Who would want to train children to be obedient, when we can bring them up to be discerning, critical thinkers with a highly developed capacity for big-picture thinking, for empathy for self and others and to value integrity and what feels right above the directions of authority figures?
Authoritarian parenting conditions children to believe that they should do what they’re told whether they like it or not, whether it feels good or bad, and to not “talk back”. Obedience training inadvertently results in children being highly motivated is to evade punishments rather than do what feels right. Children who are trained to be obedient are often too busy either trying to stay in the good books or feel too misunderstood and defensive to think things through clearly, including how their actions affect other people. Peaceful parenting, on the other hand, fosters healthy social and emotional development.
It’s difficult for most adults to challenge authority figures if they weren’t allowed to challenge their own parent. Obedience training can lead to a susceptibility to being unduly influenced by peers or authority figures as children, adolescents and later as adults. This sadly makes it difficult for parents to be their child’s advocate.
To have the courage to express our concerns and opinions in the face of authority or peer pressure, we need to be able to stay strong and overall at peace in ourselves. Most of us want this for our children, especially as they reach the teenage years! But to model it, we need to master it ourselves!
To act from integrity and do what feels right despite pressure to conform to the norm or to authority, we need to be balanced and centered enough to make decisions based on considering the needs and feelings of others while also considering our own feelings and needs.
Research into the effects of civil obedience
In recent decades, there have been many interesting social studies exploring human behaviour and what influences a person’s tendency to act ethically or responsibly or not. A famous groundbreaking study by Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist in 1961 paved the way for many more, which have uncovered very similar results. When Milford asked university students to guess how many people would willingly comply if a person in a position of authority told them to deliver a 400-volt electrical shock to another person, they predicted that no more than 3% of participants would deliver the maximum shocks. In reality, 65% delivered the maximum shocks.
During the experiment, each subject was asked to press a button that they believed delivered increasingly high voltage electric shocks to the “student” on the other side of the wall if they gave the wrong answer to the “teacher’s” questions. Many of the subjects, while believing that the “student” was actually receiving shocks and hearing their protests and cries for mercy, including complaints of a heart condition, became increasingly agitated and even angry at the experimenter. Yet 36 out of 40 people, in turn, continued to do what they were instructed to do all the way to the end. Even when the “student” became silent when apparently receiving a shock from a switch labelled “danger: severe shock” the subject continued based on the instruction that silence is to be read as a wrong answer.
Milgram’s experiment has become a classic in psychology, demonstrating the dangers of obedience.
“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” (Milgram, 1974).
“Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.” Howard Zinn
Milgram’s experiments were inspired initially by the defense of the German Nazi, Adolph Eichmann, that he was simply following instructions when he ordered the deaths of millions of Jews at the post World War II trial.
More recently in the U.S. a hoax caller pretending to be a police officer requesting the manager’s cooperation with an apparent investigation of a staff member accused of stealing managed to convince managers to strip search and humiliate their staff. A teenage victim in response to why she complied despite her distress said: ‘My parents taught me when an adult tells you to do something that’s what you do. You don’t argue, you listen.” Her boss who conducted the strip search when interviewed said: “I’m thinking ‘okay I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing here’”. She’s not alone in holding the unchallenged belief that following the instructions of an authority figure is a definition of “doing what I’m supposed to do”.
These Five Free Videos each give insights into why punishments create the problem behaviours that parents think they’re addressing, and what works better.
The first relationships create the template for future relationships
However we treat our children, we are conditioning them to believe that this is what’s normal and acceptable in relationships. The above examples stand out as being particularly shocking, yet the bully-victim relationship commonly plays out in homes, schools, workplaces, in politics and between countries. Until the authoritarian punishment based system is understood to be dysfunctional at best and often dangerous, it continues to be the elephant in the room as individuals compete and blame each other. People of all ages whose actions negatively impact another generally know that it doesn’t feel good and doesn’t feel right. It’s so hard for individuals, for parents at home with their children, to break away from this cycle, especially if it was the “normal” that they grew up in. Yet early childhood conditioning operates automatically unless we put a lot of hard work into exploring, re-evaluating and challenging the beliefs that no longer serve us.
Healthy and stable relationships
Most parents would, of course, hope that their child will end up in stable, healthy relationships with a partner, friends and work colleagues who will talk things through respectfully in the face of the inevitable differences and challenges that they’ll face. The same parents would cringe to think that their child would grow up to be someone who would shout at, verbally abuse, stonewall or strategically manipulate or threaten their partner or employee.
If a parent regularly yells at a child and puts them down, what’s being taught is that this is what loving relationships look like. Punitive parenting puts children at great risk of growing up to be an adult who tolerates being treated in such a way by their partner or boss, or who treats others in such a way? The adults who grew up in an authoritarian household are not only less likely to see that a relationship is dysfunctional and that they deserve better, but they tend to either fight back aggressively or submit rather than asserting clear boundaries. Whereas, the adult who grew up in a family where connection and respect were maintained even when conflicts and differences arose, will likely have more clarity that differences should be worked through as respectfully as possible.
