Obedience or Responsibility?

Obedience or Responsibility? 

“Discipline” originally meant teaching/learning, in Latin (“disciplina”). Thus, the word disciple. So, your discipline system is teaching your children something, and they are learning something. Every relationship, and every family too, has some kind of a discipline system in place, whether the expectations (“rules”) and the consequences that flow from actions are spelled out clearly, or never discussed. Patterns of action and behavior develop and are repeated with much regularity, so that everybody kind of knows “what to expect,” even if the thing that’s expected is something like, “You never know what to expect.” That’s an expectation, isn’t it: “lack of consistency.” A discipline system with a lack of consistency can be called “confusing,” and if it’s really confusing over a long period of time, you could consider it to be “chaotic.”

Thus, whatever your approach to discipline is–confusing, chaotic, organized, clear, consistent, persistent–you are teaching your children something about your expectations and how you approach rewards and punishment for good and bad behavior. You might unknowingly be teaching them that “Mom and dad never notice anything good that I do, only my failures,” or perhaps, “Mom and dad actually notice and appreciate the good things I do.” In the final analysis, since the parents are the architects of their own Harmony House (or perhaps “DISharmony House”), your discipline system is constantly teaching your children about you, and about how you regard them.”

So the question arises, “Do you want to be teaching your children that you primarily want obedience from them, or that you primarily want responsibility from them?

If it’s obedience, your discipline system is most likely based on “do as I say,” “I’m the boss,” “My house, my rules,” “My house, my rules,” “Because I said so,” “Father knows best,” etc. You might be expecting obedience, even if your expectations (“rules”) are inconsistent or age-inappropriate.

On the other hand, the question also arises, “Do you want to be teaching your children that you primarily value responsible choices on their part?” If so, your system could be based on mutual agreements about age-appropriate expectations, parental monitoring of child behavior (without overdoing it and without nagging, demanding, and yelling), and your consistent administration of consequences.

I certainly prefer a discipline system that aims to teach children responsibility rather than mere compliance (obedience) to parental dictates. Why? Teaching responsibility involves dialogue with the kids and helps them think for themselves, monitor their own behavior, and think about consequences to their actions prior to engaging in them. Then, when the consequences arrive, they are much more likely to accept them and recognize them as fair and just, because they themselves were involved in setting them up in the first place. On the other hand discipline that aims primarily at obedience teaches kids that the parents think they cannot think for themselves, can’t monitor their own behavior and be held accountable (i.e., be responsible for it), and cannot be expected to accept the consequences.

“Responsible” (according to Miriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition) means:
a) Able to answer for one’s conduct and obligations (trustworthy);
b) Able to choose for oneself between right and wrong.

If the discipline system teaches children that they are expected to be responsible (rather than obedient), then the child learns that the parent(s) will expect an explanation for behavior that violates the “rules,” and that the parent(s) are willing to listen to such explanations and give them serious consideration in determining whether breaking the “rule” was warranted. The child learns to be honest and open in answering for their conduct and obligations because the parent is willing to listen to explanations, which are not “blown off” by the parent as mere “excuses,” which is what they are if the parental expectation is merely for compliance (obedience). In this way, as Webster says, the child learns to be “trustworthy,” or worthy of trust. This helps the parent (and others) learn to trust the child, and expect honesty instead of excuses, lies, blaming others, etc.

You might notice I often put the word “rules” in quotes. That’s because if “rules” in any relationship, or in a family, are developed the way I propose , that means they are really “agreements” that are reached through dialogue between all parties involved. The dialogue involves the parent’s a) listening to the kids’ ideas, and b) communicating, or illustrating, their own expectations to the kids. These are a) the foundation, and b) the living space of Harmony House. They provide a solid structure upon which c) the roof , which is discipline, can rest securely.

The parent’s own behavior and spoken expectations always teach children what you think is right and wrong. You really don’t need to try to teach kids what’s right and wrong by punishing them (which is something I often hear from parents as their justification for rather cruel or exaggerated punishments). They learn what’s right and wrong just by watching and listening to you.

Here are some tips on how to achieve a RESPONSIBILITY-BASED DISCIPLINE SYSTEM. For each expectation (“rule,” agreement) in the system follow this formula with the involvement of your child.

1. Have as few “rules” as possible, and make them be about your most important concerns.

2. Start a dialogue with the child(ren) with “I-messages.” E.g., “I have a problem (or a concern), and I would like your help in finding a solution. Then describe for the child what you see as the problem that needs a solution–without presenting a solution.

3. With the child, assess the situation and determine whether s/he understands what the problem is. They might not, because it might only be a problem for you, not them.

4. Invite thoughtful input from the child (i.e., constructive suggestions), about what some reasonable solutions to the problem might be. “Do you have any ideas about what should be done?”

5. Acknowledge whatever responses the child gives you. Don’t blow them off, even if the ideas sound silly. You might ask, “Are you serious?” Or you might say, “Well, that’s certainly one idea, but let’s see if you can come up with more.”

6. Afer listing possible solutions, craft a solution that is agreeable to both you and the child, and invite the child’s agreement about what the solution (or “rule”) should be. (This agreement represnts their commitment to it.)

7. Since it’s an important “rule,” go through the same process regarding the consequences–both positive AND negative–for following or not following it.

8. Monitor the child’s behavior–without nagging. One-word reminders are okay.

9. Administer consequences fairly, using your best judgement. Be consistent, persistent, and don’t argue. Their observation of the “rule” needs to meet your satisfaction.

10. If the child wishes to renegotiate all or part of a “rule” or consequence at any time, be open to listening to what they have to say. Then take it from there.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

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