Obedience

My clock radio is set to 90.9, so if I set my alarm for 6:30 am, I wake up to the purring voice of Garrison Keillor and The Writer’s Almanac.  Every weekday, he talks about a few writers who were born on that day, and reads a poem.  Today’s poem was Casabianca, by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, better known by its first line "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck."

It’s a very 19th century poem, lauding the obedience and courage of the young son of an admiral, burning to death rather than leave without permission:

The flames rolled on – he would not go
Without his father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

My understanding is that schoolchildren used to memorize this poem and recite it.  (I know I read a children’s book in which the main character recites it.  One of the Little House books?  The Great Brain?  Anyone have a guess?)

Over the weekend, while my parents were visiting, at one point my mother praised N for his obedience, and my father commented that probably wasn’t something he was especially proud of.  I see obedience in children as mostly an instrumental virtue — if I can trust my son to stop when I shout stop, I can let him go further than an arm’s length away.  I find the glorification of obedience for its own sake in Casabianca pointless and more than a little horrifying. 

Annette Lareau has suggested that obedience has become largely a value of the poor and working-class in the US.  She argues that middle-class families in the US typically place higher value on independence of thought, reasoning, and self-confidence rather than obedience.  I was reminded of this reading Cecily’s post today, in which she writes "I will, most likely, never ask my kids to call me “Ma’am.” " as a marker of the cultural differences between her and her siblings.

Any thoughts?  Is it possible to raise kids to be both obedient and to trust their own judgement?  Do you find yourself saying "Because I’m the mother, that’s why"?

22 Responses to “Obedience”

  1. jen Says:

    I view obedience much as I view manners: it’s important for a kid to know what society expects of them. If they choose to not behave as such when they get older, that’s their business. But when they’re kids and still learning what it means to take part in our society, they need to take direction from a parent.
    You’ve mentioned the Stardust Lounge book before, Elizabeth, and that’s a book where the author made a huge point of teaching the kid to think independently … until the kid started getting arrested for tagging at age 12. At that point the mom tried to talk to her kid about staying out of trouble, and he simply rejected her reasoning. He did not see why he should conform his behavior to, for example, what’s legal.
    There’s a time and a place for independent thinking, IMHO, and four years old is not the time. (Isn’t your eldest 4?)

  2. jessica j Says:

    my mom was very fond of “because i’m the mother, that’s why”. i don’t remember how i felt about this as a kid — although i can imagine that i felt infuriated — but, as an adult who’s about to become a parent, i have a lot of respect for my mom’s stance.
    kids don’t always do or understand what’s best for them. even if parents don’t possess a perfect understanding, one hopes that they know better than the kid in most instances. that’s part of a parent’s job.
    i hope that, when i become a parent, my parenting style reflects my child’s level of discernment, and that my insistence upon blind obedience is proportional to the gravity of the situation at hand and my child’s ability to comprehend and appreciate my rules. i don’t think that a teenager should be subject to iron-clad and incomprehensible laws, but, at the same time, i don’t think that my parenting mandate should be contingent upon a toddler logic.
    i plan to bust out “i’m the mother, that’s why” when it seems like the very best answer, and i hope that i am able to recognize the situations in which it is just that.
    but, yes, that poem is totally awful.

  3. Alice Says:

    I’ve been reading the Little House series to my daughter (age 5) and have been struck by how important obedience to parents was then. If Laura had acted according to her instincts (which were very good) rather than to her father’s commands on several occasions, she and her entire family would have been killed.
    I try to demand 100% obedience while at the same time limit my commands to areas that really matter. For example, I know longer command that she wash her hands or eat well, but only b/c she seems to have internalized those two things so well. Would I issue commands in these areas if I thought she needed them? hmm. . .
    We’re all making this up as we go along.

  4. Jody Says:

    Oh, yes, I say “because I’m the mother” at least once a week. I mean, it’s probably more than that, but I can vouch absolutely for weekly. There’s just a limit to my desire to answer all the damn why questions, and ultimately, a lot of them do come down to, because I have more authority and power than you do.
    BUT, I’m not a huge fan of the concept of obedience. Some of that has to do with a particular Christian emphasis on obedience as a Biblical value, something extracted through administration of the rod, which I saw in action on the margins in our old home. (I had a friend who came to Lutheranism via an evengelical childhood, and she believed obedience was a first virtue.) It just didn’t ring right. But I’m hard-pressed at this late hour to say whether it’s the obedience to which I object, the idea that obedience is independent of personal judgement, or the enforcement of obedience through physical admonishment.
    I more or less reject the idea, though, that teaching a child to exercise good judgement and to trust her internal voice will lead, invariably, to parental defeat in the face of defiance. There are plenty of good reasons not to break laws and admiration for just law, or at least appreciation for it, doesn’t depend on a childhood spent “ma’am”ing people.
    Now, it’s also the job of most twelve-year olds to challenge established notions of just law. But the idea that I’d be hog-tied in the face of tagging, simply because I don’t embrace obedience as the trait I’m trying to teach (cooperation? respect for others? a healthy appreciation for natural consequences?), well, that amuses me.
    Sigh. I’m not sure I’m articulating my thoughts very well here.

