Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Boy on the Burning Deck

***

Uncle OT or The Visitor as he's known to some, sent me this link
to a news article from The Guardian and asked me if I could do a post on what I thought of the subject. Looks like he's been mailing other bloggers, too! (I get the vague feeling of being back in composition class in school!)

The article is on obedience and why it's not necessarily a good thing in children. Ah well. To start with, I'm not a big fan of studies like these. Ten years down the line, it's very likely that someone else will find out that obedience makes your heart last longer or gives you a third kidney. But in any case, since I'm a parent and all and therefore qualified to be opinionated, I shall air my views.

Obedience works on hierarchy. Basically, somebody who is bigger/richer/older tells someone else who is smaller/poorer/younger what to do and expects the latter to follow those instructions because the former knows better (by virtue of being bigger/richer/older). It's a different thing when this is an employer-employee situation because the employee is paid to obey (even then, we must Facebook at work). 

As far as obedience in parenting is concerned, it is all about someone who is bigger and older telling someone who is smaller and younger what to do. As children, we're all taught to obey our elders and we're also duly made to read a hundred moral stories in which an annoying boy called Ramu with a neat haircut wins a medal for being obedient. But life is rarely as simple as a Ramu story. 

Funnily, the value of disobedience was taught to me by none other than my mother. When I was in Class I or so, we had this story called The Boy on the Burning Deck in our English reader. Now the actual story has a war background and all, but the story in our reader was simply about a boy on a ship who was standing on its deck because his father had asked him to do so. The ship bursts into flames for some vague reason and the father dies off. But this painful boy, instead of escaping when given a chance, chooses to stand on the deck and die because his father told him to stand there and not move. As five-year-olds, we were all expected to burst into tears at the death of this very noble child. My mother, after explaining the story to me, told me very clearly that in the event of a fire, she hoped I wouldn't be an idiot and stand somewhere just because she'd told me to. 

When we talk about how important it is for adults to cultivate obedience in their children, we assume that the adults in question are wise individuals who know and understand the world. Sadly, this is not always the case. Age, in my opinion, is rarely a qualification for wisdom. Everything around us ages, including the furniture, and one does not automatically become wise by defeating death one extra year. If this had been the case, we wouldn't have so many old people spending a good amount of time calculating the number of minutes by which their morning coffee was delayed because their modern daughter-in-law woke up only at 6 AM. Unless a person actively chooses to grow from life, the years do nothing to his/her intellect. Old people are just like young people. Some are wise, some are not. Some are painful, some are fun. 

Similarly, with parents, not all parents know what's best for their children just because they are parents. I'd like to distinguish between good behaviour and obedience here. Good behaviour is to do with social interactions. A child who insists on keeping his/her shoes on and jumping on somebody's white couch, in my opinion, deserves a whack (okay, a very light whack AFTER you've told the kid to geddofff a million times...don't call Childline yet). Good behaviour is necessary to cultivate in children because otherwise, we'll have a world full of unbearable adults whom we can't even whack. An intelligent child will figure out pretty quickly that good behaviour often works in its favour if the parents are supportive, appreciative, and exhibit good behaviour themselves. 

Obedience, on the other hand, works on the principle of threat and becomes a personality trait. It is a 'do-this-or-else' hierarchy and if the child falls in line all the time, it simply does not get the chance to think for itself. A well-behaved child needn't always obey what his/her parents say. Likewise, a poorly-behaved child could very well take up Engineering because mommy told him to.  As parents, we all have an idea about what we want our child to be. This is not wrong. But it's equally important to encourage the child to figure out what it wants to be. When you become a parent, your entire world shrinks to that of your child's. You are forever occupied in trying to do your best for it. For your child, however, the world is expanding and you are increasingly becoming irrelevant. This is inevitable and should be so. Even though I consider myself to be pretty broadminded, I'm quite sure GBM will someday shock and scare me by wanting to do and doing things that I wouldn't have done myself. It would be okay in her world and not okay in mine. And that should be okay.

When a child is old enough to have opinions (and even my two-month old has opinions on which part of the house she wants to tour), there will be instances when disagreements occur. But even if you disagree, do it with respect. Be willing to consider the possibility that your child might be right even if you don't understand how. Parents are often dismissive and forget the fact that children remember. If you are not willing to consider your child's opinion because s/he is a pipsqueak, remember that you are setting an example for the child who will not consider yours because you are an old fogy. And worse, you might bring up a child who does not value anybody's opinion.

I thought back to my own childhood when OT sent me this link and tried to imagine what my life would have been like if I'd been obedient and listened to everything that my parents, teachers and elders had told me. I concluded that I'd have been an unhappy Physics school teacher who had no clue about her subject. 

Moral: When there is a fire, get the hell out of there.








Link

113 comments:

The Visitor said...

Thanks GB. Needless to say that your ideas are fresh and original as can be.

Well finally a story with a moral from you. :)

Anonymous said...

