In my parenting, the goal of obedience doesn’t exist. It’s important to emphasize the part about it being a goal. Notice that I didn’t say, “Obedience doesn’t exist in my household.” I mean that my children’s obedience to me is not something I specifically aim for.
I get its importance, though, and I understand why parents expect it. It’s nice! And sometimes necessary. We tell our kids to do things because we want them to be safe and healthy. Most directions are not urgent (It’s time to get your shoes on. Please clear your plate. Go throw your garbage away.), though some are (STOP! (running in the street)). Since we give a multitude of necessary directions every day, compliance is certainly a nice perk, not to mention needed!
But it’s also important to keep in mind that kids under age 7 are going through crucial periods of development of their autonomy and will…certainly the toughest years for expecting obedience. This is not to say I don’t have any expectations of my kids. I do.
- I expect them to contribute to the family and household.
- I expect them to have feelings. My wishes may or may not line up with their objectives, and they will have feelings about that.
- I expect them to express their feelings; to feel free to communicate with me at a level that is appropriate for their development.
- I expect them to help take care of themselves.
- I expect them to be autonomous. To do things for themselves, on their agendas.
- I expect them to take initiative. To conceive their own ideas about what they need to do.
- I expect them to not like everything that needs to be done. I don’t. No one does.
Though I don’t expect obedience, I get it. When I shift my perspective on obedience, why does it happen anyway, so naturally and willingly?
- Because I recognize their objectives. I know that my kids have other ideas and different priorities for their time.
- Because I value their feelings. And I prove it by listening and accepting them on a daily basis.
- Because I communicate with respect and empathy.
- Because I aim for understanding. Them. Their feelings. Their goals. Their interests & disinterests. I make it a priority to know what makes them tick.
- Because I value their uniqueness. The way they’re not like any other kid.
- Because I am aware of their levels of physical, cognitive, and emotional development.
I replace a goal of obedience with one of connection and trust instead. Because if there is connection and trust in a hierarchical relationship, guess what comes naturally? Obedience. Children are drawn to obey those to whom they are emotionally connected.
My children and I have a kind of relationship in which, when I say, “STOP!” in a dangerous situation, they stop immediately. They’re not behaving out of conditioned obedience or because I have actively taught them to obey as one of my goals of raising them. They listen to me because of the status of our relationship. Our connection, combined with the notes of urgency and fear in my voice, creates a crystal clear distinction between this kind of communication and all of our regular daily interactions.
We have the kind of relationship in which an emergency “NO!” carries the shock of disappointment, anger, fear, shame, frustration…all of those feelings we are tempted to convey with words or actions in the name of discipline: spankings, isolating time outs, exclamations of, “How could you do that?” and, “Just go to your room and stay in there!” It’s because of the connected relationship I have with my kids that when I say “No” with authority, I don’t have to say anything else to get obedience.
Do my kids ever disobey? Of course. But I don’t see it like that. Ah, there’s that perspective again. I see all of these moments in which they are technically disobeying (that is, not following my directions), with an understanding of who my children are and what they need. Is it annoying when they don’t listen to me? Absolutely. But I find that if I shift my perspective from “Yes! You need to do what I say!” to one of, “How can we solve this problem to meet everyone’s needs?”, my directions do get carried out. I see ‘not listening’ as…
- a child having strong, very acceptable, very human feelings. Children need validation and acceptance.
- immature brain development. Children need time to develop necessary brain connections.
- an example of a child exerting autonomy and initiative. Very developmentally appropriate. Children need to be autonomous.
- a show of distance in our relationship. Children need a sense of significance and belonging.
Meet the needs, get the obedience.
Instead of expecting obedience from my children, I have shifted my thinking to expect developmentally appropriate behavior. I understand my kids’ social, emotional, and cognitive capabilities, and I work on cultivating a relationship based on that understanding. By parenting not for obedience, but for a combination of emotional connection and hierarchical authority, my kids give their willing obedience by default.