Disobedience and Authority: A Teenager Tells It Like It Is

When our children are new, we try to mold family life—including our children’s behavior—into the way we want it. By the time our children enter kindergarten, we have done so much training that children are hard-wired with our values: be careful crossing streets, don’t fight with your little sister, be kind, go to bed at eight, don’t bother me while I am cooking—you could make a list of a hundred messages you have been trying to get across. Before age five, children want to know their parents’ roadmap for success, and they are uploading it onto the hard drive of their brains. They listen, look, copy, practice and test reality to identify how to play the Game of Home successfully. The Secret of Joyful Education TED intro.pptx

By the time they are five or so, a change has occurred, and we have to shift gears, too. If they are not doing what we want by then, it is not because they haven’t been “listening”—it is something else. Maybe they want to see if we really mean it. Maybe they want to see if other things work, too. Maybe they simply have trouble doing it and need practice. Simply repeating our “values” is usually counter-productive.

One reason for “disobedience” is that kids are trying to find out for themselves whether it’s really true. They are wired to uncover truth on their own by spotting discrepancies. Between the age of four and eight they are learning that just because an authority figure says something, doesn’t mean it’s true. Once they see their mother filling stockings at Christmas, or their father yelling at the car in front of him, they can’t help asking questions. And that’s a good thing. We want them to think for themselves. Authority “figures” aren’t always trustworthy authorities.

At dinner one night I reported: “There was an outbreak of disobedience in the kindergarten today. The kindergarten teacher was very frustrated.”

My 13-year-old stepdaughter piped up with, “Oh, yes. That’s when it happens.”

“What?” I said. “What do you mean ‘that’s when it happens?’”

“I mean,” she said, “that when I was in kindergarten I learned that I didn’t have to do what I was told. I remember the moment. My dad told me to wash my hands. So there I am in the bathroom, and he isn’t around, and I’m like, ‘What if I don’t do it?’”

It was instructive to hear from a thirteen-year old what the world looks like through the eyes of a five-year-old. And my source was by no means a disobedient child. In fact, Lizzie was quite willing most of the time to go along with what her parents wanted her to do, and had internalized that most of those messages were good for her.

When she was 18, I told her I was writing a book and read to her what she had said when she was 13. She said, “Wait, there’s more. After kindergarten, if kids aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, parents need to make it clear what’s in it for them, or what bad thing will happen if they don’t. And you know what else? If parents are not getting the behavior they want by the time their kid is in seventh grade it’s too late. You can’t make ’em after seventh grade. Anything parents try now is just too-little-too-late.” At this point she quoted a friend who had recently been grounded for failing to take out the garbage: “They can take away my communication, but they can’t take away my apathy.”

Contrary to popular parenting opinion, kids want to take responsibility: for themselves, their work, their family, their community and their environment. One of the main reasons for this is their need to learn how things really work. They can be told something, but they know they don’t really know it till they have taken responsibility for it.

In her article “A Nation of Wimps” (Psychology Today December 2004) Hara Estroff Marano reports that American parents, increasingly anxious about their children, inadvertently compromise their chances for success by doing things for them. When you do something for children that they can do for themselves, you disrupt their journey toward understanding how the world works and their place in it, thus undermining their confidence that they are efficacious human beings who can face a challenge without dying.

Nothing succeeds like success? No. Nothing succeeds like taking risks and learning you’re wrong.

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7 Responses to Disobedience and Authority: A Teenager Tells It Like It Is

  1. Gary Gruber says:

    When I saw your email “The Genius of Children in March” I thought immediately that the genius of children in March is that they know when Spring begins, in their very being. So do teenagers and so do adults for that matter. When Spring is in the air and in your soul how can you not marvel at the mystery and genius of Nature, once more, again and again? See my own blog about celebrating the vernal equiniox at http://www.santafelead.org,
    “She’s Here!”

  2. Amy says:

    I would be very careful of how this line can be misinterpreted: When you do something for children that they can do for themselves, you disrupt their journey toward understanding how the world works and their place in it, thus undermining their confidence that they are efficacious human beings who can face a challenge without dying.

    Obviously, if there are things (like homework) that a parent is doing for their child instead of sitting down and keeping their child company or just being at their side helping their child with it, it is a terrible disservice to the child.

    BUT. the push to always be independent in our society has many pitfalls and has done much damage to our human psyche and society. Individual achievement is valued over teamwork and collective goal setting and doing things for the common good. As “successful” individuals, we are not supposed to ask for help and receiving help is seen as weak or degrading. This leads to severe isolation and often an inability to reach out for help when it would be the rational thing to do.

    I think that this statement needs to be carefully explained: I could see enormous damage coming out of parents who stop doing things for their children in the name of teaching them independence. As it is, many of us have felt abandoned as children because our parents were not around enough. Nowadays with parents working even longer hours than ever and usually both parents working, children are left on their own more than is healthy for young people.

