In yesterday’s letter, I wrote about the examples you will follow throughout your life and what I hope you are able to learn (and not learn) from them.
Today I want to write about some things I hope you are able to learn (and not learn) from them (and from me, since I very much hope I can earn a place as one of those examples speaking into your life.)
The topic I want to address is obedience. Obedience seems to be, to most of the parents I know, a paramount value they feel they must instill in their children as deeply as possible, beginning as early as possible.
Obedience is, I think, overrated.
That’s not to say there will never be times in your life when obedience is the best and wisest decision. There certainly will be. But like I wrote in yesterday’s letter, following someone – even me – simply because they tell you to is not a substitute for good decision-making.
Too often, it seems like parents’ highest priority for their children is to raise them as “good” (by which they mean quiet and compliant) children. My highest priority for you is to raise you as a “good” (by which I mean intelligent, discerning and self-aware) adult. Teaching obedience is a very effective tool if your goal is the former, less so if your goal is the latter.
One of the worst pieces of advice I’ve read in any of the child-rearing books your mom and I have perused is, “teach your children to make wise decisions by making wise decisions for them.” I think that would only teach you not to make any decisions at all . . . to blindly follow my example, and the examples of anybody else who thinks they have a right to tell you what to do. I want to teach you to make wise decisions by teaching you how to make wise decisions! And a big part of that, I think, is sharing the reasoning behind anything I ask you to do, to the best of my ability to explain it, and the best of your ability to comprehend it.
There will, of course, be times when I want you to do something, and to do it immediately. Those times will likely be emergency situations and will hopefully be few and far between. When you are very young, as you are at the time I write this, I can simply physically enforce my will on you (by, for example, physically preventing you from falling off a bed or chair when you lunge toward the edge.). By the time you are older and I am less close-at-hand, I hope I will have earned your trust enough that when I say “stop!” you will obey precisely because it happens rarely enough that you’ll recognize that this situation is a Big Deal.
In general, though, I don’t believe I have any special right to your obedience simply because I am bigger, stronger, older or wiser than you, or because I am “the parent.” Sometimes those facts may give me a perspective that is broader than yours, and I may have good reasons for asking you to do certain things, but outside of those few true emergencies, I hope I never ask you to do them without first sharing what those reasons are. Even in the case of an emergency, when immediate action is needed, I hope I am always able to come to you after the emergency has passed and explain why it is that I asked you to do something.
What I hope I will NEVER do is turn an arbitrary behavior of yours into a “moral issue” by forcing you to obey simply “because I’m the dad.” If you’re doing something that is annoying or disruptive to me, I hope I will have the grace and patience to explain why I’d like you to do something different, without having to turn it into a big deal if you don’t understand or comply right away. Turning an arbitrary preference into a moral issue gives you the message that my needs are more important than your needs – that my right to my preferred environment supersedes yours, simply because I’m bigger and can force you to comply if I want to.
I don’t, and I hope I never will.