When my oldest was a toddler, we were given a cute little video of cute children singing very cute songs, which made me want to pull my hair out. Naturally, she loved it. In fact, she loved best a song that made me cringe. The chorus went “O-B-E-Y, obey your Mom and Dad!” Feet were tapping; kids were dancing; it was very catchy. My brain, fresh from its sociology degree, rebelled. Tell my child to obey? Wasn’t that squashing her will?
Shortly after these episodes, my darling angel hit two and discovered temper tantrums, biting, and stealing other children’s toys. Once it was no longer purely academic, I quickly learned to embrace the word “obey”.
Our society, however, still largely cringes. We treat our families as if they are democracies where everyone should have a vote.
What should we eat for dinner? Nobody wants veggies? Then chicken fingers it is! We allow our children a voice, because we forget that they are, indeed, children. They do not have the life experience or the emotional maturity to know what is best for them. We do.
It’s not just the concept of obedience that we’ve lost, though. We’ve lost the language. I remember listening in on a conversation once that a mom was having with her 6-year-old son. “Honey, it’s getting to be time to brush your teeth.” The boy kept playing with Lego. “Honey, you’ll need to brush your teeth before you go to bed.” More Lego. “Don’t you think you really should be brushing your teeth?”, this time through clenched teeth. Finally she lost it. “Why haven’t you brushed your teeth!?!”. He looked up, confused, and stared at her as if she were an alien, which, given the colour of her face, seemed to be a distinct possibility.
As you analyze their “conversation”, you can see his point. She never actually told him to do anything. She expressed her opinion about the relative time of day and the necessity of teeth brushing, but she never told him to march his little self down that hall and do something about it. He listened to her, evaluated her comments, and decided to ignore them.
Think about the difference between these two statements: “Billy, go brush your teeth”, and “Billy, go brush your teeth, okay?”. The first is telling him to do something. The second is asking him if he agrees. As soon as we’ve added “okay”, we’ve changed it from a command to a question. I think we do this so frequently because, at heart, we’re just not sure we deserve to be obeyed.
We’re scared of issuing real commands to our kids because it sounds like we’re saying we’re better than they are. That’s making a judgment, and we’re just not comfortable with that. But we are wiser than our kids are. I don’t pick my nose anymore, bite people I disagree with, or lie down in a grocery store and scream. (I do, however, sneak chocolate before breakfast, but that’s another story.)
Our job is to train our kids to become responsible, independent adults. To do that, we have to teach them to curb destructive behaviour. That means we need to be the boss, because kids rarely learn proper behaviour without an incentive. We are the ones teaching them how the world works. If we allow them to always do what they want, they won’t be able to handle adult relationships, hold down a job, or act appropriately in social settings.
Being the boss, of course, will look different as the child ages. As kids grow older, they need to be given more leeway. Telling a child what to do is appropriate at 4; at 14, it’s probably better to set a limit and then talk about why you have that limit. Tell a teenager what to do and they’ll rebel; raise a teenager to respect you, and they’ll be more willing to listen to your limits. But let’s not forget that without any kind of parental authority, society will fall apart. Kids certainly need our approval and our love, but they need our direction and discipline, too. Okay?