Tuesday, January 05, 2016


My wife and I have had four dogs over the course of our three decades together. Whenever I have made the mistake of pulling on any of their leashes, they pull in the opposite direction every time. Believe me, left to their own devices, they always want to go where ever I go. I know this because when there is no leash involved they follow right on my heels, hot breath on the backs of my legs, tripping me up when I turn around unexpectedly, but if they sense I'm compelling them, their instinctive response is to rebel.

I've found this to be true in humans as well. No one likes to be told what to do, even when we know it's for our own good, even when it's something we want to do. Imagine being commanded, "Eat your dessert!" I might still eat that dessert, but there will be a moment of reluctance, of rebellion, even if it's chocolate ice cream. And I know if I do, it's not going to taste as good after being bossed into it. And depending on who says it and how they say it, there's about an equal chance I won't eat that damn ice cream at all.

Rebellion is built into us, and ultimately it is an adaptive trait. We all pull back against the leash because we are designed to act according to the pull of our own instincts and the tug of our own knowledge. Of course, we've all found ourselves in circumstances when we've decided that we must stuff our rebellious urges, but we always grow to despise those dictatorial bosses or teachers. If we do well it's usually "in spite" of them. And, of course, we wriggle out of those particular leashes as soon as we possibly can.

Parents know the truth about rebellion all too well. We set limits and rules and our children always test them. Even the most patient and progressive among us know, from the inside, that teeth grinding spiral of commands and refusals, until we finally resort to either physical force or the heavy hand of punishment. It leaves everyone feeling angry, resentful, and abused. And if we're not careful, if we're not conscious parents, these smaller spirals become part of a larger whirlpool of ever escalating rule breaking and punishments because every pull on the leash, every punishment, leads to a pull in the opposite direction.

Some of us have decided that this rebellion is a bad thing, at least when it's directed at us, and it must be quashed at all costs. We're the parents after all. We will not have our authority challenged. If that's your approach, your future will likely be either one of temporary, savorless victories followed by frustration, or a regime that involves punishments of increasingly extreme severity. Every study ever done on the subject of punishment (both parental and societal) winds up concluding that punishments only work under two circumstances:

  1. when the punisher is present; or
  2. when the punishment is debilitating (e.g., so disproportionately severe that one will never again risk it.)

Most of us are unwilling or unable to play the role of ever-present punisher. And I hope that none of us are the type to inflict debilitating punishments on our child.

The alternative is to accept rebellion as a demonstration that our child is healthy and normal, that it is not a sign that she is on her way to a life of crime and ruin, but rather evidence that she thinks for herself, trusts her own instincts, and will not be pushed around. When we accept this, we see that our job is to guide rather than command our children, to help them come to the understanding that behavior has its own rewards and consequences. I've written before about "natural consequences" and they apply here.

A parent taking away a boy's dessert because he hits his sister isn't the natural consequence of hitting. The consequence is that his sister is hurt and the evidence of that is the crying. That's where our attention ought to be. "You've hurt your sister," keeps the focus on the boy's behavior, allowing everyone to explore the consequence and potential remedies. "No dessert for you," turns the boy's attention on the "unfairness" of the parent who is pulling on that damn leash.

Rebelliousness is not a synonym for "anti-social" or "uncivil," it's merely a reaction to the leash. We all want to do the right thing and none of us wants to be told what to do.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share


Dienne said...

Overall, I agree with you - I've tried to raise our kids (now ages 7 and 9) in a progressive way and avoid power and control issues. But there are external factors that are beyond even my control. For instance, I have to work to earn a living. If my kids want to eat and live in a house, I need to be out the door by 7:30 a.m. Since the State of Illinois requires that they be in school during the day and forbids me to leave them alone at their ages, they have to come with me. This is not something they want to do - left to their own devices, they would stay in bed longer, luxuriate over their breakfast longer, take longer showers, and, most of all, play on their tablets longer (much longer) (incidentally, all of that is perfectly understandable - those are choices I'd make myself if I could). So how do I balance this? The natural consequence of their rebellion is that I'm late for work, which doesn't affect them, it affects me (at least until the point where I lose my job and we're living in a tent and eating acorns, at which point it's a bit late to correct the situation). I try to use humor, explain, cajole, etc. But when it comes right down to it, they have to move their fannies because I said so and I need to do what it takes to make that happen. What am I missing here? What could I be doing differently?

Rebecca deCoca said...

Yes, I've always found suggestions work better than commands, especially if I explain the reasoning behind my suggestion, even to very young children.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the reminder!

Unknown said...

If they need more time, they need to get up earlier. This may necessitate an earlier bed time.

JMH said...

A natural consequence is "i guess you're gonna be hungry; i guess you're going in your pjs". If you tell the school what happened, you won't get in trouble for it. They can deal with the embarassment.
The best solution is to problem-solving in the evening. You don't have time to fix the problem in the morning. So, in the evening, after you've all settled down, see if you can talk through what the problem is and what the solutions might be. What you think the problem is might not be what their problem in the morning is, and if you're trying to fix two different problems no wonder there is conflict.

Unknown said...

Hi dienne, I'd second earlier bed time and earlier wake up time.
Also, even though getting everybody out of the door on time can be stressful, do all you can to lessen the stress. Which means more time to do things, but also a good mood and a upbeat attitude from your side. Complain extensively and openly about how bloody hard it is to get you kids out of the door on time, but then, with them, in the morning, deploy all your patience and understanding while keeping the limit about the time to exit. If you manage to be playful that would be a great help, like challenging them to do something first than you, or singing a silly song about the devastating effects of being late (parody-style). I'm afraid the morning will never be easy. But it might become easier. Good luck to you!