  5. amy Says:

    What? Sure I say “because”. I also say “That’s enough why for now.” I’m 37, she’s 2. Now if she comes up with a better argument while obeying, that’s something else. That’s the beauty of being the benign dictator; you can be arbitrary like that.
    She figured out how to call us by our first names at about 20 months. We told her she was right, but that she may not call us by them, because it’s not respectful, and that’s enough why.
    More important than obedience, of course, is the well-timed, “Please, Daddy? Do it for me?”

  6. jo(e) Says:

    Raising children to be obedient made sense in the pioneer days when the dangers to children were such things as rattlesnakes and a command like “Stand still and don’t move” had to be obeyed.
    The dangers to our children, especially our young adults, nowadays have mostly to do with peer pressure. An obedient child who follows the crowd and doesn’t speak up for himself could be in a lot of trouble.
    I have never asked my children to be obedient unless I could explain the rule they had to follow and why it made sense (i.ed. You have to wear a life jacket in the boat because you don’t know how to swim.) I don’t see obedience as a value that my children need in the culture they are living in. I would rather that they learn to question authority and think for themselves.
    I have watched parents get into big control battles with their children because of the outdated notion that children should obey their parents. It always seems ridiculous to me.

  7. Moxie Says:

    I see it as being on a continuum of trust. I want my kids to obey me when I use That Tone because what I’m telling them is for their own good, not as an exercise of my own power. They are learning to trust that my commands (which are pretty few and far between) are going to save them from something bad (like death, when I tell them to “STOP!” at the curb, or like getting berated by their grandmother, when I tell them to “stop!” when they’re running around like fools at my ILs’ house).
    I trust that my son can make many good decisions for himself already, which is why I don’t have to use That Tone as often now as I used to. It’s all about the exchange of trust. But I still have to tell him what to do or what not to do an awful lot, and I expect him to obey me.
    I am imagining that in 40 years I will “obey” what my sons tell me to do with my finances, etc., because the balance of knowledge will have shifted. But the trust that we’re establishing now will still be there among us.

  8. landismom Says:

    I think that Moxie’s comment best articulates my view. There are still times, especially with my son (who’s 2 & 1/2) when I simply need him to listen, and not to understand (at least that moment) why he can’t run into the street. But as my daughter has gotten older (and less likely to put herself into immediate, life-threatening danger) I do explain things to her a lot more. I’m not saying I never say, “because I’m the mom,” but it’s gotten a lot less frequent.
    Great, thought-provoking post.

  9. merseydotes Says:

    Our favorite parenting author, Dr. Michel Cohen, says this about obedience: Someone is going to be in control in your house; it can be you, or it can be your kid.
    I want to be in control in my house, especially while I have a toddler. And relying on her obedience is not just about life and death things like running out into the street or not touching the burning stove. Sometimes I want my child to do what I say because I have a headache, am feeling tired or have had a bad day.
    I want my child to be curious and creative and to question assumptions. But, to me, being a good parent (that is, being happy and satisfied in my own life AND instilling values and fostering skills/abilities in my daughter that will help her be an independent, well-adjusted member of society) is balancing my daughter’s needs and mine. Maybe she would benefit in the long run from being less hemmed in by my rules, but there are times when my peace of mind in the short term trumps all. It’s those times (as well as the life and death stuff) when I want to be relatively certain that she will obey what I say.
    And, yes, during those times, my decisions are based on the fact that I’m the mom and I want things my way. I’m a bit selfish sometimes. It keeps me sane.

