Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What Can One Say?

(Note: Today is the final day to vote in the Edublog Awards. If you are interested in voting for me or any other early childhood blogger, you will see the links at the top of the sidebar to the right of this post. Early childhood education is often an afterthought, cast in the role of cute little sidekick when it comes to the wider world of education. Many of us feel that "showing up" in places like this helps raise the profile of our profession and exposes a wider audience to the important, thoughtful, insightful work being done in our field. I'm particularly proud to have been nominated for Most Influential Blog Post for a post entitled Spoiled Brats, which was shared nearly 3000 times on Facebook alone -- not bad for a sidekick! Today I'm reposting a piece that was not as widely read under its original title, I Will Not Obey, but that I wish had been more influential. Whether you agree or disagree -- and I know some of you will disagree -- I think it's worthy of thought whatever your age. Finally, I must mention that the Daron Quinlan quote at the top of this piece, although widely re-quoted, seems to come from a person who never did anything else of note. I and others have tried to figure out who this guy is, but he appears to not exist anywhere else on the internet except in the form of this quote. Maybe you know something?)

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-volunteer 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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Anonymous said...

Thank you for so eloquently stating exactly how I feel. I've been having a hard time explaining this to my husband, but I think that directing him to this post will help.

Aunt Annie said...

Excellent post, and I'm happy to start the sharing tree.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

This was a good thoughtful article.
I found it interesting to read the poem, and later I looked up the writer, Utah Philips - an interesting and inspiring individual.

Teacher Tom said...

@Brenda . . . I'm so happy you looked into Utah Philips. He was a great American. I love the way he sings this poem like something from a Catholic mass.

Erin said...

Thank your for this post. I struggle with this more at my job (elemenentary school teacher) than as a parent. The school system is set up on obedience and it's hard to avoid it. I try though. I love your blog.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom, this is an interesting post, but aren't you really arguing for more critical thinking skills rather than for obedience? Surely little ones do not have a very good ability to reason, which is why I think you mention safety as an example to follow *particular* rules and norms of society. It seems that rather than arguing for little ones to obey, that we need to foster an ability to get them to question cultural norms, beliefs, etc. and teach them to expand their minds. At least this seems to be the problem by the time I teach them 18 years later. :) Thoughts? You have certainly given me something to think about. Have a great day!

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across this post today and laughed, because I am Daron Quinlan. It's not my real name, and if I had said that today I might have attached my real name instead, but such is life, I guess. I wrote it on a parenting board years ago, as part of a discussion on discipline. Another member picked up on it and started using it in her sig, and Jan Hunt saw it there and asked for permission to use it on the Natural Child Project. I said yes. I had used the name Daron online for years - it's from a mishearing of my actual name, which is definitely female, as am I - and the last name is my daughter's but not mine.

I didn't realize the quote had become so well-known. Jan did invite me to write an essay but I never did. I've written a lot on the mothering.com boards under the name Dar, if you're curious. My only child is almost 19 and is currently in college full-time after unschooling through high school. She's a lovely person: bright, compassionate, funny, kind, and all-around wonderful, and I miss her a lot when she's away at college - where she's thriving, just by the way.

I parented as a single mother and my daughter and I talked a lot, about everything, from the time that she was very little - under 2, because I remember a woman commenting on our conversation once. I didn't do a lot of "not letting" her do things, really. I did much more of "let's find a safe way to do that". Maybe it's semantics, but I found that it worked better, and still does.