Is Obedience the Prime Goal of Good Parenting?

Family Matters on 01.20.12
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Photo: Sami Grover

I live in a liberal-leaning college town. Before I had kids, it was amusing to me to hear the parents at the farmers' market or in the park:

"Listen, little Johnny/Samantha. Can you think about this for a second? Are you making a wise choice with your heart?"

"He/she is a kid!" I'd be screaming inside, "Just tell him/her to stop poking that baby in the eye or there'll be trouble."

But. now I have kids myself, I'm reminded once again that "judge not" really is the first rule of parenting. The older my children get, the more I value the process of reasoning with them and coming to an understanding about what is, and what is not, sensible behavior. Even during the worst of "terrrible twos" tantrums, I've often found myself in awe that my child is now able to express herself and, albeit a little over dramatically, make the case for why things should be different. I am not, by any means, suggesting that they get to do as they please, but I am saying that we are a happier, more harmonious family when they are able to exercise some self-determination and critical thinking.

Annalisa Barbieri has a fascinating piece over at The Guardian on whether obedience should be the primary goal of parenting:

Most parenting books are about how to get children to do things well. By well, read obediently. When and how you - the adult - want them to do something: eat well, pee in the potty, sleep well (that's the big one), behave well. The aim, it would seem, is to raise compliant children. Because, according to these books, obedient children = successful parents, disobedient = head hanging failures. But actually is an obedient child cause for concern or celebration? The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became by this question. Telling someone their child is obedient is (usually) meant as a compliment. But an obedient adult? Not quite so attractive is it? We have other words for that, doormat being one of them.

Interestingly, Barbieri goes on to argue that blind compliance may prove to be a serious problem when kids reach adolescence, as children who have learned to do as they are told are susceptible to peer pressure as their authority figures/role models change. (I suspect that this is part of the reason why attending preschool lowers addiction rates in later life.) And she suggests that the usual objection to a more reasoning, collaborative approach to discipline - that it is the beginning of a slippery slope into anarchy and delinquency - is not backed up by research or evidence.

Either way, I have yet to ask my daughter (except with tongue firmly in my cheek) to "listen to her heart" as she decides whether to play with the electrical sockets or not, but I am astounded and impressed when she make a reasoned argument for what she wants to do and why. More than once I've had to stop myself and ask - do we really need to go home now/go to sleep/tidy up? Or is that just Daddy wanting the easy life for himself? Sometimes I've changed my position as a result, and sometimes I haven't. And my child has learned that negotiation and give and take are an integral part of social interaction as a result.

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