When I’m Not in the Room

MCQ 1. The word ‘obedience’ is …

(a) indicative of an old-fashioned, paternalistic attitude to children;                                           (b) a missed learning opportunity;                                                                                                   (c) what happens when the adults are in the room;                                                                       (d) every parent’s (unattainable) dream;                                                                                         (e) it’s just a word, I don’t get why you’re making such a fuss about it.

Obedience —–> Compliance —–> Co-operation

When I was at school, we did what we were told without questioning the adults. It wasn’t that we thought the adults were always right, it was more that we were too scared to raise our voices to be heard. The threat of physical punishment or verbal humiliation was ever present. It was seen as acceptable to scream at children who did not offer instant obedience. I became a school refuser. I was literally too scared to go to school. Thankfully attitudes have changed since that time, but in changing they have made things a lot more complicated for the adults.

There is only one reason why we need children to follow rules in the classroom: so that everyone can learn, in a safe and respectful environment. Obedience is not a virtue in its own right. History has shown us where unquestioning obedience can lead. If we want learning to happen, the children have to follow a commonly agreed set of expectations. But they need to understand why these rules are in place, because that is part of what we are teaching them. One day they will leave our care and take their place in adult society. Society needs people who make the right choices around behaviour. That’s not to say it is easy – it certainly isn’t – but surely that is the end goal?

Sometimes we follow the rules, and other times, we don’t. We know what the speed limit is on the motorway, intellectually we understand why it is in place, but the motorways are not full of people driving at 70 miles per hour. Like the children, we push at the boundaries, especially if we feel they could do with a shove, or if we are sure that no one is looking. There are many reasons why we don’t obey the rules: we think the rule is stupid, or it doesn’t apply to us; we have a rebellious streak, or get a thrill from being naughty; perhaps everyone else is doing the wrong thing, so we are drawn to join in. Maybe we just can’t be bothered. We need rules and consequences, but the right behaviour can also be a conscious decision, sometimes even a moral one. That’s why a focus on the why behind the rules is useful, as well as on the consequences of getting caught breaking them. (Empathy is a great starting point for the question ‘why?’.)

When children are small, adults have to make most of the decisions, because small children don’t know what the ‘right’ thing is to do yet. But there is absolutely no point in saying to a baby ‘just obey me and go to sleep, will you?’ Getting children to behave as you need them to is an awful lot more complicated than that. It’s about coaxing, and encouraging, and explaining, and motivating, and yes, sometimes it is about saying ‘because you must’. From the day that your children are born, you understand that your real job as a parent is not to get them to obey your every command, but to teach them to become independent of you. You want them to learn to do the right thing, for themselves and for others, even when you are not in the room. You can say to children ‘you must obey or else’. But if you do, you had better be sure your ‘or else’ is going to change or at least control their behaviour. Because if it doesn’t you are not teaching them how to obey. You are teaching them how to rebel more successfully. And I’m not entirely convinced that was the lesson we wanted them to learn.

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2 Responses to When I’m Not in the Room

  1. annadelconte says:

    Every word written here is true. Do we really want obedient compliant children or do we want to raise children who are kind and empathetic and who stand up against injustice and cruelty?

  2. Jill Berry says:

    Thanks for this, Sue.

    I felt strongly as a teacher and as a head that I wanted students (and staff, really) to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do – not because of fear of the consequences or the promise of reward. The challenge, it seemed to me, was to support/challenge/guide/encourage/inspire people to reach that point – and to continue to strive to reach it myself. Am still trying…..

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