“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.” ~ Albert Einstein.
We want our child to be open and honest, but can we cope with their honesty?
When I watched the Milgram experiment YouTube video with my son, he said; “wow mum they’re totally not listening to their uncomfortable feelings in their body”. But for children to grow up listening to and following what feels comfortable or uncomfortable in their body, mind and heart, this moral compass needs to be modelled and validated in the family. Simply asking children “how does it feel to you?” and talking about what feels right or doesn’t feel right ourselves can only help. But overall our kids need to be not just allowed to protest and complain, but to have those feelings truly heard and valued. They need to be allowed to negotiate, encouraged to problem solve and invited into decision making in matters that affect them.
Our responses to our children can lift them up or put them down, empower or disempower them
We need to be very mindful of how we guide and lead them. Through consistently showing care and consideration for their feelings and needs, we can help them grow up to be adults who have a very strong and clear knowing that they and others deserve to be treated with empathy and respect.
It takes a LOT more skill to be mindful of our stress levels and our tone of voice, to find ways to reduce and resolve our anger and consistently return to a centered enough state to genuinely listen and work through communication respectfully. It’s much easier, at least in a stressful moment, to intimidate our child or teen into doing what they’re told, but boy are there unhealthy repercussions for the parent, child, the whole family and indeed society in the long term.
How can we support our children to be resilient to the shaming and intimidation of those who have power over them?
When my son was about nine, the relief teacher caught him working on a caricature drawing of the teacher with the words “I don’t care about people’s feelings, I only care about pizza” (she’d previously confessed to being a big fan of fast food, especially pizza). This happened just after a pretty dramatic incident where the teacher loudly shamed one of the girls for starting to cry during a game. When my son attempted to advocate for the girl, the teacher aggressively shut him down and shamed him for challenging her.
When standing outside the class being lectured by the teacher, my son was told that he should be ashamed of himself (yes I know!) and was asked “what would your parents think about all this?”
So when my son was later telling us all about it, when he got to that bit my husband and I looked at each other and said; “that’s an interesting question, what did you think that we would think?”. My son said, “I thought, I know how unimpressed my parents would be with your lack of good communication skills” and I felt this big sense of relief. Yes, the whole thing was very stressful, but no the teacher didn’t manage to make him take the shame on. He maintained his sense of self and his clarity about how kids deserve to be treated.
He also knew that the teacher couldn’t see what was so wrong about shaming a kid for crying because she must not have grown up in an environment where upsets ware treated respectfully.
Another similar but different experience that my daughter had when she was ten related to when a dance teacher shamed her for crying in a moment of overwhelm. My daughter is very laid back and easygoing and I tend to worry more about her ability to stand up for herself than my son whose naturally more extroverted and feisty. But in this instance, as the teacher was ordering her to “stop crying and making a fuss”, my daughter said through her tears; “I’m allowed to feel upset, I’m allowed to cry, I need to cry”, at which point the teacher stopped in her tracks, became silent and then calmly invited my daughter to tell her what was upsetting her.
Supporting a healthy self-image
We can’t protect our children from unfairness and intimidation forever, from hurt people who hurt people, but we can support their healthy self-image, integrity and their right to be respected and heard. To me, the victory is when children have the resilience to internally protect themselves from the intimidation that an authority figure or peer is (perhaps unconsciously) working hard to transfer onto them. The child who can securely bring stressful instances home to vent and process to the extent that’s needed to get it all out of their system and have their feelings heard and accepted, is more likely to seek help rather than hide in fear if and when the really big stuff happens as children, teens or adults.
If parents dismissively say; “oh well that’s life mate” or worse still side with the other person, then how could a child not be left in huge self-conflict. It’s our listening, empathy and understanding that gives our child the strong, caring holding that they need to offload their frustrations when they’ve been affected by difficult interactions with others.
It’s all too easy in our busyness and haste to bombard our children with corrections, demands, criticism and to impose our solutions when things aren’t going so smoothly for them. Yet, with some creativity, learning and patience, there’s much that we can do to preserve our child’s dignity and integrity while helping them develop great problem-solving skills.
Instead of “look what you’ve done now!”, we can say “it’s okay, let’s figure this out, any ideas?”
Instead of “stop fighting you kids, you should know better than to act like that” which will no doubt add to their already stressed state and cause them to feel blamed and misunderstood, we can say something like “hey kids, this looks stressful, can I help?” and support them to slow things down enough to take turns sharing their perspective, reflecting back what they each heard the other say and explore possible solutions together.
Let’s open our hearts, minds and ears to what’s going on for them, especially when they’re grumpy and out of balance. Let’s help our child feel like a valued member of the family and of society with an important voice and gifts to share.
When a child’s free will is genuinely respected, the child is much more likely to use their free will wisely and with integrity.