Obedience is overrated. Parents, try this instead.

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By Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

I have received a few requests for “how to get my kid to listen” posts recently (I have a lot of friends die-hard fans who have preschoolers and a few who have teenagers.).

But before I go on, let’s get one thing straight: I’ll be damned if I’m going to tell you to raise your kids to be “obedient.” Social psychology says obedient people electric-shock the hell out of innocent strangers. Kids who are taught to simply be obedient are more depressed, socially-inept, antisocial, and ineffective than kids whose parents consider their perspectives and consult with them. Also, the Nazis were obedient.

Rather, my long-game parenting goal is to raise kids who are emotionally secure, demonstrate self and other-awareness, and who possess good judgement and know how to exercise that good judgement.

Errr… Admittedly the goal of obedience would have been easier.

But how do we get our kids to learn good values and judgement and be motivated to use those values and judgement? How do we get an impulsive 4-year old or a know-it-all teenager through to the next several years without implanting a microchip in their brains and locking them in the basement overlooking any of the important, formative lessons?

I have read many books and articles on the subject, worked with hundreds of kids and parents in therapy, am in the midst of raising three kids of my own, and have learned all about child development, behavioral modification, emotions, and attachment. But, alas, no, I really don’t have all the answers all the time (and the programs, books and websites that claim to have the “solutions” that work in every single scenario scare me a little.)  That being said, with what I know on the subject,  here are what I personally consider to be 

“The 12 C’s of Parenting:”

1) Make CONTACT often. Engage, interact, show-up, toss the football, cuddle up with some books, set down the electronics and have conversations.  Give time-ins and notice their efforts, and praise them when they do things “right.”  Be there for all of that.  Form a strong attachment– Your child’s relationship with you is the basis for
trust, respect, and consideration of you, and, from that foundation, the basis for trust, respect, and consideration for everyone else your child encounters in life.

2) Show COMPASSION for the child’s feelings, wants, and needs. Aloud. Say to your teen, “I know you’re really disappointed because you really want to go to the party. Doing the responsible thing can be a drag sometimes, but you know you have to stay on top of your algebra if you want to graduate.” Say to your preschooler, “I know you are so angry that mommy won’t give you a cookie, and you just want one so so bad. Making sure your body stays healthy is so important, but it sure isn’t easy all the time.”

3) Use a COLLABORATIVE approach. Make sure your kids are in on your agenda too. Your three year old doesn’t want to go to school in her stinky pajamas, right? (ok, so she better let you help her get dressed.)  Basically, the idea is to involve your child in finding solutions to any problems that (s)he encounters. If she forgot her math book at school and has a big project due, ask her what he supposes she could do about that before offering to pick it up at the school.  This next example may or may not have just happened yesterday:  If he somehow loses all of his tickets at Chuck-E-Cheese and has no tokens left, but wants to get Sweetarts, which are 10 tickets, ask him what he supposes he could do to solve that problem.  He might just decide to go around to all the machines and gather a few stray tickets, and then be honest with the cashier about what happened, and beg for her leniency (3 tickets for a 10 ticket item?).  And he might just end up going home with Sweetarts.

4) To go along with #3, lead your child in a COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS. Discuss with your child the pros and cons of doing it his way before you automatically tell him what to do. This encourages your child to think critically, a valuable life skill. Say to your teen, “Okay, what are some of the risks or downfalls of going to this party? What are the reasons that you want to go?” Say to your preschooler, “Okay, you want to stay up late on a school night? How do you think you will feel in the morning if you do that?”

5) Practice and model your own self-CONTROL. Ask yourself if your reaction is more about your own frustration than it is about benefiting of the child. Then, if you decide your reaction is more about alleviating your own tension and not teaching the child anything, practice self-CONTROL and self-CALMING instead of simply being reactive.  We as parents don’t always have to react in the moment; it is perfectly okay to say, “I am really upset about the fact that you used my expensive perfume without asking and shattered it all over the bathroom tile, so I am going to think about how I want to handle it and get back to you in a couple hours.”  It is also good to model calming skills such as taking deep breaths, counting to ten, listening to music, taking a break, etc. This benefits you as a parent but also provides your child with a good example of self-control vs. reactive anger.

6) Use COMIC-RELIEF during tense moments.  Humor is a wonderful coping skill to use when your child is upset (read: irrationally angry that there’s a “broken” pepperoni on his pizza or hates you because you won’t let him use $20 worth of aluminum foil to make a “real spaceship.”) Any introjection of silliness, including putting your own circular pepperoni on your nose and asking him if he wants to eat your nose, is a great way to bond, distract, and lighten the mood.

