My child isn’t much of a people pleaser. And I couldn’t be more proud. He is a natural rebel. Rather than try to make him something he isn’t, an obedient follower, I try to help him use that rebellious nature to do good in the world. We spend a lot of time talking about rules, whether or not we agree with them, and how to challenge unfair rules. He’s inspired by rebellious activists throughout history.
I was raised to be obedient, with spankings when I failed. I was told overtly not to “contradict my elders” and my cult leader/grandma tried to break me. I didn’t even have the right to not be tickled, as I screamed for my aunts to stop. When I was abused outside the home, it took me far too long to tell anyone, because of this training.
My son is autistic. In some ways, I think this protects him. Autistic children and adults, in general, have a lesser tendency toward self-destructive and sacrificial people pleasing. Their neurology isn’t as focused on social exchanges and manipulation as the minds of most neurotypical people. This benefit can be however, and often is, destroyed by outsiders.
The most popular “intervention” for autism in children is Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA is essentially dog training for children, complete with punishments and rewards, and it is not uncommon for an autistic toddler to have 40 hours a week of this. In ABA, autistic children are forced to think about and prioritize the wants of another over their own. Have an itch you need to scratch? Don’t, because this adult doesn’t want you to. ABA doesn’t really teach advanced social skills; it teaches unquestioning obedience.
I grew up hearing that good children were obedient children, so I rarely felt good. In fact, I believed I was a particularly troublesome, burdensome, and unpleasant child to raise. Now I think I was just desperately under loved and inadequately nurtured. A focus on obedience in my own childhood left me with a lifetime of uncertainty. I’m never quite sure if my mother loves me or not.
I don’t focus on obedience with my son, even when I’d really like to. I try to remember that my goal is to raise a kind and independent young adult who doesn’t need me. I’m training my replacement and someday he will take over. Making good choices takes years of practice and a certain amount of failure to get right. I have to let him start now, while the stakes are relatively low.
My son knows that he’s got some rebel in him, and that I have some rebel in me too. There’s a confidence, a self-assurance, that comes from intentionally deciding not to go with the flow, and I want him to carry it like a shield into battle. People pleasing in the teen years can look like drug abuse, law breaking, and not-really-consensual sex. I’m not thrilled with the likelihood he will rebel against me, but I am glad he’s less likely to cave to negative peer pressure.
The way I tell him to treat me is the way I tell him to treat the world. If I demand perfect obedience, then even if it doesn’t backfire into massive teenage vice the way it did for me, I’m setting him up to obey others, to succumb to peer pressure, to go along with things he doesn’t actually want to do. And I don’t want that for him. I want his teen years as healthy as they can be, starting with our relationship. I’m raising a rebel, and I couldn’t be more proud.