  10. Tiny Coconut Says:

    I think that what you’re calling obedience, I call limit setting, and I actually think it’s one of the most important things about parenting. My kids don’t call me ma’am, because nobody in my family has ever called their mother ma’am. But we talk a lot in my family about respect and showing respect for adults. There are adults in their lives who prefer to be called by their first names, and those who prefer to be Mrs., and my kids are expected to follow the wishes of the latter. There are rules they need to follow in our house–and in the world–that have no explanation beyond, “because i said so”–but they are done in the context of what I’ve always told my kids is my absolute primary job: to keep them safe and healthy. So if “I say so” to them, they know that it’s something that is in their best interests. That isn’t blind obedience, to me. That’s trust. Plus, that’s only for a limited number of things. Others get an explanation, if it’s relevant.
    Parenting books talk all the time about permissive, authoritative and authoritarian parenting styles. I strive for authoritative. Sometimes I err (most often on the side of authoritarian, but sometimes on the side of permissive), but my goal is always to set strong limits, but only where necessary. Where it’s possible to let my kids find their own way in the world, I do that, too.
    (Sorry, this was rushed and probably chaotic, but I felt like I needed to add my voice.)

  11. Joy Says:

    My philosophy in a nutshell.
    Sometimes it is necessary, as in lifesaving, to have small children be unquestioningly obedient on command.
    Restrictions should start out tight (for the protection of themselves, others, and property) with the small ones and ease as the children age. Rules can be questioned and may be changed if the child presents a good argument, which is always encouraged.
    But there’s always a tone of voice which says “Danger” and when anyone speaks to you with it the best reaction is instant obedience.
    And by the way, a rattler nearly bit (rattled and reared at) my toddler sister in 1981, as she walked past a woodpile at my aunt and uncle’s vacation cabin. She was saved by my uncle’s quick reaction–I have never seen a man run and swoop up a baby so fast; and he and my cousin had hacked that snake’s head off before it sunk in for the rest of us what had happened. (We ate that snake for breakfast the next day).

  12. ibex67 Says:

    I do not think obedience is a virtue at all. I do believe in limit setting of course. And when kids are very young one doesn’t need to give reasons for all the rules. Though the parent-child relationship seems to function better over time if one does.
    Another demographic subset that places a high value on obedience are fundamentalist Christians. I know this from some personal experience with folks in my family. According to many fundamentalists understanding of the bible — obedience is highly valued by G-d.

  13. Jody Says:

    One of the best books I’ve read for parsing out discipline was published by Hazeldon, and is titled something like “Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children.” The big premise at the beginning is that parents need to provide both structure and nurture. The authors use the metaphor of a highway, and your goal is to stay on the road, and not wander into the ditches. The ditches of structure are marshmallowing or abusing, while the ditches of nurture are neglect or — hmm, I can’t remember the name they give to over-nurturing. But anyway, I found it very helpful in thinking about what I meant when I wanted to raise children who respected rules, who respected authority, and who also grew up internalizing my values combined with their experiential knowledge.
    I VERY MUCH reject permissive parenting, but I don’t think the opposite of permissive is obedience training.

  14. Moxie Says:

    This has nothing to do with the topic, but merseydotes, your favorite parenting author is Michel Cohen? This makes me chuckle because we interviewed him before El Chico was born and rejected him because he’s Just. So. Arrogant., and we know so many other parents who think he’s just full of himself (most of the people we know who go to his practice deliberately schedule to see the other doc or the NP instead of him). I don’t think I’d be able to get past knowing how he is in real life to be able to read his book and take it seriously! But maybe I should give it another go and see what he’s got to say.

  15. Elizabeth Says:

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. Overall, we work pretty hard not to set rules unless we have a reason for them, and then we take them seriously. I believe in limit setting, but I’m not sure that’s what I mean by “obedience.” When I hear “obedience,” the image that comes to mind is people who think that it’s disrespectful for kids to ask “why?” when parents tell them to do something.
    And I’d rather D call me “Liz” than the “Mother” that he seems to have picked up recently. What happened to “Mommy” and “Mom?”

  16. Jennifer Says:

    A very interesting discussion. I’m surprised to find myself towards the authoritarian end of the spectrum (at least compared with my sons’ peer group). But I agree that limit setting and requiring obedience without question are not the same thing.
    I can see in some of these responses the differences between parents with small children and more grown up. For my children, unquestioning obedience when there is traffic involved is just as important as in the old pioneering beware-of-the-snake days. But when they go to school, being able to think for themselves without their parents there will be much more important than obedience to a theoretical parental command. Hopefully we’ll make that transition without too much angst, with some of Moxie’s respect for each other’s knowledge.

