The Obedient Child - Fact or Fiction?
From the perspective of a developing psyche and the developing sense of self of a child, is our quest for the obedient child all wrong?
A few weeks ago my husband, three year old daughter and I attended a family birthday dinner at an upscale restaurant. We had reached the end of the meal and Dadi Ma’s home made cake was brought out. Dadi Ma sat down opposite my daughter, thrilled to see her tucking into the cake she had lovingly made. My daughter looked up, fork full of cake, narrowed her eyes and yelled at her grandmother ‘GO HOME AND GO AND SIT OVER THERE!’, pointing to the opposite end of a very long table. I was mortified as everyone grew quiet and all eyes turned to me. Before I could decide how to respond, she fixed her glare onto her unassuming, sweet Dadu Ji and began to make a repetitive piercing sound that can only be described as a cross between a scream and a squawk.
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It was a busy asthma clinic during cold and flu season, and a two year old patient was waiting in the examination room. As I approached the door, I heard her mother shout ‘WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? SIT STILL AND SIT QUIETLY’.
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It was a late afternoon clinic, and I was seeing a 6 year old patient for an asthma consultation. These visits are incredibly long and boring for most children. The child was fascinated by climbing up and down from the examination couch. He was neither aggressive nor destructive. His mother turned to him mid-conversation and said ‘If you don’t stop doing that, this doctor is going to give you a big injection. Doctor, tell him - if he doesn’t behave you have an injection waiting for him.’
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For many of us, these examples of a ‘disobedient’ child requiring ‘behaviour correction’ might seem like common daily occurrences of little consequence; and from a parent perspective they likely are. Yet from the perspective of a developing psyche and the developing sense of self of a child, I wonder if our daily responses to our child’s behaviour are anything but trivial. Is our quest for the obedient child all wrong?
I can well understand the reasons for believing that an obedient child is desirable. It is often difficult to find a quiet place in my mind because my child is so loud. I have definitely felt embarrassed as my child squawk-screams at the people who love her most. I’ve been judged because my child is not being ‘obedient’. Many of us fear that our children will become spoilt, or ‘brats’ if we do not ensure they are obedient. It is at times overwhelming.
Oftentimes reactions to our children’s behaviour stem from experiences with our own parents, following what our peers do, our own unresolved fears and insecurities, and fears around how we are perceived by others, far more than understanding the true needs of our children. A large part of this is due to cultural norms within families, schools and communities that have often evolved over time with little thought and are accepted without question. Part of it is due to our own unexamined self.
Is our goal to create an ‘obedient child’ a mistake?
Childhood, particularly the formative years from 1-8 years of age, is a unique and incredibly important time that is sadly overlooked and poorly understood by most. It is during these tender years that we form our own sense of self, a deeply human experience that lays the foundation for the rest of our lives. I have heard many parents dismiss this time, explaining ‘children don’t really remember anything when they are that young’. While it is true that the earliest memories are usually formed around 3 years of age, much is happening subconsciously before 5 years of age. Our first experiences in these early years of how we are treated by the people we love and trust the most, and our interaction with the world around us, I would argue, are the most important memories of all - albeit that they are subconscious. The importance of these years cannot be overstated - these are absolutely the golden years when it comes to forming the foundation for healthy self esteem, confidence and a strong sense of self more than at any other time. It is also when we learn about the physical world around us, and this requires time (patience) and space (allowing young ones to experiment, be messy and persist in their endeavours). To form our own sense of self, we need two seemingly conflicting things - one is a deep and secure attachment to our care givers, and the other is the freedom to experience the full range of human emotions without punishment or judgement, but with guidance and support. Instead of trying to encourage obedience, it is more important to support our child with processing the range of normal human emotions in a healthy way, thereby teaching them the basis of good mental health.
In raising my own daughter for example, I found that the general reaction to her crying or feeling upset was fear and panic. I noticed that my initial response, and that of many family members was to distract - give cookies, turn on a screen, berate the thing that had caused pain. But on closer inspection, it was like teaching a dysfunctional response to pain in real time. The intentions were kind, but it reminded me of how uncomfortable we are with experiencing sadness or pain. Yet, it is and will always be part of life. As gut-wrenching as it is, we opt to allow her the time and space to be sad. I will hold her while she cries. I will wait until she is finished. We might talk about what happened afterwards and I will ask if I can do anything to help. My goal is to be with her while she is sad, just as much as I want to be present in her happiness. I am hoping that she will learn that negative emotions are a transient experience, part of being human, and nothing to be afraid of.
The more challenging one for me to navigate was my child’s anger. Allowing her the time and space to be angry, and then showing her how to calm down, with some support. With anger, I noticed I felt less fear and more embarrassment - the feeling that other people will judge my child as unpleasant, or me as an incompetent parent. On closer inspection, anger is a response to so many things - pain, frustration, disappointment, and lack of connection. These are all normal human emotions, and it is important that we teach our child how to identify and communicate them to us, so that we can help and role model healthier ways to express them. Berating or threatening a child when they feel anger or frustration does not help us understand our child any better. It does not allow them to process their emotions. It teaches dysfunctional responses including suppression and shame.
In my journey with a three year old I have felt more exposed, more vulnerable, and more exhausted than I knew possible. And perhaps the biggest, loudest message (and blessing) I have received is that parenting is rarely about an issue with our child, and is almost always about an issue with us. The better we understand our own insecurities, fears and conditioning, the better we will parent. In the end, the goal is not to raise an ‘obedient child’, it is to go with them on the wonderful and gut-wrenching journey of childhood, and help them become secure, mentally and emotionally stable adults. Next time your little one is squawk screaming at someone, take a moment to consider connection over correction.
Neha Sharma is a Mum and a Pediatric Respirologist.