This morning I came across a year old mommy blog list of six things she forbids her children from saying to adults. As a Christian woman (a fact advertised in the blog’s banner), her rationale is primarily based in the idea that respect for authority is a good trait, and one which will help her children remain good Christians throughout their lives. This spiritual focus is a bit myopic, and real world consequences of instilling obedience are overlooked.
The author of that piece, which I will respond to below, has a parenting approach somewhere between the strict cult upbringing and spankings of my childhood, and the religion free, spanking free childhood of my son. The post doesn’t advocate spanking or “blanket training” or other extreme practices common in Quiverfull Christianity, but it does center spiritual concerns over more immediate and worldly dangers. The following words and phrases are banned by her, yet encouraged by me.
“This is the ultimate defiance toward authority — when a child outright says they will not do what they’ve been told to do.”
The author did update this section with a statement that she doesn’t intend this to apply to sexual abuse situations and children should know they are allowed to say no then. But this betrays an ignorance of how child predators operate. They don’t generally start with a clear and obvious sex crime. They start by “grooming” their target with smaller, continual boundary violations. If a child is not empowered to say no to these early violations, it is much more likely the predator will escalate to sexual abuse.
Children need to have the word no at their disposal. Yes, it is draining when young children go through a phase of yelling no at every opportunity. But those babies are learning they have some power in this world,some ability to shape their own fate. If this power is taken away from them, then as they grow they will seek other, less healthy means of reclaiming that power. Self harm and eating disorders are both strongly correlated with a sense of powerlessness. Those unhealthy behaviors temporarily soothe that anxiety and create an outlet for control, but at grave risk.
When they become teenagers, our children will really need the power of no, to resist peer pressure, to abstain from bullying a target of their peers, to delay sex until they are ready. The author argues that children need practice obeying authority, but I would say children need practice rebelling too. Numerous studies of resisters in Nazi Germany have shown that the one trait they shared was parents who eschewed the authoritarian parenting style favored by most Germans.
2. “Just a minute.”
“When I tell my kids to do something, I expect them to obey immediately.”
I already have authority over my child. The law says so. I’m confident in my position and don’t need displays of immediate obedience to reassure myself. There are certainty times a chore can’t wait, and I require a certain number be performed before my child can watch TV or play video games. But one of the things I’m trying to teach him is how to manage his own tasks. If he’s so caught up in a book he puts off chores another half hour, that simply means he gets half an hour less on the TV. He can learn something about the natural consequences of procrastination while he’s still at one and those consequences are small. This also lets me know where he needs further instruction or tools to organize.
“Opinions on this may vary depending on your geographical location, but where I’m from, it is incredibly disrespectful to answer any adult with anything but “Yes ma’am”; “Yes sir”; “No ma’am”; and “No Sir”.”
I was raised semi-Southern, raised by Southern women in Florida. I know that this cultural deference to adults goes hand in hand with a cultural disrespect for children. I was brought up to honor my elders, to cal them sir or ma’am, and to never contradict. I was also abused by my elders, by adults, in part because my parents pre-groomed me and snatched away my rightful tools to protect myself. “Yeah” is casual speech. If my son uses it, his elders can understand and as the mother of a child with communication impairments, understanding is my goal. I care much less if they like what he has to say.
4. “I don’t want to.”
“If a child cannot learn to do things he doesn’t want to do while he is young, there is little hope that he will do what God wants him to do when he is grown.”
While I actually agree with the author that part of childhood is learning to do things you’d rather not, my approach and reasoning are entirely different. I absolutely let my child express his feelings about tasks, while still requiring him to do them. I’m not worried about him obeying a god I don’t believe in, but I do want him to learn about housekeeping and responsibility because he will need those when he’s older. My job is to empower my child to someday not need me. I am training my replacement so I might one day be obsolete. Adults are not required to love drudgery, just to do it. Kids deserve the same freedom of expression.
5. “I don’t like this.”
“My children need to be thankful they have something to put into their bellies rather than expressing disgust because they didn’t get what they wanted.”
I’m a picky eater. Between real dietary restrictions, texture aversion, and taste preferences, there are a lot more foods I won’t eat than foods I will. But I’m an adult, so that’s completely allowed. No one has the power to make me eat mashed potatoes, so I don’t. I figure children have reasons as legitimate for the foods they don’t want to it, if not the freedom. There are more children with food caller now than ever recorded. Respecting this phrase could save a life.
Now of course, it’s important to feed children vital nutrients. I’m not suggesting eighteen years of Cheetos for dinner to escape mealtime battles. I am suggesting teaching children the fine art of compromise. Wen my son says he dislikes a food, we discuss alternatives in the same food group. We also pick out groceries and plan meals together. Instead of obedience, my child is learning meal planning, cooking, and negotiating skills.
“When an adult speaks to my children, hiding behind mama and refusing to speak is not acceptable behavior.”
Why not? Why is coddling an adult’s sense of propriety more important than letting a nervous child do what they can to feel safe? My child did not speak before he was four years old. Attitudes like the author’s tell the world that shy children, traumatized children, selectively mute children, and non speaking children are being rude by existing in public as they are. I imagine the author was not thinking of disabilities as she wrote this, but that lack of malicious intent makes little difference.
Demanding verbal acknowledgement from children reminds me in some ways of cat calling and street harassment. One party has a great deal more social power, and they use it to make the other treat them as they desire. I don’t think teaching children to automatically treat all adults with respect and/or as authorities is good for them. And I don’t think it’s great for adults either.
I have learned so much from my son and I know he has more to teach me. If I go insisted on a one sided relationship of unquestioning obedience, he would never question me. And I wouldn’t learn. I don’t assume I’m always right or the only one with good ideas, and that keeps me in a position where I can grow and change and adapt alongside my child. I may be the captain (for now), but we are on this journey together.