    As a counselor who has listened to the pain of hundreds of people who were hurt by being pushed to be “independent” too young, too roughly, etc. it makes me very nervous when someone as compassionate and smart as you, Rick, says something like this without enough details and explanations about what EXACTLY you mean. Can you add to this, please?

  3. Rick says:

    Amy, thank you for making a discussion out of this. I especially like your: “Individual achievement is valued over teamwork and collective goal setting and doing things for the common good. As “successful” individuals, we are not supposed to ask for help and receiving help is seen as weak or degrading.” You put your finger on a critical cultural bias that causes a lot of trouble; i.e. the notion that one has to choose between independence and dependence.
    It should go without saying (but it doesn’t) that there are two aspects of being a human: 1) we are unique, discrete individuals and 2) we are our relationships. Being both at the same time is the challenge of a lifetime.
    SO, thank you for voicing the other half of “helping” kids that I left unsaid.
    When parents and teachers take responsibility for kids they often act in ways that takes responsibility away from the kids–for something like homework or making friends with others. Then when someone like me–or some voice in their head–says that for kids to be successful at it, kids need to take responsibility for it themselves, they hear “back off.”
    You are quite correct in implying that “Back off” leads adults in wrong directions. The trick in any relationship is to take responsibility (100%-0, not 50-50) in such a way that it increases the responsibility of the other. It’s not about more or less independent, it’s about interdependent. It’s about being true to yourself and the relationship at the same time.
    People learn in a process of taking responsibility, making decisions, and learning from mistakes. It is best that they do this in a social context of loving relationships, that is a safe place for them to be their own imperfect selves, and others are helping them with the core human challenge of harmonizing their own needs, values and interests with those of others.
    Thank you for shooting straight.

  4. Ray Erickson says:

    Last July I wrote a blog post based on an article in The New Yorker. “Are We Raising a Generation of Adultescents?” where the differences between our culture and the Matsigenka, a tribe of 12,000 living in the Puruvian Amazonthey are discussed.

    “Ochs and Izquierdo noted, the differences between the family lives of the Matsigenka and the Angelenos, how early they Matsigenka begin encouraging their children to be useful. Toddlers routinely heat their own food over an open fire, they observed, while “three-year-olds frequently practice cutting wood and grass with machetes and knives.” Boys, when they are six or seven, start to accompany their fathers on fishing and hunting trips, and girls learn to help their mothers with the cooking. As a consequence, by the time they reach puberty Matsigenka kids have mastered most of the skills necessary for survival.

    Why do we think children need things done for them when it is clear that each child is capable to doing and being so much more that what we expect of them? I’ve been telling parents for over 30 years not to do for their teens what they can do for themselves, then love them deeply and completely no matter how long it takes them to learn for themselves. This combination supports the autonomy they seek and teaches them the value of community.

  5. Terri says:

    What do you do with a teenager (16 ) that is determined to hang out with friends that are going nowhere? That have “issues”? They have substance abuse problems or problems with their parents or school? We have done counseling and grounding and removed priveleges. We have gone the other way and tried to see the world from his view. and try to get him more engaged in the conversation. We have another child who just graduated from grad school. I don’t think we parented any differently with our her. Well, at least not at first. Our son is smart and goes to a private school. He is very loyal, which is one of his best qualities but it can also get in his way! Especially when you are loyal to the wrong people. He has a good heart and I wnat the best things in life for him, He is making several wrong choices, I am afraid for him. I wish I could make him see that who he “hangs” with impacts his life and how other’s view him and how he views himself. I don’t know what to do to make him see he needs to make a change. We are involved parents, much to his dismay. I don’t know what to do next. He says he won’t participate in counseling again if we make him go. We set limits and he violates them. We give a consequence and he will eventually do it again. What do we do?

  6. Rick says:

    How long has this been going on?
    Other than hanging out with the wrong crowd, what is he doing that he shouldn’t or not doing that he should?
    How long has he been in this school, known these kids,
    give more history.

  7. JulieK says:

    Do you think this trend towards saying yes instead of no (b/c it seems easier) is partially caused by our “rush-around” and social media focused society?
    I think parents don’t feel like they have the TIME to stop and deal with situations. To LET their kids figure things out, to enforce the logical consequences… So parents abdicate their responsibility and say “yes” to their children when they should be teaching them and giving kids room and time to grow and learn.

    New topic: To the reader who was concerned about children not developing a sense of community – I don’t see that as an issue. A child who develops an appropriate sense of personal responsibility and independence has MORE ability to help the group/community than a child who has grown dependent on others and lacks self-awareness and skills needed to be a contributing member. (If you have read any Ayn Rand, this concept is all over her books, just not in relation to child development!).

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