That is the question. At least for today.

Is having our children obey really an important thing to insist on as a parent? Should are kids always obey us even if they don’t want to say or do something?

Children are innately social. They will naturally want to follow our lead and even obey. Of course there is a time when autonomy comes into play and our children want to make their own choices and do things without our help. Although they will feel the strong need for autonomy, I don’t think children lose their sense of following our lead. I think that only gets lost when trust and attachment are diminished. 

When you punish, coerce and otherwise manipulate children you slowly lose their trust. They can’t trust that if they tell you the truth you won’t be mad or punish. They can’t trust that you won’t shame or coerce them if they tell you “no” after being asked to do something.

Many books out there will use the example of an emotional bank account when explaining how trust works with others. You can withdraw, withdraw, withdraw but eventually you’ll have nothing left. You really need to deposit as much trust as often as possible so when you are having a bad day or in a difficult situation, your withdrawal won’t effect the overall trust your child has in you. 

It’s so hard to read about parents wanting their children to obey at all costs. Respecting our children as individuals who have needs and wants that may not parallel our own should be accepted and worked with. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of the parents getting creative in order to get what they want. Assuming of course that what they want isn’t simply to have the child obey

What if a parent wants toys picked up and a tidy room? They may ask the children for help cleaning up but if they are replied with a “no”, perhaps the parents should simply do it themselves without further commentary. When children are not coerced and routinely receive help when they ask, they will likely take part in the requested task. Of course one must develop mutual trust for their kids to feel safe in complying on their own accord. To force a child to help will not foster enjoyment in helping others, but instead creates resentment and no doubt hinder future requests for help. 

If it’s too much work for the parents to tidy the room all the time, perhaps there are too many toys. That’s not to say that toys should be taken away as punishment or under the disguise of a psuedo choice the children have made in not choosing to tidy up their toys the way the parents wish. 

Kid’s participation should not be imposed on them, rather they should be taking part out of their own interest and desire. It’s important that our children be able to make choices. It’s critical that they learn to be honest about their feelings, needs and wants as well as to understand their own feelings, needs and wants. We don’t want to raise kids who are merely followers. We want them to be able to say “no” even when it’s not easy.

10 Responses to To Obey or Not to Obey

  1. paxye says:

    Great post!!
    That is such a hard concept to realize and accept and even now there are times that it’s still a struggle because it is such the opposite of the way we were raised…

  2. Lindsay says:

    Great post Annie! I am constantly amazed at how willing to help and cooperative Meredith is most of the time. I know I shouldn’t be, but like Paxye, I was raised to think children will do whatever it takes to get out of doing work or helping out. And now she’s already doing things without me asking. She was playing with her little veggie set the other day, and then I couldn’t find it. I realized she had put it away where we normally keep it with no help or prompting from me. There are occasionally times when I just wish she would do what I ask when I ask, but I try to step back and think about why I feel that way. It’s a bit of an adjustment having another person with her own wants and needs in the equation!

  3. Krista says:

    This is resonating so strongly with me I want to jump out of my chair. This is why I love our conversations. Clear, honest, devoid of “nice making”… truth. I especially loved the emotional bank account analogy which I hadn’t heard before and will use from this day on.

    Also I loved this “When you punish, coerce and otherwise manipulate children you slowly lose their trust”. A heartbreaking reality that the general population does not want to acknowledge… and so simply stated. Maybe we could lobby for this quote to be included on the front of the packet of pamphlets of advertising and other unnecessary crap given to new parents when leaving the hospital with their brand new infant. Or better yet, on the hospital wrist bands? Now I’m getting silly, but can you imagine if?

    I think the mantra I want to live by, that I want to try harder at sticking to each day, is: do unto my children as I would have done unto myself. Do I want to be ‘prompted’ to say things I don’t mean? Do I want to be forced or coerced to do things I don’t want to do? Will ‘forcing’ me make me a better person? No. No. and No. My only response to these things would be deep-seeded resentment and mistrust and… defiance and depression!

