashed before your eyes. I mean, it's not like he didn't know that stop sign was there. He just thought he had the situation under control; he made a judgment call.

And I guess that's why the incident came to mind this morning when I was reading, yet again, about obedience. I think that's the sort of thing that some parents fear, when they choose a parenting path that requires complete obedience from their child. They want to make sure their child doesn't drive through the metaphorical stop signs of life. They fear that they'll raise a sub-standard citizen, unless they force their child to comply with every demand. And they blame every tableau they see of strangers' children 'misbehaving' in public on the parents' failure to cultivate unquestioning obedience.

If only they could time-travel a little, and stand where I stand for a moment- with a grown child, looking back.

Would my son have stopped 'obediently' at that stop sign if I'd parented him differently?

You know already, if you've been following my previous writings about obedience, that I wasn't one to allow World War III to start just because he didn't put his glass in the dishwasher or pick up his toys. I wasn't one to escalate situations into physical violence when he got stubborn (which was extremely often); I wasn't standing there with a belt at the ready in case he didn't eat his vegetables or didn't come home on time.

I was one to reason with him- within reason; I was one to shrug my shoulders when he didn't do his homework, to end up laughing with him when something trivial got out of proportion and he made a wisecrack worthy of a stand-up comedian with the sole intention of de-escalating the situation. (Fair enough. Life is short. Laugh often. At times he was wise beyond his years.)

No, the worst I did was to smack him ineffectually, maybe two or three times in his whole life, and send him to his room till he could be civil when his tongue got completely out of order. (Ironic, and probably unfair, considering that I was as out of control as he was; he was a master button-presser, and I was possessed of a very long wick with a bomb at the end. Fortunately he doesn't seem to have held those few tepid whacks against me, any more than I've demanded retribution for the unwise and immature remarks that prompted them.)

I've never wished I'd smacked him more, or harder. Never.

I mean, maybe it's true- maybe he would have stopped at that stop sign if I'd been tougher on him, if I'd insisted on more rules, more obedience.

But to force him to do what I said- well, how would I have done that? And would it have been worth it?

I think this is the essence of the balancing act. There are two ways to get a child to comply with something they don't want to do. They can comply because they respect you and understand that you've got their best interests at heart, because they love you and want make life easier for you; or they can comply because they fear you, because they're scared not to please you.

So let's tease that one out a little. Would it have been worth having my child feeling scared of me, just to ensure that he 'learned' unquestioning obedience and obeyed things like traffic signs without thought?

For starters, if you're one of those parents who's scored a stubborn, intelligent child, good luck forcing him to do anything. Obedience will mean literally beating the spirit out of him, and I'm not giving you any guarantees that it'll work even then.

You won't be able to out-reason him, you won't be able to bribe him, you won't be able to 'lay down the law' by withdrawing his privileges. He'll look you in the eye with ever-diminishing respect and stare you down. He'll lie happily on his bed with not a toy left in his room and enjoy the quirks of his own imagination, or read a book. He won't care about anything as much as he cares about not being forced to do something he can't see the point of, or hasn't been given any agency in. He is his own person and he knows it. He is a person who already knows himself to be more than just an extension of you.

Heaven help you if you don't know that too.

This is the child I had. Do you dare say I should have beaten him till he did what I said, for fear of his life? Because that's what it would have taken.

And if it's not right to do that to this child, it's not right to do that to any child. My son taught me to parent with respect, because he wouldn't accept anything else.

Does that make you cringe? Do you think the balance of power is wrong in that equation? Well, just hold on one sweet minute. Parenting isn't about power. 

Bullying is about power. Politics is about power. Money is about power. Rape is about power. But parenting? Parenting is about respect.

And what if I had beaten obedience into him? It hardly bears thinking about. I shudder to think of all the incredible moments of trust and love I would have done myself out of.

Like the moment when he rang me, admitting he'd made a serious mistake with alcohol and had put himself in terrible danger. And just wanted to talk to me about it.

Or the moment when he called to say he wanted to get engaged at the tender age of 19, then came hundreds of miles to see me and talk it over and reassure me that he really had thought things through.

Or what about the moment he asked me to help make it possible for them to get married in the bush, the bush I loved so much and where I'd brought him to live at the age of seven? Amazingly, this techno-savvy child of the computer age wanted to get married amidst the natural beauty of the big backyard I'd shared with him. I'd never realised it even mattered to him.

And so on. If I'd beaten the cr*p out of him from an early age, if I'd withheld my love to make him behave the way I wanted, would he have shared with me as an adult the truth about his life, as often and as frankly as he has? Would I have had the opportunity to speak proudly about the choices he'd made, to laugh about his quirks with him- not at him- amongst his large body of friends at his wedding reception?

Would we have come out the other side of our greatest moments of discord, forgiving each other's mistakes and still sending each other bold-typed hugs at the end of every Gmail chat? Would we have sat 800km apart tapping at our computers late into the night, chatting first about his honours thesis and then, as the years went by, about the PhD thesis that's taken him years of sustained, focussed work to complete- all while he struggled with the finances, teaching to support his family, never asking me for a cent, and in his spare time taking a leadership role in his chosen recreation?

