Raising Children to Question Authority By Suj

Last summer, a friend and I were talking about her daughter and how boisterous and assertive she was and my friend related to me her mother’s advice. “Curb it, don’t kill it,” my friend’s mother had said to her, referring to the girl’s spiritedness. Wise, pithy, memorable.

It got me thinking about just how much we try to mold and reshape our children’s personalities to suit whatever social situation we happen to be living in. In the process, it is more than likely that we have, unintentionally, eroded their natural-born instincts and replaced them with a set of rules for what parents and the rest of society consider “ideal” behavior for children.

When my son was about two years old, we talked about nutrition with his pediatrician and he had some great advice that has stood the test of time – he said to pick our battles with our son and that food was not to be one of those battles. He said that as long as he was eating nutritious food, how much he ate should be left entirely up to him. Shortly thereafter, I read that children are born with the innate ability to tell when they are full and should therefore stop eating. But by the time they turn six, many of them have lost this ability because they are constantly told by parents and other family members to finish what is on their plate. In forcing themselves to eat in order to obey their parents, they no longer can recognize the signals that tell them when to stop eating. This of course, has terrible consequences for the children later on in life.

I bring this up here because I believe that similar forces are at play in how children relate to relatives, friends and acquaintances of the family, particularly to the elders (such as parents, and uncles and aunts) and older friends and family.

Many of us have experienced first-hand or have heard stories from tired parents of the “terrible twos,” when toddlers seem to morph from angelic infants into monsters. I am no psychologist, but it appeared to me that at that age my children were not only trying out their newly-found independence by climbing on things they were not supposed to, by running in the opposite direction when I called them and so on, but also checking out for themselves their just-discovered personalities and testing how they relate to the people around them. “No” became their favorite word and most times it sure felt like they were merely curious to see what my reaction would be.

It is at this stage, I believe, that we, as parents, have a tremendous opportunity to shape our children into confident, assertive individuals. I know that my first instinct as a parent was to demand unconditional obedience; my reaction to a “Why can’t I do it?” would be, “Because I said so.” Life does seem easy that way. No arguments to deal with, no need to spend energy crafting thoughtful answers to pesky questions.

But, as my friend’s mother cautioned, I was in danger of killing their spirit and messing with their instinctual responses to situations and leaving them less prepared than they otherwise would be to deal with life’s challenges. By insisting that children listen to me no matter their instincts, I would be well on my way to eroding their ability to listen to and trust what their hearts and minds were telling them.

Children must be brought up to know that their opinions hold water, that their questions are valid, that they can trust their instincts and act upon them. In a world where numerous people have authority over their sayings and doings, children must know that in certain circumstances, disobeying elders is not only all right, it is the only response.

When it comes to child sexual abuse, it is widely known that the abuse occurs at the hands of people – family, friends, neighbors, teachers, religious ‘leaders’ – that are familiar to children, loved by them, trusted by them and those that are in positions of authority in relation to them. Abusers tend to test the waters first and proceed when they find no resistance. Abuse at the hands of people familiar to the children tends to occur over long periods of time.

The confidence in the children to disobey and resist is more likely to come not only from knowledge about the circumstances in which disobeying is the right thing to do (“good touch, bad touch” discussions) but also from an atmosphere of openness at home where spiritedness and a questioning mind are not squelched. If, god forbid, an instance of abuse should occur, it is also more likely that children in such homes will report the incident to their parents promptly.

I’m with you. None of this is easy. Children need discipline and need to be well-behaved, but where do you draw the line between disciplining a child and allowing a child to explore his world unfettered? How do you make sure that when the time comes to talk to them about the dangers that lurk in the world that they don’t become fearful and cynical of all of life? If they don’t learn to obey without question, might they lose their way?

It may not be easy. Or obvious. Or the results guaranteed. But all we can do as parents is teach, nurture and try to raise kids with spunk, kids who are not afraid of authority. And be deeply engaged in their lives and know the people in their lives for as long as it takes.