Against Discipline – Why I Wouldn’t Care to Have a Compliant Child

I’m sitting down to a chai in Blackwells.

So far I’ve been drinking a lot of chai but not typing anything.  Oops.

Some thoughts on disciplining children.  I’m against it.  I think it does children a disservice and makes them ill-prepared for life.  If that doesn’t immediately ring true to you, read on as I explain.

Take the kid who is throwing a tantrum because his mother is telling him to take a bath and he was just playing.  She threatens all the privileges she will take away if he does not take a bath right now,  and he only cries louder and argues harder.  But they must go buy him some new shoes that afternoon, so the bath cannot wait and the argument continues until the child concedes and tearfully bathes himself.

Some common assumptions for adults to make are that this kid just has an irrational dislike for baths that needs to be cured and he is going to become a stinky, smelly, dirty kid if his mum doesn’t threaten him into bathing.

But we were all kids once.  Think back to when you were that kid.  Tears were streaming down your face.  You were crying until your lungs hurt.  Do you remember?  You felt that some huge injustice was being done.  You weren’t scared of the bath (or whatever it was you were commanded to do), you were resisting because you felt that something was wrong with what was happening.  And that feeling wasn’t irrational.  You were right.

Let’s do another thought experiment to determine what that was.  Imagine you are an adult (this one shouldn’t be too hard).  You are doing something – reading a book in a bookstore, having a cup of coffee, working on a presentation, working out at the gym – take your pick.  Another adult approaches you and tells you to immediately go home and take a bath.  He yells that if you don’t he will impound your car and freeze your bank accounts.  How do you feel?   You can’t even imagine this scenario because you’re saying – ‘wait, how is he going to freeze my bank accounts?’  Let’s just say he can.  You’d feel like something unjust was happening.  Your autonomy was being compromised and he held so many cards that you were forced to comply against your will.

That kid who throws a tantrum has not yet given up his hope of being an autonomous human being and his belief in his right and ability to successfully stand up for himself and defend himself.  The kid who has ceased to throw tantrums, on the other hand, has.  The kid who has ceased to resist the violation of their autonomous will is ill prepared for life.  He is more likely to be successfully molested or kidnapped, more likely to be successfully sexually harassed or taken advantage of by his boss at work.  It’s this type of compliance that made the Nazi army possible.

When we teach a kid to ‘obey authority’, we aren’t thinking about that kid’s well being.  We’re thinking about having an easier time living with that kid.  We aren’t thinking about the fact that we are making him vulnerable to the child molester down the street or eroding his ability to stand up for himself as an adult.  We are thinking about the fact that we’ll be able to buy him new shoes that afternoon, and get him to school on time tomorrow, and he won’t come home with a horrendous tattoo in a few years’ time.  Those are thoughts about our well being.  They aren’t about what’s good for the kid, they’re about what we want for the kid.

If you disagree with this, please notice that it doesn’t matter what kid you are thinking about, you want the same thing for them – getting to school on time, not coming home with that horrendous tattoo.  Now consider all the adults you know and how they are all different.  Kids are all different, too, and when you’re trying to force them all into the same mold, you aren’t treating them as people.

Here’s how I would address the bath situation given at the beginning of this post:  The kid is playing in his room.  I would address him and give him a few seconds to switch his attention to me, instead of talking to him before he even realises I’m there.  I’d remind him that he wanted to buy new shoes and let him know that this afternoon is the only time I have this week to take him shoe shopping, and ask if he’d like to go shoe shopping this afternoon or wait until next week.  If I was picky about his bathing habits I’d say that if he took the bath before the shops closed we’d go shopping.  But as I probably would judge that he wasn’t dirty enough to get me arrested if he were seen in public, I might instead ask if he would like a bath before we go out.   I’d also apologise for bringing this up at the last minute and promise to try to give him more advance notice next time.

My point is – if he doesn’t want to stop playing (and perhaps, if he doesn’t want to take a bath), we wouldn’t go shopping, and I don’t have to fight with him.  He will just have to wear his old shoes until next week and I will have the afternoon off to do as I please.  Or he will decide, given perhaps a while to think about it, that he wants new shoes and he’s willing to make the sacrifice to achieve his goal.  Either way, I haven’t violated the kid’s autonomy, I haven’t taught him a horrible life lesson, and I haven’t prioritised having control in the moment over the long term welfare of my child.

I’d rather have a child with beaten up shoes than a compliant child, any day of the week.


5 thoughts on “Against Discipline – Why I Wouldn’t Care to Have a Compliant Child

  1. Charity says:

    I mostly agree with you. I don’t think children have as much autonomy as adults. Adults (well, mature adults anyway) have at least a decade’s worth of experience of self-preservation before they legally become adults.

    But I completely agree with your point about blind, unquestioning obedience (or, as it is known in patriocentric circles “breaking the will”). It does them a huge disservice and makes them even more vulnerable.

    And you’re also right in that it’s done out of lazy parenting/teaching. It’s always harder to try to answer my piano student’s questions and help them to understand things than to just tell them to do what I want. But I’ve found that, in the long run, they give me more respect.

