— Luke, age 8, while arguing with me
— Luke, age 8
So, Luke was talking with other 8-year-olds in his class about Santa Claus, and told them that he didn’t believe Santa was real (not unlike this old post, I guess). This started an argument. The teacher got involved and publicly admonished Luke, allegedly saying that he was being mean because his comments could make other kids sad.
Ummm what? If teachers aren’t going to tell the kids the truth, the least they could do is say different people have different beliefs, or some such thing. Right?
— Luke, age 7
|[Scene:||Luke and Beth, ages 7 and 4, have recently been engaged in a dramatic argument involving a lot of shouting and crying]|
|Me:||"Good heavens! Sometimes I wish I could open up your heads and remove whatever part of your brain makes you irritate each other."|
|Luke:||"It's no use, Dad. That part just grows back."|
On Saturday, without context, I posed the following question:
How do I raise my kids to question authority without them questioning mine?
Obviously this is a contradiction: I can’t teach kids to question authority without letting them question mine too. That is part of the deal.
It seems I have three broad choices:
- Force my children to utterly submit to authority. This doesn’t work. I am proof of that. In my younger days, when authority got louder and harder, I just went the other direction even faster. There’s too much bad authority in the world for this to be a legitimate option. And I see the same tendency in my kids (especially my son) to respond to authority the same way I did as a kid. Furthermore, kids should not be taught that they can grow up and force other people to submit to them. That’s wrong on so many levels.
- Teach my children to disrespect authority and do whatever the hell they want. This doesn’t work either. I rejected all authority structure for awhile (and got in trouble with the law more than once). I didn’t recognize that, honestly, much of that structure is actually good and useful. Not all of it, and none of it is above questioning, but there’s a difference between questions and rebellion. Furthermore, I know too many people who were raised to think that their authority was above everyone else: in other words, they were spoiled as children, and now they’re spoiled as adults. Given the long-term consequences, I think this is a form of abuse against a child (if not against the people who have to deal with that child).
- Middle ground: teach my children to respect authority while questioning it, to recognize that authority structures are sometimes good and sometimes bad, but generally you have to deal with them respectfully even if you’re trying to change them. The value of civil disobedience, perhaps? Or the value of seeking a good compromise, as calmly as possible, instead of sniping at each other from fortified positions?
I was thinking about this after having a serious argument with Luke, who was fighting tooth and nail against doing something I had asked him. It was a simple thing: we were cleaning the house and I’d asked him to pick up some stuff that he’d left on the floor. It would take all of two minutes to do it, but he didn’t want to, and he exploded over it with a ton of questioning, and rejection, of my authority. I didn’t handle myself well either, to be honest. So, the two most stubborn people in the house — him and I — butted heads in a hard way. Together, we escalated a small problem into a big one. And he got in trouble.
This kind of thing is totally normal for a 7-year-old. I get that. But as I was thinking about it afterwards (along with a slew of similar incidents), I came to one conclusion I didn’t much like:
This might say more about me than it does about him.
There are a lot of issues wrapped up in that little incident, but in terms the authority issues, I need to be more flexible, more able to deal with questioning. When it comes to my kids, I tend to make my authority structures very rigid and sharp-edged, when instead I need to work with them more. Curiously, when it comes to employees I’ve managed over the years, I tend to be really flexible. Why is this? Don’t I remember my own childhood? What the hell am I thinking? Yeah, I don’t want my kids to never respect authority, but I also don’t want them to resent authority. Unfortunately the only way they will learn the middle ground is if I demonstrate it, and I often find that to be really difficult.
But when the situation gets out of hand, I am the responsible party, not the seven-year-old. I am. I just am. I participate in the situation, but I’m supposed to be the adult side of it, right? And, to apply a biblical proverb to myself: “As far as it depends on me, be at peace with everyone” — which includes my kids. Forced authority brings down the hammer as soon as it is challenged; flexible authority looks for a peaceful solution first.
Don’t get me wrong: I do let my kids ask questions about the things I ask of them. And I am trying to not be one of those parents who says, “Because I said so!” That’s a non-answer which is firmly rooted in the “forced obedience” option, above. They deserve better than that. Unfortunately, I must admit that I have said that more than once, in fits of exasperation. But I’m trying to replace that urge with a better answer, something like: “I don’t have time to explain it right this minute, but please trust me that this is a good thing to do right now, and we can talk about it later.” Or, “Because this would really help me out right now if you did this.” Or something. I’m still working on it. It’s situational but I think there are general principles to follow.
My wife is much better at finding compromises than I am. But I’m getting better. I hope to be at least a moderate expert at parenting compromises by the time Luke is a teenager. (fingers crossed)
Anyway, I posted that paradoxical question to highlight this tension. There were some good responses. I agree with yourhead…
“teaching your kids to question you **IS** how you teach them to question authority.”
“You can’t. Part of growing up is pushing back against parental authority.”
Right. And part of raising a kid is being able to accept that they will push back against you.
“Let me know when you find out! Lol”
Hah. I think my kids will have children of their own before I figure this out.
That’s borderline hypocritical, although I do see your point.
Instilling the fact that it’s your job as a parent to make decisions for them and guide them in making decisions that are the best for their well being until the age of x ( maybe 18, with an increase of input as age and maturity increase over time) would be a start. This is how my dad explained it to me, starting at a young age, and starting with a simple explanation of the concept.
I feel as if now that I’m an adult and managing my own choices I am more open to his input because I know where he’s coming from, even if I don’t agree with him.
They’re open to questioning your authority just as they are with anything else, challenging that authority is a different matter.
I think we’re probably on the same page here, or at least in the same chapter of the same book. I don’t think it’s wrong to recognize this tension in my role as a parent; it would only be hypocritical if I taught them to question authority while never letting them question mine (which wasn’t my point — though without context, I understand it could be taken that way). I do try to make it clear that I’m responsible for guiding them through life until they’re ready to guide themselves.
I am tempted to suggest that we are splitting hairs with “questioning” versus “challenging”. Isn’t the first one a form of the second one? But, maybe it’s all in the delivery. A question can be respectful; it becomes a challenge when approached with a certain attitude.
Anyway. I have great kids. They’re two of the most awesome people I’ve ever met. Hopefully I won’t screw them up while they’re under my care.