7) COMMUNICATE the lessons and expectations clearly.  How often do we tell our kids what not to do, but fail to explain to them how to do the right thing?  Instead of saying, “Don’t hit!” to a nonverbal toddler (who is trying to make contact with his little buddy at daycare), how about teaching him to “gently touch” and showing him how to tap someone on the shoulder? Instead of saying, “Don’t get any late assignments,” how about teaching our kid how to stay on a homework schedule and use an assignment notebook?  Instead of saying, “Don’t talk to me like that,” how about giving the kid an example of what to say  instead?

8)  Make sure the child CAN do it. It may be unrealistic to tell a toddler to sit still in church or tell a teenager he better pass Algebra.  In the event that our expectations are beyond the child’s ability, we can either surrender to the reality that it isn’t going to happen (maybe find a church with a Sunday school or daycare for the toddler?) or teach the child how to do it (maybe get a tutor for Algebra for the teenager?).

9)  Remember, there is stuff that you CAN’T control.  If there was ever a profound spiritual lesson in powerlessness, it is parenthood.  Let go of the idea that your “good parenting” will make your child a clean-and-tidy, quiet, kid who never lies, never asks “are we there yet?” on a road trip, never gets irrationally upset, never sneaks candy into the shopping cart at the grocery store, and always does his homework.  Our kids are not robots, and even the best of parents have to learn to surrender to that reality.

10)  CUDDLES and touch.  A quick hair-tousle or pat on the back or snuggle in front of the TV can do wonders for a child’s respect and trust in you.  Non-verbal connection can also do much to diminish under-the-surface anger and disconnection that often influences defiance.

11) Use CONSEQUENCES that are natural.  Whenever possible, let the realities of life be the lesson.  If your teen hangs out with friends instead of doing his job of mowing the lawn, tell him that since he has shown himself to be unreliable,  you now have to hire someone to do it, and that means $30 will be removed from his monthly allowance. At only $10 per month for his allowance, he can say goodbye to being able to put gas in his car or go to a movie with his girlfriend.  If, in the midst of a tantrum, your toddler makes an enormous mess with the Legos, make sure he cleans them up, even if it takes all afternoon.

A note on consequences: some experts nowadays are completely against consequences, and I disagree. Children (especially those who are prone to anxiety and “big emotions”) thrive knowing that ultimately their loving, compassionate parent is in charge. I saw a dad at a fall festival today tell his 7ish-year old that he had to get out of the bounce house because he was being too rough- “Im sorry you’re upset that you can’t jump anymore Jake; I can’t let you accidentally hurt anyone.” I thought about how safe and protected in the world Jake must feel with a dad that sets firm and compassionate limits.

12)  Remember that your kid (like all kids) is a COPY-CAT.  If there is one thing that you remember from this long article, it is that kids are parrots (which is why my kids use nerdy 90’s phrases and go around asking their friends if they are considering the golden rule.)  It is incredibly important to practice using the tone-of-voice, respect, compassion, ability to problem-solve, sense of responsibility, and self-control that you expect to see in your child.

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And if you have any questions related to parenting, relationships, or psychology, contact me here.

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6 thoughts on “Obedience is overrated. Parents, try this instead.

  1. How refreshing: someone who admits there is no key to parenting! Hardest job in the world trying to raise well adjusted, well socialised kids while staying sane.

    Love your 12C’s – am passing then over to my niece!

  2. I love this. I am not raising ‘obedient’ children and often find that comments about them come from older persons. I do believe more people from my generation are realizing that older ways of parenting have created a partially crippled society and that love and support is a longer path but ultimately a better way to go.

  3. This was really informative! I am always torn on this topic and how to raise my now-toddler to make good choices, be respectful, etc. without bullying her in to it by forcing her to just be obedient! I love the section on consequences because that’s the one I struggle with the most. Thanks for this!

  4. Who gives their kid $40/month allowance? I am a cheap bastard apparently! Or maybe I am just teaching my kids that some things in life are done for free…. Lol
    This was a great post! Thanks for dropping in on #BlogDiggity 🙂

    • Yah, that is a lot. 10/week = you do all your jobs and you save up and pay for everything you want besides meals/basic clothes and necessities. I’ve just always liked the idea of teaching older kids money responsibiliity this way instead of buying them an iphone and whatever else they want.

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