Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why I Don't Insist on First-Time Obedience

That moment, two and a half years ago, was neither the beginning or the end of the change in my philosophical approach to parenting, but it stands at the apex of the change.

We were still at our old house, where there was a large and lovely park just a block away, but across a busy road. Crossing this road twice was the moment of terror in my daily life. The ducklings were still all under five. Nonetheless, the twins were still in the stroller and the older two stuck close to me, and we generally crossed without incident.

Then came the day when I looked down the road, saw a car coming and then a large clear space after it, and my brain thought, "OK, we can go after this car."

But my brain and my mouth weren't in close gear that day. What came out of my mouth was, "OK, go." And the Duchess went.

The car swerved just in time. Somehow I kept myself mentally together enough to get us along the road and halfway down the block to home. And then I stopped everybody and knelt down with Duchess and Deux and said, "Listen. I know you are generally supposed to obey Mama and Papa and we try to only tell you to do what would be good. But sometimes we mess up. Sometimes we don't know everything. You have to use your own brain, too. And if what we say seems dangerous or doesn't make sense, please, please, stop and ask questions first."

Truth be told, I had never been very good at demanding instant, unquestioning compliance from the children. It's a very linear activity (Do X, Get Y) and my mind is not very linear. But I certainly started out parenting thinking that was what I ought to be doing. When the Duchess and Deux were very small, if they refused an order, we stuck it out, continuing to discipline for however long it would take until they complied.

Only, as we implemented it, it made less and less sense. One of the children simply didn't understand what we were doing--saw no connection between the punishment and the offense. The other, though usually cooperative, seemed to relish punishment as a chance to demonstrate great strength of character under adversity.

Over time, I've come to ask--where did this first time, unquestioning obedience as the ideal of "Biblical parenthood" come from? Did you know the Bible never tells parents to compel their children to obey? It tells the children to obey, yes. But that's a command to the children, not the parents. The command to parents is first of all not to provoke them, and secondly to nurture and admonish them. Nothing about compelling compliance. Or the first time.

I don't want my children obeying me as if I were God. Because I'm not God. I make mistakes. I forget promises I made. I don't know everything. And I am not going to be with them all the days of their life. What I hope for them as they grow up is that they will be self-controlled, make wise decisions, and talk to God for themselves. Obedience to parents at best is a very limited and temporary stage on the way to that.

Now, this is not the same as letting the children walk all over us. They still need guidance and limits. But I give those guidelines not as their divinely-appointed superior, but as a fellow traveler with a bit more experience.

What I work towards is an atmosphere of mutual respect, where they do what's right because it is right, not because I said so, and where they comply with matters of health and safety because they've learned why, and where they comply with regulations for the smooth running of the household because we've worked together to find a way that works for all of us. Yes, there are exceptions where there isn't a time or place to explain, or where they're not ready to understand fully yet. But the 95% or more that is based on working together makes that part more palatable.

I don't, except in a true emergency, expect them to drop everything when I bark out an order. I wouldn't want them to treat me that way. Setting the table can wait until they've come to the end of the chapter. We can pick a mutually agreeable time to finish playing at the park. I want them to start thinking this way because someday I'm not going to be around telling them what to do and when to do it.

Yes, sometimes the discussions get a little long and convoluted. Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be easier if they all just meekly did what I said whenever I said it without asking why or making counter proposals. But our relationship is good and they are growing in maturity and self-control. I see exercises in initiative, good judgment, and self-discipline that are far more meaningful than obedience ever could be.

When there's a behavior issue, I try to stop and look for why first. I've found that their best characteristics are also their worst--defiance is the flip side of natural leadership; hysteria the flip side of a vivid imagination. The challenge is not punishing bad behavior, but helping them learn to direct their strengths in the right way. Usually what I need to do is not deal out consequences, but rebuild the relationship and then provide vision and guidance.

I do realize that some of this is because the children are a little older and more capable of reason and guidance. But at 6 and 7 even Deux and Duchess are still well within the "Because I Said So" range in most people's books. And even with smaller children, I would do it differently. I look back now to the time I spent nearly an hour making the fourteen-month-old Duchess sit down in a chair she wanted to stand up in. Now, I'd just pick her up and move her out of the chair. It's not giving in, but it's also not trying to make a battle out of it. Because I don't need to win; I need to keep her safe and help her grow in understanding.

Note: I am not a parenting expert. Nothing in the post should be construed to constitute parenting advice. This is merely a reflection on personal experiences and philosophy and is not intended to be prescriptive. Results may vary. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.


the Joneses said...

Seriously, I almost want to cry with relief reading this. Because it's exactly what I've worked for with our kids, but all the while fighting against the inner Voices (and a few outside influences) that say I'm being a lax, irresponsible, unGodly parent.

It's not that we lack clear goals in our parenting. It's that our goals are different from the accepted "first-time obedience" club goals.

Thanks for posting this.

-- SJ

Darren said...

Great post! This is why I love reading your blog - you think things out and then explain them really well.

Diary of an Autodidact said...

Boy, this resonates. I too have one who "demonstrates great strength of character under adversity." I have had to be very careful to pick my battles because I can only win a few each year with her. It had better be a key point. And really, it's not that she is defiant. She isn't. If I am honest, I'd say she resembles me more than I would like to admit.

TwelveBullocks said...

You know, there is a time and place for everything... I hear where you are coming from and I must confess I have come from the "first time obedience camp" and have become more lax the last few years with our 10. However, John and I have been talking about swinging back the other way again to try to find a happy balance. I do think you were starting to hit on something when you were beginning to get into ages. I agree that the "first time obedience" to extreme is a little much. I think we should extend some time for them to finish a chapter, etc... So, we ARE this way all the time with older children...However, that is a right that has to be earned by first time obedience at earlier stages of their lives We have found that our later children that we became more lax on this they take way more liberties with us and other and are frankly obnoxious at times. After they get older it's even harder to retrain this out of them. So, we are going back. What convinced us was focusing on the whole word of God. God could have sent the Messiah and Grace first after the fall but he didn't. He sent the Law. It wasn't until we had an understanding of the Law that we saw the need and purpose of grace. It is my goal too. God's people in the beginning needed external control until they were capable of inner control by His Spirit. God has placed parents to be whatever each individual child needs him to be until his Spirit has him. That will be different things to different children. ;-)

Carrie said...

I'm with TwelveBullocks - which I hardly think you'll find surprising. (Except mine are still young and I'm starting out with this mindset and intend to keep it.)

EB said...

I *am* a so-called "parenting expert," yet, alas, am not a parent. (The role came as part of the larger job package, as unconvinced as I was to take it on, but that's another story.)

And I almost want to cry with relief reading this. Because this is exactly the kind of advice and training we try to give parents about raising their children. I, sadly, have no way to know if it really works other than the research and science-based (and, admittedly, non-Biblical) evaluation evidence tells us so.

Basically, the goal is to get kids to think for themselves, because you're not always going to be there to do it for them. And you're doing it, even with very young children, as the research tells us is appropriate.

If I am ever blessed to become the mother of a child, I hope I will be able to follow in your footsteps. Thanks.