My sons are six and three years old. They are now both old enough to cause considerable damage (to each other, their mother and our house). But they are not old enough to have the requisite impulse control and self-regulation to refrain from doing so most of the time. They are in constant need of discipline because they are human three and six year-olds. I don’t hold it against them (most of the time). Deciding how to discipline our children is something most parents are thinking about, but we don’t always do it together. I think I have something novel to add to the discussion: aim for obedience instead of compliance.
Depending on which dictionary you check, you might conclude that obedience and compliance are synonyms, but they’re not. I asked my facebook friends and the general consensus agreed with me. They are different, and how they are different is the essence of what I have to say. Compliance is about the rule of law, and obedience is about the rule of love. It’s regulation verse relationship. One complies with the law, while one obeys a person. I want every time I discipline my children to be about relationship not rules.
I want my children to obey me. I don’t want them to follow the rules. Here’s four reasons why.
1) I want them to have a relationship with me.
Theo (3) insists on removing his pants and underwear completely when he goes to the bathroom but then does not want to be bothered to put them back on. He wants his mother or me to do it for him. He claims that he does not know how to do this arduous task. Instead of making a rule about putting on your own dang pants (which would be completely reasonable) I say, “I don’t want to put on your pants because I know you can do it and you’re practicing taking care of yourself.” I am committed to saying this because when I am rushing to get him into bed after keeping him up too late I want to be able to put his pants on for him quickly so we don’t have to have the same old fight right before bed. As I help him I say, “I’m putting on your pants for you because I know you have a hard time with it and I love you.” If I made a rule about pants, I would be ruled by it too and Theo would learn to follow the rules and not me. Obedience is about relationship, it saves everyone from legislation.
2) I want them to disobey when necessary
Oliver (6) would prefer to eat cookies for breakfast lunch and dinner (who wouldn’t?) but I tell him, “I want you to grow up to be strong and healthy so you cannot have a cookie for breakfast.” But the world is also fun and full of surprises. Occasionally we get to celebrate that with cookies at 7:00 am. If I completely block the hopeful road of an unhealthy breakfast I think I hurt his hope muscles a little bit. I need his hope muscle to be strong because he may need to disobey the unending rules of our culture that will sweep him into despair. Disobedience to unjust laws and anti-christ ways of thinking will be an essential part of his adulthood, if he becomes the man I am praying he will be. He will need a lot of hope to believe that anything he does in the face of such great forces will mean anything at all.
3) I want them to have a sense of agency
Rules beget drudgery and performance. There are enough forces in this world preparing to steal my sons’ sense of their own agency. I don’t need to be a part of it. In moments of despair I do wish that these tiny ones would just do as they’re told and stop bothering me, but when I’m writing a blog, that despair is not part of the manifesto. My heart’s desire is that they have a healthy sense of agency. Capitalism will try to reduce them into a cog in whatever system they participate, a consumer or a product to be sold. The One Percent will figure out how to trick them into slavery, virtual or actual (depending on how dystopian our future is). They will need to have a sense of themselves that is quite separate from what we in Circle of Hope have deemed the Great Other, the amalgamation of surveillance state bureaucracy, globalized economies and incredibly entrenched injustices. The problems are so big and the system so inscrutable and esoteric that attempting to do anything more than survive with your head down is only for dreamers and fools. Obey specific individuals whom you have agreed to respect, O my sons, not institutions that are lost in themselves and given over to the principalities and powers of the air. We’ll start now by using a pencil on our homework not because “you’re not allowed to use pen,” but because “the pencil is the best tool for the job when you’re learning which direction to write a lower case “p.”
4) I want them to have a healthy image of God
Our images of God are intrinsically linked to our images of our parents. Jesus taught us to relate to God as a parent, and so our parents are the source material for our language about God and our associations with the words mother and father. As children, the grooves in our brains are literally being formed. So when we arrive to adulthood trying to relate to God as a parent, we bring with us some patterns of relating that are hard to get around. I want my sons to have an image of me that is relational because that is the type of fatherhood that best corresponds with the type of parent God is. God is not the overbearing father or the bad cop mom. God loves us and treats each of us differently according to our specific needs. God’s care for us can not be reduced to a set of rules or principles (though many continue to try to do so). God can’t be tied up by the rules we make about God, and on his best days, neither can Dad. “Theo, your unintelligible whining is irritating but I care about what you have to say. Can you talk to me so I can understand?” I care about him more than the rules I am tempted to make about whining.
Obedience > Compliance
If I just get my children to comply with the rules I design for them, I will have the semblance of obedience. If I relate to them and get them to obey me because I have demonstrated the goodness of my love and the boundaries I set for them, I will have actual obedience. Rich Mullins wrote in one of his songs “Surrender don’t come natural to me/I’d rather fight you for something I don’t really want than take what you give and I need.” Many of us have that fight built into us. I know I do when I’m ready to dig trenches in my living room to defeat my children. God, give me (and us) strength to give and receive with discernment and trust. May we receive the love we need to love our children more than just keeping them in line.