Contemporary discussions on parenting rarely include obedience, a word that has fallen out of favour and indeed, is almost taboo. One is more apt to hear about obedience training of dogs than of children, since the implicit hierarchical relationship between master and subject is politically incorrect, a challenge to the prevailing egalitarian mindset. The expectation that children should simply obey rules strikes many parents as antiquated, even undemocratic, having themselves been raised with the mantra ‘question authority’.
The unspoken desire of all parents of course, is to have obedient children without needing to argue, battle, negotiate, or generally break the child’s spirit. Today’s parents worry that simply demanding obedience from their children is inherently humiliating and therefore damaging to the child’s self-esteem. Scenes of chaotic and disorderly behaviour of children in the grocer’s aisle and other public places are the price we all pay for this mistaken assumption.
From the child’s perspective, obedience does not automatically entail a dispiriting loss of freedom and control. When playing games or sports, they intuitively understand that without clear rules that must be obeyed, disorder and confusion abound, nothing gets accomplished, and no one enjoys himself. Similarly, children can also come to understand that parental rules are necessary and, over time, can appreciate their benefits.
A child’s temperament is an important determinant of how he responds to rules, with easygoing children adapting more easily while their stronger-willed counterparts are more likely to question and resist. But the overriding factor in generating compliance in a child is creating an atmosphere of trust which enables parental authority to be accepted. This trust is engendered in children when parents themselves follow some basic guidelines.
Clarity: Children can only obey rules which are clear, specific and age appropriate. Parents ensure that the child has understood by asking him to repeat what was said, using his own words. Parents must adapt their language to match their child’s ability at any given stage of development.
Realistic Expectations: In establishing rules of conduct, parents must set goals which the child can easily attain. Unrealistic expectations create frustration and decrease the child’s motivation to comply. A gradual increase in expectations should follow the child’s developmental maturation.
Credible Consequences: Trust in parental authority is diminished or lost entirely if the penalties for breaking rules are not enforced. Just as the child must feel capable and rewarded for fulfilling a parental rule, so must he believe that the parent’s displeasure and punishment for the child’s disobedience will follow reliably. Outlandish and unbelievable threats uttered without follow-through further undermine parents’ credibility and authority in children’s eyes.
Consistency: Parental authority is maintained and strengthened through the consistent application of rules. The systematic rather than arbitrary enforcement of age appropriate rules allows the child to accurately predict the consequences of his behaviour, thus enhancing his sense of security by providing order and stability to his world.
By following these guidelines and obeying their own rules of parenting, parents effectively model self-discipline for their children and further encourage its development. The child comes to understand that the parent too abides by rules of conduct which benefit the whole family by creating order and harmony. Eventually, this basic lesson is transposed to other situations as the child learns that rules operate at every level of society.
Ultimately, a well-behaved child not only brings pleasure and gratification to parents, but also accrues benefits to himself as others reward him with positive regard. Self-discipline and self-mastery increase self-esteem in a child who has learned to adapt well to his environment, both in and out of the home. Parents who are reluctant to explicitly demand obedience from their children for fear of seeming dictatorial should reconsider the benefits to themselves, their children, and society at large. In wisely exerting their parental power, they also fulfil their primary responsibility to be teachers of values to their children. This is made possible by restoring obedience to its rightful place in child-raising discussions.
Mary Santangelo writes from Montreal. She has previously written for MercatorNet on over-diagnosis of mental health problems in children.