Amen to that

dipali said...

Amen to that indeed!

murali said...

Just an observation .. while growing up .. and even to this day.. I've observed that obedience for most of the parents stems from their egos... The parents' egos are HUGE and they need constant fuel and obedience of the children is the fuel that keeps the egos burning.

I have also come across parents with almost no egos who let their kids be.. just be themselves.. who act as guides rather than directors.

Yeah, that was the term a friend of mine used to describe his parents as ... Writers, directors and producers of the movie called his life. They tell you what to talk, they tell you how to behave and act .. and they obviously pay for you for doing all that.

I always felt sad when I used to listen to him say this. We were in 10th then... it was 1995.. Its been almost more than 10 yrs since he visited his parents now.

I somehow can't comprehend the relationship between a parent and a child based on obedience. It somehow just does not seem right.

Reading your post brought back LOTs of memories. Before my comment becomes longer than your post, let me stop now.

Sinduja said...

Hi GB,

Thought-provoking post!

"Basically, somebody who is bigger/richer/older tells someone else who is smaller/poorer/younger what to do and expects the latter to follow those instructions"

Hmmm. The way I see it, obedience dates way back to a time and age before all this happens - to the time we are infants. Okay, a psychologist by training (In short, I am the freak who would come up with research later that says obedience will make you live longer or get the skin fairer) So pl bear with the rant :D

Infants are far more intelligent than we think them to be. In short, your little girl out there is noticing and absorbing far more things in complex ways and forming her own meanings out of them than you can imagine. Also, they are very dependent and guess what, they know that. So, they want to impress the provider and be loved by them - they WILL try doing things that they have observed elicits positive reactions - even without you telling them. This is the first form of obedience.

As time goes and they grow up, it is important we let them know that we will love them no matter what and that obedience should not be based on impressing someone but on ethics and morals of what is good for people and ourselves. It is important a parent does this.

All the rebellious children out there - well, they are being obedient too - only to different things; things which they feel will get them love.

My Era said...

While I totally agree with the moral, I actually agree with your full post too.
It's the fine line between good behavior and obedience that parents blinded by the desire to 'control' fail to see.I too am a parent and wish to remember at all times what you so aptly said in your post :)

R's Mom said...

loved loved loved what you wrote...its so true...I remember this story and my appa telling me the same thing...jump when you have to...it doesnt make sense to stand when there is fire around!

and yes there is a lot of difference between good behaviour and obedience :)

GB said...

@The Visitor- Thank you :D I do have morals, you know. Just that they are my own.

@Anon and Dipali- :)

@Murali- I agree...there are some parents out there who are incredibly controlling. Then they wonder why and how their children hate them. I've known some really nice kids who've been pretty much screwed over by their parents too. It IS sad.

@Sinduja- Not for a moment do I consider my two-month old to be simple-minded :D I'm with her all day and all night and the number of ways in which she communicates is incredible. She already plays some tricks on us. Like when I feed her and she's had enough, she likes lying in my arms for a bit. If somebody else tries to pick her up then, she pretends that she wants to feed some more though she doesn't want to. She actually ACTS...though she's so tiny. And yes, I do agree that children try to win approval from their parents by following them...which is why I'd said an intelligent child will figure out good behaviour pretty quickly.

I was the problem child in my house and I'm pretty glad I turned out the way I am. Hopefully, I'll remember that throughout my parenting years :)

@My Era- I'm writing all this down so that GBM can remind me of my own words someday if I act like a dictator :D

@R's Mom- No wonder your stories are much more entertaining :D

Anonymous said...

Intelligent discontent is the source of growth.Resistance to unjust demands is a natural tendency even in small children.only being rebellious for the sake of it is stupid.so is blind obedience.
If it is possible to teach a child the difference between pleasing and loving a lot of friction can be avoided.It sounds simple enough but it is going to be a long lesson in humility.

And when GBM shocks you you may not take it easy even if you are prepared,but take it!

Indian Home Maker said...

It's so amazing to read something you always understood and felt very strongly about put so wisely, so clearly and so logically into words!!!!

Saintly Sita said...

GounderB,

Now that Swami Nityananda's exit has left a vacancy in the guru market, why not don saffron robes and give India's much put upon youngsters a voice?

How about becoming a young people's guru?

Be assured that your take on parenting will be fervently rejected by the "we are your parents, we know best" brigade.

They will be provided "outside support" by the "wait till you reach our age, you will know then" brigade.

If there is one lesson I have learnt watching the antics of "older, wiser folk" around me, it is this:

When I hit the twilight years, I will compulsively watch re-runs of Golden Girls on YouTube.

I will be Blanche Devereaux personified; and will saunter about the house, martini in hand and a man on my mind!

I will NOT hector younger people on "Indian culture" and "ancient tradtions".

Instead, I will waste my time reading TinTin, Percy Jackson and Asterix and Obelix (which I will steal from libraries).

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