Gadfly on the Wall: Teaching Blind Obedience is Child Abuse
My daughter is not a little soldier.
She does not jump at my orders.
She can be rude, crude and badly behaved.
But I wouldn’t want her any other way – because the alternative is worse.
The same goes for my middle school students.
If you enter my classroom, you may find some children questioning my assignments.
“Mr. Singer, why can’t we chew gum in class?”
“Mr. Singer, why do you give so much homework?”
“Mr. Singer, why do we have to write a rough draft? Why can’t we just write a final copy?”
But you’ll notice my students almost always call me “Mr. Singer.” The reason is trust and respect.
Over time we’ve formed a relationship with each other where they’ve learned to respect me as their teacher and I have tried to earn that trust by treating them kindly and giving good reason for the things I tell them to do.
They are obedient (for the most part), but not BLINDLY obedient.
That may sound like splitting hairs but it’s one of the most important distinctions in education.
When someone knows WHY they’re doing something, they are an agent – they are responsible for their own actions. They are self-disciplined – not drones acting without thinking solely because they were told to do so.
That is incredibly important.
Think of what blind obedience does to adults.
American historian Howard Zinn famously put it this way:
“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders… and millions have been killed because of this obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… [and] the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”
When I was a college undergraduate, I was unsure what to major in and I began my undergraduate work in psychology. Of all the things I learned in those early survey classes before changing course to writing, philosophy and (after a career in journalism) education, the lesson I’ll never forget is the groundbreaking 1961 study by Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist.
Milford famously wondered how many people would willingly comply if a person in a position of authority told university students to deliver a 400-volt electrical shock to another person. His students predicted that no more than 3% of participants would deliver the maximum shocks. However, when he actually conducted the experiment, 65% delivered the maximum shocks.
During the experiment, each subject was asked to press a button that they believed gave increasingly high voltage electric shocks to the student on the other side of a wall if the student gave the wrong answer to a teacher’s questions. It should be noted that the students on the other side of the wall did not actually receive shocks, but the participants BELIEVED that they truly were shocking their fellow students by pressing the button.
Many of the subjects, while believing that the student was actually receiving shocks and hearing their protests and cries for mercy – including complaints of a heart condition – became increasingly agitated and even angry at the experimenter. Yet 36 out of 40 people, in turn, continued to do what they were instructed to do all the way to the end. Even when the student became silent when apparently receiving a shock from a switch labeled “danger: severe shock”, the subject continued based on the instruction that silence is to be read as a wrong answer.
This experiment (which would be highly unethical today) has become a classic in psychology, demonstrating the dangers of obedience.
“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
In fact, these experiments were inspired by history – specifically by the Nazi, Adolph Eichmann, who defended himself at the Nuremberg Trials by saying that he was simply following orders when he commanded the deaths of millions of Jews during the Holocaust.
This is what blind obedience gets us – a society of Nazis willing to do anything if told to do so by the proper authorities.
Parents and teachers are in a delicate situation then.
We’re responsible for guiding children into adulthood, and that often does require a measure of obedience. The question is how to get there without stripping away a child’s agency? How to get children to do generally what is necessary for their learning while still leaving their independence intact?
Let’s be honest – schools play an essential role in teaching obedience. It’s a critical life skill that helps children learn to follow rules and directions. Without obedience, adolescents would have difficulty following rules at home, at school, and in society.
One of the ways schools teach obedience is through rules and consequences. When children break rules, they face consequences such as being sent to the principal’s office, getting detention or being suspended. Such consequences help children learn that there are repercussions for their actions.
Schools also teach obedience through modeling. Teachers and administrators try to set good examples for children by obeying rules, themselves. When children see adults following the rules, they are more likely to do so themselves.
Finally, schools teach obedience through positive reinforcement. When children do the right thing, they are rewarded with praise, stickers, or other incentives. This positive reinforcement helps children learn that obedience is a good thing and that it is something that should be rewarded.
However, as children grow older, it is just as vital that teachers and parents not only foster obedience but also critical thinking about that obedience.
When a child questions a rule (and they will question it), we should not instantly meet that questioning with negativity or shock. We should calmly and rationally answer.
We should not get angry at questions, we should welcome them. Questioning should be a part of instruction because as educators and parents we should not want blind obedience. We should want trust and understanding.
As Albert Einstein said, “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.”
I was reminded of this when watching the recent documentary “Shiny Happy People” about the Duggar family. The brood of religious fundamentalist Christians made their TV debut in 2004, going on to become a household name with their TLC show “19 Kids and Counting,” presenting Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their ever-expanding household as a seemingly “perfect” family.
However, behind the scenes, the family’s theocratic hierarchy led to sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, which was allegedly brushed aside by their church.
In 2015, it was revealed that the Duggars’ eldest son, Josh James, had molested numerous underage girls, including four of his siblings, when he was aged 14 to 15. These revelations led to the cancellation of “19 Kids and Counting.” In 2021, Josh was arrested after police discovered he had been receiving and was in possession of child pornography.
The family belongs to the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a nondenominational Christian sect that serves as an umbrella organization for several ministries founded by minister Bill Gothard in 1961.
According to the documentary, IBLP teachings require absolute obedience. Authority is distributed in various circles – God being the highest authority, followed by the family’s father, etc. Women are considered to be among the lowest forms of authority. In fact, two of Josh’s sisters who he had abused were even made to go on TV to speak in defense of their abuser.
We hear a lot of propaganda from religious fundamentalists about how public schools groom students into being politically liberal. However, teaching blind obedience is the true grooming. It is setting people up to become victims of anyone who they perceive as having authority over them.
This is what made the Duggar children ready made victims for their own brother. It sets children up to be easily abused, gaslit, fooled and dominated.
And in doing research on this topic, I found many articles defending absolute obedience by reference to the Bible. The idea that authority is a hierarchy and we should simply follow the instructions of those above us in that hierarchy is as rampant as it is perverted.
Any discipline adults give to children should be in service of them eventually becoming independent and self-disciplined. That means being able to make independent choices about their own behavior without prompting from an adult.
There is a difference between being self-disciplined and being obedient.
A self-disciplined child will complete an action, regardless of who is watching. She will do the behavior because it is the right thing to do. In contrast, an obedient child may follow directions to please a parent, to avoid a consequence or to receive a reward. Being obedient is following directions or commands from an adult. It is exhibiting “good behavior” when an adult is present. Meanwhile, having self-discipline is making those choices without the presence or reminders from adults.
It may be tempting to see children marching in line or sitting calmly with their hands in their laps and consider that an ideal. But as children grow, we must learn to tolerate more frequent independence.
In fact, we must do more than tolerate it. We must cherish it.
The opposite is so much worse.
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