Conditioning kids to push back

There is a 15-year gap between my youngest son, Jacob, age 8, and his nearest sibling, Thomas. That means that most things I go through with Jacob, I haven’t gone through as a parent in about 15 years. My attitudes toward life and parenting have changed a lot in that time.

I recently told some friends, jokingly, “There’s no discipline with this one” — and then clarified: I want him to learn to think critically, so I usually let him have what he’s asking for if he makes a good case for it. To my first two sons, I used to say “No arguing.” To this one, I say “Hey, that’s pretty good. OK!”

So why the change?

When Charlie and Thomas were kids, I was solidly in the Evangelical Christian camp. I felt that the most important thing for any child (or adult. for that matter) to learn was how to trust and obey God, and that my duty as a parent was to condition them to fully trust and obey their parents. To me, this meant squelching any hint of a challenge to my authority or their mom’s.

It was a very authoritarian household. Back-talk was punished immediately; I’m ashamed to say that the method was usually an impulsive, forceful swat on the rear end, which even at the time felt a lot more like revenge than ‘instruction.’ There was also a lot of scolding, which was way too emotional, too personal. I’m sure it tore away at their self-esteem.

But even if my methods had been less hostile, the objective of this ‘discipline’ would have been wrong. There is a point in a child’s development — pretty early on, in my opinion — where conditioning him or her to simply obey authority figures starts to do more harm than good.

I have to spend just one paragraph on the implications of ‘obedience to God.’ Though I am no longer a believer, I acknowledge the logical possibility that some kind of god might exist. However, the existence of a god is not enough. For a one-pronged strategy of ‘obedience to God’ to be effective, a person must be able to rely on a constant stream of communication from God that is concrete and impossible to misunderstand. That’s clearly not happening in the life of anyone I’ve ever known.

In any case, in this world there’s no source of guidance that is 100 percent reliable, and in my parenting I no longer pretend that there is.  Instead, I strive to teach independent critical thinking.

Sometimes I imagine Jacob as a teen or an adult, interacting with people in authority — professors, bosses, police — and I ponder how I can prepare him for those situations. I know he will need to be able to form independent judgments about what’s wise, and what’s right, so he will know when to push back and when to just salute and move out smartly.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all democracy and negotiation in our house. There is plenty of “because I said so,” especially when we are in a hurry or I lack the patience to explain or teach. But I don’t punish Jacob for wanting to know the reasons for things or for calling me out on things that don’t seem to make sense. Often, he’s helping me be more rational, which I appreciate. And I think this approach is helping him gain autonomy, which is what it’s all about.




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