    I had a friend disagree with me once about prompting to apologize to others. Her philosophy was “fake it til you make it”. Really? I am in total disagreement. I don’t believe we can learn and develop the values of caring for others, respecting others etc. on the basis of ‘faking it’. Do we really want to develop our inner, most compassionate selves by regurgitating meaningless autopilot responses because someone forced us to? No.

    We need only have some good, consistent examples around us so that we can tap into our true, empathic selves. And the foundation of being able to tap into ourselves, un-distracted by fear of punishment, etc. is trust. The child needs to trust that they are safe. Safe to make their own mistakes and choices. Safe to learn from them. Not just safe from being beaten, safe from being manipulated, safe from being coerced, safe from being ridiculed, safe from having love taken away from them (which is what I think is the only thing a child learns from being put in time-out: when I’m “bad”, I don’t deserve comfort from mama, I deserve to be “put away” from everyone).

    Okay, I could go on, but I might be better to get my breakfast. Thanks for the post, Annie. Keep em coming.

  4. M says:

    Thank you for your post. I am most earnest to learn from those who have more experience than I do. I am personally afraid that when I NEED them to help me with something they won’t. I mean, face it, I do all sorts of things everyday that I don’t want to do. Like change diapers or make supper when I am tired or sick. I do these things because I know that their needs NEED to be met. What do I do or how do I handle the feelings that come with them refusing to meet my needs? Like if I finally get to have the girls over for an evening and they refuse to help tidy or to even let me get what I need to get done.
    I am just scared that by letting them dictate what they want to and don’t want to get done that I’ll end up doing everything. This is not fair to me. For example, we have a small living room. They sure have fun taking all their toys out and spreading them everywhere but if they don’t tidy up their toys the place is impossible to relax in. You can’t even walk in there. And I don’t want to have to tidy up ALL of their toys. By the end of the day I am exhausted.
    I am just scared…:(

  5. paxye says:


    I have to say that by experience that children seem to go in phases of wanting to help and not… at first they seem to do it to show how “big” they are and show how they CAN do it and just really love being with us and helping… then they seem to go though a phase that they don’t want to want to do anything anymore and everything seems like a chore…. then they start doing things again (sometimes on a regular basis, sometimes just out of the blue)… but they do it because they just want to help…

    It should also be clear I think that not being forced to obey a command doesn’t mean that kids don’t do anything… there are also so many ways to ask kids for help without it ever being forced…

  6. Annie says:

    Thanks so much all of you for adding to the original post with your thoughts! It really helps better complete the thought.

    Paxye- I think that’s a good point to expand on. Even when not coerced to help and for the most part love to contribute, they may not always. The other day I asked Lily to help me find all the pieces to a toy. She said “Um, no. I’m going to sit by the window and watch for Dad to come home.” After I explained that he wouldn’t be home any time soon, she still didn’t want to help. Some time later she took up the task on her own.

    Krista- Yes. Yes. Yes. To all of that. Yes.

    M- Thanks so much for reading and commenting. This parenting thing is a journey and it seems like you’re at a fork in the road. Please excuse my taking liberties in saying this since we don’t really know each other. It just seems like where you’re at and because I think our destination is the same, I only hoped to nudge you in the right direction.

    It sounds like you have struggled long enough in not having your needs met that it feels more emphasised when they aren’t met in the moment. Kids aren’t meant to meet our needs and I’d even go so far as to say that it’s unfair to expect them to. Doing so only sets them up for failure and you for disappointment.

    When you talk about the room being impossible to be comfortable in if it’s not tidy, I wonder if your kids would agree. I bet they’re oblivious to the mess, apart from knowing that it makes mom angry when it’s that way. If you are the one that’s uncomfortable, I think you should be the one that makes it comfortable for yourself. Tending to your own needs for order will teach your children that it’s something you value and they may be more willing to do it on their own in the future. Forcing the children tidy the room in and effort to meet your needs teaches them that you are bigger and can make them do something they don’t want to. That if they don’t do it, you will not “love” them.

