Friday, June 14, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Thoughts on Obedience and Toddlers

I'm reading Quintilian's Instituio. Since I am (most certainly) not reading for these exams in a vacuum and am instead doing so while simultaneously teaching summer classes and parenting a very active toddler, some of the passages in these texts hit me in unique ways. For this book, the passage that got me distracted from my own scholarly pursuits and wandering into thoughts in my personal life was this one:
My ideal pupil will absorb instruction with ease and will even ask some questions; but he will follow rather than anticipate his teacher. Precocious intellects rarely produce sound fruit. By the precocious I mean those who perform small tasks with ease and, thus emboldened, proceed to display all their little accomplishments without being asked. . . They have no real power and what they have is but of shallow growth: it is as when we cast seed on the surface of the soil: it springs up too rapidly, the blade apes the loaded ear, and yellows ere harvest time, but bears no grain. Such tricks please us when we contrast them with the performer's age, but progress soon stops and our admiration withers away.
Uh-oh. I fear that I am raising a child Quintilian would say has sprung too rapidly.

And yes, I realize that Quintilian is writing thousands of years ago and that his words probably aren't the most relevant when it comes to contemporary parenting advice, but I suspect most parents reading that passage can think of some pretty similar admonishments in modern times.

Hobo Mama had a recent post that bounces off of this very concern. In it, her parenting style came into direct conflict with her own mother's. When her son wanted to wear a pair of shoes on his hands, the grandmother became frustrated and handled the incident with firmness:
But my mom stepped in. "1 - 2 - 3," she counted (as if Mikko knew what counting means in disciplinary terms!). She snatched the Crocs off his hands, opened the car door and threw them in, locked it with the key fob, and marched away without looking back. "There."
When Lauren (whose blog is about natural parenting and who frequently talks about the gentle discipline methods she believes in that encourage discussion and choices over authoritarian command) confronted her mother about stepping into her parenting boundaries, the confrontation continued:
"Mom," I said, trying to keep my stupid voice from breaking, "we were handling the situation. I don't appreciate it when you step in and take over like that. We're his parents, not you." 
My mother gave this hardly a beat before she came back with her response: "Well, you sure don't act like the parent."
And if you want to see how downright hostile some are to kids and their childish behavior (because they're kids, after all), just check the comments of any thread on child bans in things like restaurants or airplanes.

The latest one making headlines is a Virginia sushi bar that allows no children under 18. The most up-voted comment of the moment is this one:
If people didn't let their kids run around like animals we wouldn't need to ban kids!
To which some wonderfully enlightened person shares frustration over not being legally allowed to spank another person's children in public.

Speaking of spanking, there is probably no other parenting topic that raises to such vitriolic levels so quickly (and I've been in breastfeeding debates, so that's saying something). Just go read the comments over on an article about the debate for evidence.

It's pretty clear that the belief that unruly children need to be disciplined into submission is still alive and kicking in contemporary parenting philosophies.

I don't spank my child, and I've been chastised for that decision. To be fair, Quintilian is on my side on this one, saying "I disapprove of flogging, although it is the regular custom . . . it is a disgraceful form of punishment. . . an insult, as you will realise if you imagine its inflicting at a later age."

But it's clear that even many people who agree that hitting a child isn't the best method of discipline are looking for ways to make children more obedient. And obedience is at the core of Quintilian's dismissal of precocious children. Children should, in his estimation, wait on the teacher, ask only a few questions, and be ready to take in the given information dutifully and obediently.

But is obedience really such a good thing?

Crayon on walls

Last year Annalisa Barbieri suggested that maybe it wasn't. Within that article, she notes:
Alfie Kohn, author of 'Unconditional Parenting. Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason' says, "When I ask parents, at the beginning of my lectures, what their long term goals are for the children, I hear words such as ethical, compassionate independent happy and so on. No-one ever says mindlessly compliant." 
A compliant child becomes a particular concern, Kohn admits, when they reach adolescence. "If they take their orders from other people, that may include people we may not approve of. To put it the other way around: kids who are subject to peer pressure at its worst are kids whose parents taught them to do what they're told."
Many other people, especially those within the attachment parenting or gentle parenting movements, have similarly questioned our insistence on obedience.

This post from Liberated Parenting suggests that we ask ourselves why we should praise a quality in children (obedience) that we tend to see as a weakness in adults:
A more appropriate goal for our children would be cooperation. Cooperation strengthens the underlying fabric of relationships through balanced interchange, open communication and mutual understanding. Demanding obedience damages the relationship as well as the self esteem of the child. A child that is cooperated with tends to want to cooperate in return! The child who has no will to choose has no room to develop self discipline and becomes the child you were trying to avoid in the first place.
Socially, though, there isn't a lot of room for this kind of parenting. It is also utterly exhausting. I try really, really hard to focus on cooperation with my child instead of making her blindly bend to my will, but I sometimes fail. When I'm trying to get her out of daycare and we need to be home because there are 10,000 more things to do before we can go to bed, she wants to drink water from the fountain, say goodbye to the fish, put every single doll back in its respective bed, run into every room to say good-bye to every teacher, get another drink, say goodbye to the fish again, take the dolls out of the beds and throw them all over the floor, get another drink, put them back in the bed, hug her teacher again, say goodbye to the fish, open the first door to get outside, run around the lobby, open the second door to get outside, open the car door on her own (which she can't physically do), climb into the car seat by herself (which she also can't physically do), pick a book off the floor of the car, read it, get into the car seat, buckle it herself, and then listen to a song of her choosing.

I'd be lying to you if I said that I always reason through all of these choices with her even though they each, individually, make perfect sense and I think demonstrate her to be a kind, independent, and loving person. I want a child who wants to hug her teachers and say goodbye to the fish. I want a child who wants to be independent in what she does. But when that means that it takes 35 minutes to do something as simple as leave daycare? Sometimes I pick her up, screaming, after the second drink of water, walk out the doors, and plop her kicking into the car seat. In that moment, obedience sounds pretty nice.

Toddlerhood is but a fleeting moment in life, though, and I truly think that the same qualities that drive me absolutely crazy today will be the ones that give her the skills to make good decisions later.

She will probably never be the student that Quintillian would want. She will likely ask too many questions. She will almost certainly play up the room for laughs when she ought to be paying attention, but I am not ready to cast her off as a shallow, fruitless crop just yet.

yellow grass

Photo: Bernhard Schwarz, Mario in arte Akeu

1 comment:

  1. Alas, I was such a child. And as I approach fifty... well, I wish I had more sound fruit to show for these many years. But I have always raised my son in a "first among equals" style. He will soon be entering his teens, and I pray that I did right by him.