Tuesday, September 06, 2011

I Will Not Obey

(Note: After spending the day yesterday listening to Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, Utah Phillips, Woody Guthrie, and others sing their great songs of unions and working people in honor of Labor Day, I'm feeling more defiant than usual.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about obedience, prompted by being reminded recently of the Daron Quinlan quote:

Disobedience is not an issue if obedience is not the goal. 

And it made me ask myself again: is there ever a time when obedience should be the goal? So knee-jerk is our concept of the obedient child, I think, that it's difficult to imagine that the answer is "never."

Is there ever a time in your life as an adult when you are obedient? What do you think of obedient adults? If you're like me, the answers are, no and not much. And I assume that most Americans would answer the same.

We might quibble over special circumstances (e.g., my wife suggested, "What if you're in a concentration camp and they'll kill your child if you don't obey?", although I might put that more in the category of being forced). And I will stipulate to the necessity for military obedience (but since we have an all-voluntary military, I might put that more in the category of an agreement). Yes, I will usually do what the police officer says, but it's not from obedience, but rather from the understanding that we've hired him to do the job of keeping us safe and I trust he is acting in that capacity, but I will not obey if what he is asking is illegal or immoral. And sure we follow our laws, the agreements we've made about how we ought to live together; that is until we come across one to which our conscience says, "I will not obey."

No, the option of disobedience, and choosing instead to take the consequences, is necessary if we are going to live up to the promise of self-governance, and I suspect that if any of us found ourselves in a circumstance in which we are simply expected to obey without question, we would (to use the medical term) freak out.

So if we don't want, or even expect, obedient adults, why do we go out of our way to teach our children obedience? I'm more interested in children behaving in certain ways because they understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. People with the capacity for blind obedience are both dangerous and in danger, easy victims for those who would manipulate them. I want my child to know that she always has a choice; that choice is the space that's there to contain her conscience. 

And yes, there are consequences, natural consequences, for every choice. I want her to understand those too.

But what about the child who is too young to understand? Certainly we should expect that child to obey. If the child is too young to understand, say, something as manifestly dangerous as running out into traffic, that child is also too young to be expected to consistently obey your commands which have no such obvious consequence attached to them, but rather the abstract idea of punishment, which they are also too young to understand. And by the time we've finally taught them to understand punishment, they've long ago already understood the danger of running into traffic. It is not our role to insist on their obedience, but rather to protect them until they are able to protect themselves. As their parents, as an adult responsible for a child, that is our job. If children are too young to not know about running into traffic, then it's our job to keep them back from busy streets. We say, "I can't let you do that," and then we follow that up by not letting them do it.

No, obedience is an idea for people who would have control over you because they know otherwise you will not do it. When people call for obedience it's because they know that they are demanding that someone act in a way contrary to their own best interest or against their own judgment. Obedience demands that you either doubt or ignore what you know is right, which is how atrocities both great and small occur.

I'm afraid for children who have been taught obedience because we know that things learned in childhood last a lifetime.

I do not want a child who obeys. I want a child who understands. And when she must, I want her to say, "I will not obey."

I Will Not Obey
By Utah Phillips

The new ruling party is holding the aces;
The rest of the cards are all missing faces.
I'm sorry, I can't know you today.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Give us your sons and give us your daughters;
No one is safe or immune from the slaughter.
How indifference makes them rage.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

National Guard or freedom fighters,
All houses belong to cigarette lighters.
But who hides in the smoke?
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Better perhaps to perish outside
Of the bunkers where our generals hide.
I turn away and spit.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Give us the minds of your children to learn
The substance of books we have not yet burned.
But can they read the sky for rain?
What can one say?
I will not obey.

Soon all tyrants will feel our impatience;
We choose to create our own combinations.
I was always willing to agree.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

The essence of contract is agreement,
Not coercion or obedience.
And agreement is sacred.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

There are so few wars of people's liberation,
for the people have so seldom risen,
Only the armed faction. Listen:
The armed faction lies.
They recreate the state through their action.
When the people rise
It is not they
But the state
Which dies.

I sing this song for the prisoners' release,
Most of all now for the new state police.
You see, the guns have changed hands, again.
What can one say?
I will not obey.

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Andrea said...

I am behind this 100%. I do have a question, though. What about children who are old enough to understand on some level, but choose to hurt themselves or others? I feel as though the, "I can't let you do that," still applies, and work hard to get underneath the hurtful behavior, but am not sure how this view of disobedience relates. I am just thinking out loud, and would love input.

Kristin@SenseofWonder said...