    When you talk about meeting the children’s needs, for diaper changes and making supper, it sounds like something you don’t want to do but have to. You feel forced. No one likes to feel forced. Anyway, we all have these basic needs like to be hygienic and fed but we also have other needs too. Here is a good list of real needs that your children, as well as yourself will have:

    As adults, we are responsible for our own feelings and needs. We can look to others to help meet our needs, with the effect on our feelings for the better, with clear requests but it still has to be willingly done in order for it to be real. It’s not truly mutual or fulfilling when force is used to get what you want.

    I would highly recommend the book Non Violent Communication, maybe above all other books. It really helps an individual tap in to their own needs and feelings and this is even more important as a parent because we sometimes need to empathise with ourselves and our unmet needs before we are able to respectfully and mutually deal with our children.

  7. Krista says:

    I just wanted to chime in with a quote I dearly love by Marshall B Rosenberg:

    “Do not do anything which you cannot do with the joy of a small child feeding a hungry duck.”

    M raises a common point – we often live under the oppressive perception that we “have to” do things, ie change diapers, make dinner, go to work. Underneath that unfortunate perception, if we are willing to explore a little deeper, we do find choice. Choices choices and more choices.

    I change Hillary’s diaper because it meets my need to care for her well-being. It meets her need for hygiene and health and comfort. I do not change her diaper because I have to, or I get a thrill out of it. But I do get an overall sense of satisfaction and peace, knowing that I am meeting other, bigger needs. I need her to be happy and well! I need to be committed to my role as her mother and care giver.

    Underneath everything we do, there is a need. We would not do something if it didn’t meet our needs of some kind. It takes some serious exploring and time and energy, but if we look at a behavior from this perspective, we can eventually pin down the needs that a child is trying to meet in their action. And because we all share the same universal needs a human beings, we are better able to empathize with them when we see behavior we don’t enjoy. Children DO behave in ways most of the time that help to meet their need for fun, stimulation, attention, learning, experimenting…. They do NOT share our need (to the degree that we do at least), for order, aesthetics, style…. They are at a point in their life where those needs are quite irrelevant.

    I would venture to list here some primary needs of children:

    to be heard

    Plenty more to add here, no doubt. The point is, although we do all share the same universal needs all the time, I believe that certain needs are emphasized for us at different ages and stages in life. And I am in agreement with Annie, and with the teachings of NVC that it is not up to our children to meet our personal needs for us. We need to take responsibility for meeting our own needs. That doesn’t mean we sit powerless and victimized. That is jackal consciousness. In NVC there is a key factor that can’t be emphasized enough: we are responsible for our own needs and for making requests to others that may support us in our needs. Requests with an openness to hearing no, possibly changing our request, asking someone else who may be willing, or asking another request altogether.

    In request, it helps to be very specific. “Look at this kitchen!! Can’t I get some help around this place??” is not likely to be received well. It doesn’t tell anyone what we want specifically. “Would you kids be willing to scrape your plates into the garbage and put them up beside the sink when you’re done eating….?” is specific, is right now, is doable. And they may say no. Or they may forget. Or they may do it. Either way, remember, whatever they choose is simply an attempt to meet a need of their own….

    One day, if provided with the modeling they need, you may be surprised to see that your children have a need to contribute to the wellness and happiness of others….they notice they have a need for cooperation and teamwork, as we all do. What is so important here is what we model while they’re growing….. not what we lecture them or tell them to do.

  8. Annie says:

    This is so much more thorough and thought out than I was able to share! Thanks so much for taking the time, Krista. This was so well put.

  9. kristen says:

    Thanks so much for the seeds-they arrived last week-but we have been sick/hurt/on vacation! I have the beginnings of Spring fever for my garden. Thank you soooo much!

  10. Annie says:

    Oh great Kristen. I was most worried about yours getting to you. I know you aren’t able to buy seeds from outside the states but I hoped as a gift it would be okay. It was one reason why I tried hard to send them as letter mail instead of a parcel.

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