(Does this person sound like a sub-standard citizen?)

Oh sure, he's not perfect. And sometimes he makes mistakes, overestimates his control of events. When you let people think for themselves, when you cut the apron strings and let them work things out for themselves, let them learn through the natural consequences of their actions, you can't expect perfection- no more than you can expect independence or originality when you tie a child to your side, beat them into shape and don't allow them to breathe. A child who's not been broken to obedience is far more likely to do the incredible- and, from time to time, the outrageous.

They write a groundbreaking academic paper, they teach a child from a non-Anglo culture so well he tops the year in English. They marry the right woman, they give of their time and resources freely. Occasionally, they drive through a stop sign and give their mother a dozen more grey hairs.

Hopefully, they live to realise that the last one was a bad idea.

If I'd forced my son to be obedient, perhaps I would still be proud of what he'd achieved- though I doubt he would have achieved the same things, and god knows I would be a different person completely after having done that. Perhaps I would have pushed him into a career he hated, because he would have forgotten- or never learned- how to say 'no' to me. I mean, heavens, I don't really have a clue what he does, it's not my field; but that doesn't matter. What matters is that he'll spend a third of his waking hours doing something that he both loves and does well.

That sort of pride, the virtuous pride that comes of having a child who does what he's told and goes where you tell him to go, isn't really the point. The purpose of life isn't to be proud of your children's behaviour and achievements- no, it's not. That's just a side benefit, not the main game.

The purpose of life, in terms of parenting, is to enable your children to find their gifts and use them, so that they blossom into the best human being they can be. If you succeed in that, then it really doesn't matter what your child ends up doing.

And here he is, this disobedient son of mine, doing what he loves and doing it spectacularly well. The boy who wouldn't do his homework has had his nose to the grindstone for four years finishing this darn thesis, of his own free will. Sometimes when you stop pushing, things find their own momentum.

And beyond achievement, beyond pride, at the end of our time as a parent- when the nest is empty- all we have left of our child is our relationship with him. That's where the folly of insisting on obedience starts to wreak its revenge.

If I'd beaten my child into submission, would he ever have shared his precious moments and private thoughts with me as an adult? Would he have told me, as an adult, those most precious words of acknowledgement, that he thought I'd been a good mother- the best, even?

I doubt he'd be speaking to me at all.

All those parents who do insist on obedience at any cost- I'm sad for their children, but I'm also sad for them. Because one day they'll find that it's not enough to be proud of our children's behaviour.

Surely, we also want our children to look back and be proud of our behaviour.


  1. Ah, I wish I had read this when my now-34-year-old son was younger. I would have been easier on ME! I pretty much did as you suggested, but thought I was a wimpy, bad parent because of it. Yet, now, I too have a great relationship with my son, his wife, and the most amazing 11 month old grandson on the planet.

    BUT, I am particularly glad I read this blog entry because I also have a very stubborn, very bright, very stubborn (wait, did I say that already) 16-year-old step son. I always "lose" in a war of wills. I think I'll do things differently now.

    Thank you!

    1. I'm glad it rang a bell for you. And good luck with round two. We can only get better with experience!

  2. Hi! Just came across your blog because it was linked to another one I read. This post resonated with me so much! Your assessment early in the piece that the reason parents become authoritarian is because they fear that if they let their child make one little mistake they will "go off the rails" is spot on. My Dad loves me dearly but he put me on such a high pedestal that he couldn't handle any indiscretion. He worked with troubled teens so the "threat" was very vivid for him. He used love withdrawal (ie not speaking to me for days for the slightest "mistake") instead of physical punishment, so that has lessened the impact a bit I guess, but it still hurt. Funnily enough I was so stubborn that I would dig my heels in even more. Our relationship did recover once I moved out and he could finally accept that I wasn't going to end up "bad". I now understand him and have forgiven him, and our adult relationship is quite good. He has even acknowledged a bit of why he did what he did.

    It wasn't until I became a parent and started reading about respectful parenting etc that I understood him and realised the impact it has had on me. I have become quite adament that my partner and I will raise our children with respect not control. So the cycle is broken, and much of that is due to having great bloggers like you talking about this!

    1. I hear you, Anon. My mother was a sort of 'withdrawal' person too, but a few seconds of her icy disapproval was enough.

      Thank you for the compliment. The internet has certainly made it a lot easier for people to discover different ways of parenting and walk outside their own little bubble of experience!

  3. Someone defined integrity as doing the right thing when no one is around to see you.

    With this in mind obedience is a matter of the integrity of ones heart.

    None of us will stop at all the stop signs of life for millions of different reasons, but from the heart we should hear the voice that says, "You know that was wrong." And then purpose to do the right thing the next time.

    And if it involves another individual let them know through five sincere words, "Forgive me, I was wrong."

    We live and hopefully we learn.

    I like your blog.


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