Today, we’ll address ‘obedience,’ a common societal expectation in India, and how it impacts children’s education.
What is obedience anyway?
Obedience is when someone follows the commands of someone in authority. In the case of children, we expect them to follow the orders of the adults in their lives—parents, teachers, other staff members, older siblings, aunts & uncles, grandparents, auto drivers…the list is endless.
How important is it for you that your children be obedient? Are you a proud parent of children who follow everything you say, even if they dislike some of your choices? Most people think that obedience is good for a child’s education. Here I hope to challenge that view.
In India, when we talk about education, we love to emphasise the importance of providing new information and skills along with moral values. Obedience is often touted as a critical moral value.
The problem begins when we expect obedience from our children without any option for disagreement or critical thinking. If only children always followed what the elders tell them to! They would never make mistakes, get the best grades all through their schooling, have the right friends, graduate from college with the perfect degree and go on to have the right career—the path as imagined by the authority figures.
But is it ever possible for a human being to never make mistakes? And the right career choice for whom? The parents or the children?
The trouble with obedience is that it is discipline as enforced by another through fear, indoctrination, or unpleasant consequences. There is no incentive for the children to follow the rules when the authority figure is absent.
Don’t get me wrong; instant obedience is essential for survival in certain instances. No one wants a child questioning you when you are trying to herd them out of a fire. What we do want is for our children to learn self-discipline.
Aaaah, that word discipline creeps into our conversation again, eh? What’s the big deal about self-discipline?
When we expect children to obey, they are told to suppress their individual thoughts, desires and ideas. The authority figure has done the thinking and analyzing for them and decided on the best course of action.
Obedience teaches children to ask, “Am I being watched?” instead of, “Is this the right thing to do?”
Most of us can remember someone telling us, “I know what is best for you! Do as I say!” But the question is, best for whom? Let’s be honest; obedient children make it easy for parents, teachers, or the other adults in their lives. We can go about our routine because the kids will do as they are told. There is a downside to this. When we put the controls on, the intention behind children’s behaviour changes, they act either to get something or to avoid punishment. Quite often, it is the fear of punishment that does the trick.
Obedience teaches children to ask, “Am I being watched?” instead of, “Is this the right thing to do?” Kids don’t learn to think critically about the right course of action, even in a situation that challenges their morality.
Children who are taught to obey no matter what will not be able to stand up to others- the authority figures or their peers- when they are asked to do something that feels morally wrong. How long ago did you read about an instance when bystanders watched someone be mistreated? I bet it was just this week! I know I did! Didn’t you wonder why the bystanders didn’t step in and stop them? Well, when we are conditioned to do as we are told, we don’t know how to speak up for ourselves or others. It is easier to shrug our shoulders and walk away.
Obedience is not exactly the best virtue for academic excellence either. Simply put, obedience kills creativity. Creativity implies that the child has an original thought or idea. When we tell children that we have done the thinking and problem solving and their job is to act in a prescribed manner, how will they develop the ability to think creatively? Our need for obedience doesn’t allow them the right to be curious. And for those kids with have doubts, how will they satisfy their curiosity? Will these children learn to ask questions if they don’t understand something?
Learning is about experimenting and taking risks. That means trying new paths and sometimes breaking the rules. That’s a biggie, isn’t it, that breaking the rules?
Whenever I have this discussion with parents, they get very defensive because they think the only other option is permissiveness. They equate obedience with respect and go on to say how they only want to protect their kids because they know the consequences of making mistakes, etc. Do you hear that too? I want to point out that I’m not talking about no rules, structure, or discipline. Nor are obedience and respect the same. Yes, all of us want to protect our kids. That is why we must support kids by giving them room to grow; to understand that if something goes wrong, they can work to set it right. Our role is to make sure they don’t harm themselves in the process.
If we take away obedience, what do we put in its place? How about fostering self-discipline in the child? Involve your children when you set boundaries so that they understand and accept your expectations. As I said earlier, they will make mistakes, but that is okay.
There are risks to this approach, primarily for us adults.
Changes in the power equation: It is difficult, even scary, for many adults to share power with others, especially children.
More effort and time: Explaining the reasons behind the rules in our communities-at school, at home, on the road take time and effort. It is so easy to say, “because I told you so.” These explanations must be repeated many times until children’s self-control and self-discipline develop gradually.
Challenging self-control: Adults need to exercise more self-control and not rush to fix things when children make mistakes. Children need time to come up with alternate ways to correct their mistakes. Their methods may be different from what we choose, but that’s okay.
Children already know that adults are in control. That is why they challenge us. We must find a way to share the power with them so that they derive a sense of control and competence.