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.
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.