  17. Genevieve Says:

    I had no idea that’s what that poem was about! Horrendous.
    Terrific, thought-provoking post and comments. I think I come out somewhere like Tiny Coconut.
    Like you, I read references to this poem in a bunch of children’s books. I don’t think it was in a Laura book, though I could be wrong; I do think it was in Anne of Green Gables.
    And here are a couple more places I, and probably you, read about it:
    “Tom Sawyer stepped forward with conceited confidence and soared into the unquenchable and indestructible “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, with fine fury and frantic gesticulation, and broke down in the middle of it. A ghastly stage-fright seized him, his legs quaked under him and he was like to choke. True, he had the manifest sympathy of the house but he had the house’s silence, too, which was even worse than its sympathy. The master frowned, and this completed the disaster. Tom struggled awhile and then retired, utterly defeated. There was a weak attempt at applause, but it died early.
    “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck” followed; also “The Assyrian Came Down,” and other declamatory gems.”
    Emerald City of Oz:
    “”Young men in college always have to take their medicine, one way or another,” observed the Wizard, with a smile; “and, as our Professor says, these School Pills have proved to be a great success. One day while I was making them I happened to drop one of them, and one of Billina’s chickens gobbled it up. A few minutes afterward this chick got upon a roost and recited ‘The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck’ without making a single mistake. Then it recited ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and afterwards ‘Excelsior.’ You see, the chicken had eaten an Elocution Pill.””

  18. Elizabeth Says:

    Genevieve, I have to ask — did you just remember that those books mentioned the poem, or did you manage to look it up online, or what? I’m very impressed.

  19. Becca Says:

    There’s a literary critic named Catherine Robson who wrote an essay about the poem and its history as the most popular poem for recitation in the 19th century. It’s in PMLA (the journal of the Modern Language Association), maybe in 2004 or 2005?

  20. Genevieve Says:

    Oh, I looked it up online, Elizabeth – my memory’s not that good! Research is my spec-i-al-ity (said with a Wallace and Gromit intonation). Clusty, rather than Google, is my search of choice, and was very helpful.
    When I found them, those sections sounded somewhat familiar, but I never would’ve guessed those two books off the top of my head. I was thinking it might’ve been mentioned as a recitation in Anne of Green Gables.
    My son, the Laura expert at the moment, says it _was_ in one of the Laura books. I’d guess Silver Lake, Long Winter, or Little Town, since those were our most recent reads and since the last two in particular had a lot of recitations mentioned. (We’ve just started These Happy Golden Years, so that’s not the one he’s remembering.)

  21. Kimmers Says:

    I’ve been lurking on this thread for days, very interestd in all of your opinions. I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective. While I align closely with Tiny Coconut’s well-stated position, our son calls grown men “sir” and calls me (and all women) “m’am” (sometimes on his own; sometimes with prompt:
    Adult: Do you want X?
    Boy: ya.
    Adult: yes, *m’am*.
    Boy: yes, m’am).
    And for people he first meets, he addresses them as Miss Christy or Mrs Jones, until the woman tells him otherwise.
    I’m a northeast gal, so it was *very* foreign for me. But it was very important for my Tennessee-born husband. It has nothing to do with religion, as mentioned on an earlier post and a natural assumption with him being from the South. No, his argument–and now mine–is about respect more than obedience, although obedience is emphasised in our house as well.
    We live in the northeast, so hearing “sir” or “m’am” out of the mouth of a little boy is foreign to those around us, but it is not mocked, as I thought it might be. Instead, the salesclerks, postmen, neighbors, little old ladies in the grocery store, and other strangers we come across in our day smile at him and thank him for his politeness. They comment how refreshing it is to see a polite child. Sure, the m’ams and the sirs sound more natural when we’re visiting the folks down South, but even here they sound just fine.
    I do believe it is possible to raise independent thinkers who are also respectful and obedient. (Lord knows, this kid is brimming with independent thought!) I *think* (because it is by the seat of our pants, after all) we are raising him to be prepared for life. It isn’t always fair, we are not always privvy to detailed explanations when we’d like them, we all have rules to follow, we all have to obey certain people or certain societial norms, and we all have choices with consequences associated with those choices.
    And it seems that there can never be too much respectfulness, courtesy, kindness, politeness, or manners, from children or adults.

  22. Christine Says:

    I think the problem is with the term obedient; it sounds oppressive. I only use that term with my pets. As a mother of a 20 month-year-old I feel there is reasoning at some point over safety, but as a child grows obedience stifles creativity and imagination. Teaching a child societal expectations should not be classified under obedience. I am not sure if both independent thinking and obedience can be taught simultaneously, but rather individual personalities tend to choose one or the other.

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