The other day when I was getting my hair cut (for the first time in six months — ahem), my cousin/hairdresser started to tell me funny stories about her adorable, headstrong, smart-as-a-whip three-year-old. As clever and cute as her daughter is, though, she tends to get into trouble.
“And nothing I do gets her to behave,” she bemoaned as she trimmed my crooked bangs. “Putting her in the corner doesn’t work. Spanking doesn’t even work!”
“Yeah, spanking doesn’t work on some kids,” I agreed, with a kids-will-be-kids tone of voice (as if I know anything). “Some kids are just free-spirited.”
“But I want her to respect authority!” my cousin/hairdresser lamented.
* * *
I was mulling over our conversation yesterday as I walked home from the library with Lydia in her second-hand jogging stroller. The importance of teaching young people to respect authority is a widely accepted. But I’ve recently become a strong advocate for non-violent, non-authoritarian parenting, and something didn’t sit right with me with this notion of getting children to “respect authority.”
I realized while I was walking and thinking that when people say they want kids to respect authority, what they usually mean is that they want them to obey authority.
I want my daughter to respect everyone. But I’m not sure I want to teach her to obey authority.
Now hear me out.
First of all, I want to emphasize that I want my daughter to respect people. I want her to honour and cherish every person she comes into contact with, whether a newborn infant, a paraplegic old man, a homeless beggar woman, or an imprisoned felon. Every one of these people bears the image of God and therefore deserves respect.
People in authority — parents, teachers, police officers, pastors, etc — don’t deserve any more or less respect than anyone else.
In fact, I’m worried that instilling a strong sense of obedience towards authority can lead to blind, unquestioning acceptance of authority. And I want my child to have a healthy level of skepticism towards rules and the powers that be.
Most authority-figures are good and caring, but not all of them are. And most rules and laws are useful and good, but not all of them are. I want my daughter to have a discerning eye.
I think it should be an authority-figure’s responsibility to prove that she is trustworthy, not a child’s responsibility to obey her. The individual in power needs to demonstrate that she has my daughter’s best interest in mind before expecting compliance. My daughter shouldn’t have to listen to a person simply because that person has been given power over her, and will punish her if she doesn’t obey.
In fact, anyone who has to reinforce their authority through punishment ought, in my opinion, to be treated with a certain amount of suspicion. If a rule’s goodness and justness is not apparent to everyone, how can we be certain it’s worth following?
I don’t want my daughter to listen to me just because I’m her mom. I don’t deserve her respect just by virtue of being her mother. I deserve her respect because I’m an image-bearer. But I might be a terrible, abusive, neglectful mom, in which case she shouldn’t necessarily listen to everything I say. I might have unreasonable rules that she should question.
If a rule doesn’t make sense to my daughter, I want her feel free to question its validity until she does understand. If it still doesn’t make sense, I think it might be time for the authority figure (read: me) to rethink the validity of the rule. Hopefully we can talk it through until we both agree on a course of action.
Of course I want my daughter to listen to me, because most of my rules are for her own benefit. So my goal is to first and foremost prove to her that I’m worth listening to. I want to do this not by punishing her when she doesn’t obey, but by demonstrating that her well-being is at the forefront of all I do. My aim is to show her that everything I do is to keep her safe and healthy, so that she understands that agreeing with me is (usually) best for everyone.
I don’t want her to go around testing every rule or law. I acknowledge that sometimes you have to just trust authority. I want trust to be her default setting. Often, it’s healthier/safer/easier to assume that the doctor’s advice is best, that the traffic laws should be followed, that the teacher’s rule about running with scissors has merit.
But sometimes it’s worth questioning them. I want her to know she has that option.
So that’s why I’m ditching the idea that my daughter ought to respect authority.
What are your thoughts?