I may have left this in a comment before, but I worked for a time in a very conservative, very strict Baptist preschool. The philosophy was that if children were to learn to obey God, they must learn to obey adults. I had never worked in an environment where the actual words,"When a teacher tells you to do something, you need to obey" were actually used to a child. It was so weird an experience. I decided to counter with the notion that if children were to learn about the grace of God, they must first experience the grace of the adults around them. And if we were created in His image as people of free will, then we (even the youngest of us) should be treated as such. I would NEVER want to raise a child who blindly obeyed. What if a stranger told them to get in to their van? Would I want a good little obedient child? No, I would want a child who could freely think,"uh, no. I'm going to run away" My children will always know they are in control of their own bodies, or else they will grow in to children who allow themselves to be controlled by others, and that is not what any one wants.

kirstie said...

"by the time we've finally taught them to understand punishment, they've long ago already understood the danger of running into traffic"

looking at the difference between my almost 8 year old and 4 year old, this is so true.

Diana said...

I'm a newish reader and I've been thinking about obedience lately. I always think of the milgram experiments and how scary blind obedience. Obedience certainly would be convenient as a parent but it woulddo a great disservice to my child. If convinience was what I was looking for, parenting was the wrong way to go!

rosesmama said...

I obey traffic laws, or at least try to. I think of obedience as following the rules. There are lots of instances where I understand the the rules are there for a reason and just follow them. Sometimes the rules may need to be changed, but following the rules in itself is not bad. Learning how to change the rules while still adhering to them is not a terrible course, either. I guess I just don't think of obedience as such a bad thing. Perhaps obeying without thought is unwise, but also chaos is untenable.

Kim H. said...

Hmmm... it definitely is something to think about. It's funny, I was actually thinking something along these lines today, about when I would need my children to do exactly as I say, immediately when I say it. It doesn't happen too often. While I agree about the who child running out into the street thing, there could be situations where the child COULD understand the danger of it, but they may not understand those consequences in that exact moment because it's an unfamiliar situation. Of course, when I was thinking this, I was thinking of extremely rare occasions, like a gunman walks into the convenient store you went into... I know, not stuff of the everyday norm that would be in our neighborhood. But I also tend to think that part of them learning and being an individual is also learning to trust. Sometimes I'll see my child doing something that could be potentially harmful, where they might take a small fall or otherwise hurt themselves mildly, and I'll warn them of what could happen. Sometimes they listen, and sometimes they don't. When they don't and they do hurt themselves, there is an action of learning to trust what Mom has to say about what might happen. I most certainly live by the idea of "safe as neccessary", NOT "safe as possible" (although, I'm a lot better at this with the second child that I was in the beginning with the first). But with my 3 year old, we are working on learning about how to think of consequences and/or what comes next, cause and effect type of stuff.

Unknown said...

I just had a conversation with my kids about having them do as I say without question. We were speaking about earthquakes. I grew up in So. California where they are almost a way of life. They've grown up (8 and 7 years) in Oregon, where we have never felt one, but a huge one is predicted. We talked about what to do and my daughter was getting nervous. "What if I forget, mom?" Well, that's when you listen and do as I say without question. Really, I think that's the first time I've ever said that to them.

I've also had very religious friends ask me how I get my kids to obey me. My answer is always the same, I don't. For full disclosure, I do own a preschool and we have three rules. Be kind, Be gentle and Be safe. Seems like even the youngest children understand.

smallerstuff said...

This is great. I've been thinking so much about it lately. My daughter is getting to an age (1.5 years) to express her free will. So, we're having to start to really think about how to respond when her free will tells her to eat chalk or lick the cell phone charger.
My current strategy is to let her choose the things that aren't going to hurt her, and - as you say - try to keep her away from the harmful things. I don't want to waste my "no's" on silly stuff. Actually, I don't get too excited when she chews the crayons a little or licks her play-do. I've even started to notice that she's only pretended half the time anyway! :)

Annette said...

In reading this, and I do agree and have read parenting books which support these ideals, I just had a bit of a revaluation. My husband and I have been using the expression "you are not listening" or "be a good listener" with our preschooler and for some reason, it never "clicked" that this is basically a euphemism for "OBAY!". It never really sat well with me, but in the moment, we just couldn't think of what else to say or do. There were those times of frustration where we just wanted him to DO WHAT WE ASK, but no matter what parenting style we chose, I don't believe that THIS child would EVER "obay" anyone. I have one of the strongest willed children I have ever met, and I am proud of that all at the same time. He can accomplish great things in life with that sense of self worth...as long as we don't squelch him into rebellion, which is what I imagine pushing "obedience" would do!

Chapter Forty said...

The term obedience makes me think of obedience training for dogs.

I have never thought of training my children 4 & 7 to be obedient, rather I prefer to think I am influencing them to do the right thing. What is 'right' and who is right? It usually means doing the "right" thing by them, which has its own natural consequences good and bad...

G-sus said...

agree totally :)

Have a look into critical discourses around 'citizenship' and how the 'responsible citizen' is the greatest hindrance to change there is...


Aunt Annie said...

I think if we look at the atrocities committed by soldiers who have been taught to obey their officers without question, we can see the true nature of this sort of obedience. It's nothing but rampant egotism by those who would be obeyed.