  2. Fiona says:

    There was one time for me where I felt my free will had been violated as a child. I was three years old, and my mom told me to put my toys away because I had left them in a place where they were a tripping hazard. I said ‘no’. There was some talk about it, and I still refused. She wasn’t violent with me, she simply took my hand, carried me over to the toys, and made me pick them up.

    I screamed and screamed and screamed. In spite of the fact that I was only three, the event was so traumatic for me that I remember it to this day. It was also traumatic enough for my mom that she does too. She feels very bad about it. BTW, it never happened again like that after that time.

    That said…

    If I had been left alone on the bathing thing as a child, I’m pretty sure I would have been dragged away (I believe rightfully) by social services for health reasons. I also probably would have worn my favourite dress every day without ever allowing it to be washed. So I do have to thank my mom for getting me into that bath, and insisting that I let her wash the dress, because she was a great mom, and I’m glad I got to keep her!

  3. Katie C says:

    Ok, this one is a huge, huge topic, so won’t share all my thoughts on it (since I’d need to start my own blog if I did :)), but since you’re a good critical thinker, I have a challenge for you. Try using another scenario for which the ultimate consequence is more serious than a kid ending up dirty. Let’s say, for instance, it’s a kid who wants to play in the road all the time with his race cars because they go faster on the blacktop surface. The mom asks him to move onto the grass where he won’t risk being hit by a car and he won’t. Or, say the kid is 15 and wants to go out with his friends to do some drugs. I’m curious about how you’d respond to those more serious scenarios that (I think) require discipline.

    There’s a lot more I could say on this, but I’ll leave it at this: I think discipline is important for many reasons, but the purpose is not to rob kids of their free will, suppress their personality or drown their creativity. As a very new parent, I’m still figuring things out and am sure I’ll learn a LOT along the way, but I pray that we’ll be able to discipline Wesley in a way that teaches, guides and protects him, while still allowing him to be and express his own creative self….beacuse discipline does not equal free-will-squashing.

    And–I promise this is the last point!–I actually disagree with the comment above about discipline often being due to lazy parenting. We may need to distinguish haughty, angry “discipline” with what I believe to be godly, humble discpline in which it’s not done out of anger, but rather to correct, train and guide. I think it’s much, much easier to let your kids rule a house and do what they want. It takes a lot more time to stop and talk to them about what they’ve done wrong, why they shouldn’t do/say something, and when appropriate, to send them to time out, ground them, or whatever the appropriate consequence might be. A child who grows up not thinking/knowing there are consequences (whether good or bad) for every action (good or bad) is actually very ill-prepared for the world, in my opinion.

    All good food for thought though!

  4. Addy says:

    HAHAHA so you wouldn’t care to have a kid like I was? 😦 Darn!

    I was a great kid.

    My parents did let me learn from real life consequences like: If you climb a fir tree to high the branches become to weak to hold you and therefore you can slip and fall out of said tree and hurt your crotch very badly.

    Rollerblading down a hill at 10mph is great fun but if there are rocks at the bottom of the hill you may have to be carried back into the house and put in a bath to clean all your road burn wounds

    Riding your bike with no hands could mean the front wheel twisted underneath you and you went down and skinned your chin.

    I learned a lot about physics without ever reading a book.

    I ran around with a shirt off, and with crazy hair and mud on my face. I was a very creative, active, and wild child – but in every wholesome sense of the word. I avoided molestation TWICE, by my mom telling me about it, and warning me not to go into stranger’s houses, and instilling a lack of trust in strangers. It was the one weird rule I complied with and it saved me a world of grief, my friends were not so lucky and were tempted and pressured into entering a home where they were violated.

    Where I got disciplined was when I gave lip. Not just the “no” but the whole attitude. I would have gotten scared if my parents responded with “I don’t respond to children who treat me like that.” Instead I got spanked, which equally scared me. Right or wrong, parents get to have boundaries too. What my parents didn’t realize was I was mimicking their attitudes and facial expressions – your kids are mini mirrors. LOL!

    I’m glad you explained yourself in this post, when we’ve talked about this before , I haven’t understood your position as well as I do now. Well said.I do think the way you advocate takes a lot more energy and time working with a child that way than saying “I’m the parent, obey me now or else.” I made my parents explain stuff to me and I’m so glad I did, we worked out some understanding even if that wasn’t what they were intent on doing. There were a few times my mom explained that instant obedience could save my life, and it was only necessary at rare times. I think explaining stuff like that to your kid, just like molestation was explained to me, can be helpful for those emergency situations that yeah could save their life – they can’t see everything or know everything at their age. Sometimes there really isn’t time for “why?” questions.

    • frogla says:

      I don’t like the idea of the “pearl/gothard/fundy/patriarch/quiverfull discipline in fact I’m against this discipline period. there’s alot I can say but I don’t wanna belabor the topic but I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum of discipline. Plz show me a family whose modeled raising children tobe healthy functioning adults. I can’t think if anyone. Hmmmm…,

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