Obedience Training is Unfit for Children

Genevieve Simperingham – January 19, 2018

Who would want to train children to be obedient, when we can bring them up to be discerning, critical thinkers with a highly developed capacity for big picture thinking, for empathy for self and others and to value integrity and what feels right above the directions of authority figures?

Children who are trained to be obedient are often too busy either trying to stay in the good books or feel too misunderstood and defensive to think things through clearly, including how their actions affect other people.  Their motivation is to evade punishments rather than do what feels right.  Authoritarian parenting conditions children to believe that they should do what they’re told whether they like it or not, whether it feels good or bad, and to not “talk back”.

It’s difficult for most adults to challenge authority figures if they weren’t allowed to challenge their own parent.  Obedience training can lead to a susceptibility to being unduly influenced by peers or authority figures as children, adolescents and later as adults.

To have the courage to express our concerns and opinions in the face of authority or peer pressure, we need to be able to stay strong and overall at peace in ourselves.  Most of us want this for our children, especially as they reach the teenage years! 

To act from integrity and do what feels right despite pressure to conform to the norm or to authority, we need to be balanced and centred enough to make decisions based on considering the needs and feelings of others while also considering our own feelings and needs.

Research into the effects of civil obedience

In recent decades, there’s been many interesting social studies exploring human behaviour and what influences a person’s tendency to act ethically or responsibly or not.   A famous ground breaking study by Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist in 1961 paved the way for many more, which have uncovered very similar results.  When Milgram asked university students to guess how many people would willingly comply if a person in a position of authority told them to deliver a 400-volt electrical shock to another person, they predicted that no more than 3% of participants would deliver the maximum shocks.  In reality, 65% delivered the maximum shocks.

During the experiment, each subject was asked to press a button that they believed delivered increasingly high voltage electric shocks to the “student” on the other side of the wall if they gave the wrong answer to the “teacher’s” questions.  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 shock from a switch labelled “danger: severe shock” the subject continued based on the instruction that silence is to be read as a wrong answer.

Milgram’s experiment 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” (Milgram, 1974).

Milgram’s experiments were inspired initially by the defence of the German Nazi, Adolph Eichmann, that he was simply following instructions when he ordered the deaths of millions of Jews at the post World War II trial.

More recently in the U.S. a hoax caller pretending to be a police officer requesting the manager’s cooperation with an apparent investigation of a staff member accused of stealing, managed to convince managers to strip search and humiliate their staff.  A teenage victim in response to why she complied despite her distress said: ‘My parents taught me when an adult tells you to do something that’s what you do. You don’t argue, you listen.”  Her boss who conducted the strip search when interviewed said “I’m thinking ‘okay I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing here’”.  She’s not alone in holding the unchallenged belief that following the instructions of an authority figure is a definition of “doing what I’m supposed to do”.

The first relationships create the template for future relationships

However we treat our children, we are conditioning them to believe that this is what’s normal and acceptable in relationships.  The above examples stand out as being particularly shocking, yet the bully-victim relationship commonly plays out in homes, schools, workplaces, in politics and between countries.  Until the authoritarian punishment based system is understood to be dysfunctional at best and often dangerous, it continues to be the elephant in the room as Individuals compete and blame each other.  People of all ages whose actions negatively impact another generally know that it doesn’t feel good, doesn’t feel right.  It’s so hard for individuals, for parents at home with their children, to break away from this cycle, especially if it was the “normal” that they grew up in.  Yet early childhood conditioning operates automatically unless we put a lot of hard work into exploring, re-evaluating and challenging the beliefs that no longer serve us.

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