Yes, there are situations where we could save our children from danger if they 'obeyed' us, ie recognised that we were right and they were wrong, but to extend that principle to a whole upbringing is to presume that as parents we are always right. Which is nonsense.

Darwin, of course, pointed to the universe's answer to this dilemma- natural selection of those with the best instincts for survival. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own survival, and wrapping a child in cotton wool or unthinking obedience is only postponing the inevitable moment when they have to make a judgment call with no experience to rely on. You can't teach a child by telling and forbidding. He has to learn by experiencing the world.

Krista said...

My 8 year old saw the title: Teacher Tom: I Will Not Obey. He read it out loud and said, "That doesn't make sense." I said, "What?" He said, "TEACHER Tom - I will NOT obey."

How deep must the equation: school/teacher = obey be that he was truly astonished that a TEACHER would write the words, "I Will Not Obey"?

I told him he should read it -- he jumped to the you tube video and listened to it.

He decided that when he was old enough to have a facebook account, he was going to friend Teacher Tom.

Thank you. You inspire me to not obey my own parenting rules :).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this- you put words to something I've been trying to put words to for a few years now. I'm a follower of Jesus and I'm pretty sure that most of what he was teaching by example was that we should always question the status quo, so it is pretty sad to me that the emphasis on obedience has come from fellow followers. What can you do? Great post. - S, a parent

Brigette said...

As a mom and pediatric occupational therapist I enjoy reading your blog. It helps me to grow in ideas of how to help children learn through play and through doing.

As a Christian I do not agree with you on this issue of obedience, and wanted to explain how this might be a very important issue for some of your families in your preschool.

One of the important things that Jesus did was to always obey God, to the point of death. Men and women throughout the Bible obeyed what God told them to do and are set as an example. Obedience to God is central to people that are endeavoring to live lives in reverence to the God of the Bible. Children are taught in the Bible to obey their parents in light of this greater scope of reverence to God.

While I understand this is not what you have chosen to do for your life and your family, I encourage you to have a little more respect or at least understanding for people that choose this for their life and for their family.

Solomon said...

I love that quote, and it rings true. But, every internet search I've done has led me down a Carrollian rabbit hole for who Daron Quinlan is. His quote is everywhere, but who is Daron Quinlan?

Solomon said...

Seriously, this search is turning up zip, zero, zilch. I've looked in Google Scholar, Google News, Google Books, blogs.... I've seen this one quote as far back as 2004, but no one attributes any more to it than the guy's name.

Alex | Perfecting Dad said...

This is the best advice, and very well written. Who are we parents to insist that people (kids) obey just because we're bigger and control the food!

anonymom said...

Sigh. I am behind you in theory 100% I was behind you in practice until my now 5 year-old daughter became a full-fledged toddler. She's a born contrarian, and often gets herself worked into a snit where she says absurd things just to vent steam and/or get my goat. If I had a nickel for every time she'd wailed at me "YOU'RE not the parent; I'M the parent!" or "I ALWAYS get to (insert the thing she wants)! I NEVER have to (insert the thing I'm asking)!" I'd have a hefty college fund well under way. I know that her independence and bull-headedness will serve her well in some ways in the future, but I can't help but wish she would do what I ask without a fight sometimes. Being considerate is what we focus on rather than obedience, though. I can't wait until she's old enough to really grasp that she has to consider others' needs, not just her own. Well, at least if she wants to be a part of a responsive community. And I hope she will. In the mean time I try not to hiss at her "when I tell you to put on your shoes, put on your shoes...NOW!"

Anonymous said...

I work at a Montessori school and find this topic very interesting. Our school is very popular and has a waiting list. The parents put their children in montessori so they will become better at obeying rules, learning math and reading earlier than other children. Before this I came from a parent run co operative preschool, so it is very different from my previous experience. I have noticed that the children at Montessori are more independent, and obeying rules (at what cost though?), compared to the children I worked with in the parent run preschool.

With my first child, I made sure she "obeyed me" but she went to a preschool like Teacher Tom and we spent the rest of our time outside in free play. When my oldest went to school, even though she had only free play, because I made her "obey my words" she let all the other children boss her around. I immediately let her know how wrong I was and have spent the last year undoing all the damage I caused her. Even though she had nothing but free play with lots of "blood, paint, and mud" because I made her "obey my words" she had no confidence to stand up to other children.
Frankly since I have become an early childhood teacher, I have been SHOCKED at the behaviour from other early childhood teachers. Most surprisingly the children at the Montessori school have more freedom then the children at my first job which was a free play school.

Anyway nice post Tom, looking forward to your next visit to NZ.

Anonymous said...

I, too, am an early childhood educator. I have yet to have the privilege to observe in a Montessori school, and I'm intrigued by your comment:
"Most surprisingly the children at the Montessori school have more freedom then the children at my first job which was a free play school." Would you be willing to elaborate on that? How was the freedom different in the two settings? Thanks very much.