Question Parents Ask About Their Children – How Much Independence? Obey Instantly?


From Questions Parents Ask About Their Children, Fr. Donald Miller, C.SS.R., 1950’s

How much independence should a child be allowed?  

The independence he needs to become a self-reliant, fully developed adult able to meet and solve the problems of life with competence and correctness. . . . .   The independence that is, not license, but controlled and directed initiative . . . . .   The independence that has in it respect for law and a prompt obedience coupled with encouragement toward candor, honesty, and the ability — proportionate to his age — to handle the affairs of his life.

Mothers who in great fondness for their children bind them to their waists sometimes do the children irreparable wrong.   Parents who make of their children little parrots will have parrots and not people.

Independence may be a good thing . . . . , and it may be bad.

A child should be encouraged to manage his toys, keep his own room and belongings tidy without constant direction and supervision.

He should be trusted to the degree in which he has justified trust. He is trusted in small things. If he stands up to that trust, the trust is increased. If he fails, while the trust is not immediately removed, he is corrected and warned that the punishment for further failure will be the withdrawal of trust.

He is praised when he does things well and on his own. He is encouraged to think out his own problems and to bring his answers or solutions to his parents. If his solutions are correct, he is again praised. If they are not correct, he is sent to think his problems over again . . . . , or he discusses them with his parents until he is led — without too much emphasis on the leading — to the right answers or solutions.

It is important that children do their own thinking — guided and directed but their actual thinking not done for them. It is important that they learn to feel responsible for small obligations and duties where their possessions are concerned, their associates, their brothers and sisters, the house.

It is a mistake for an adult to do a child’s homework for him. Homework can be a fine training in independent thinking and acting. If the parent does the homework, the parent might as well pick up the books the next day and go to school, leaving the child at home.

But helping a child by pointing out the methods and then letting the child do the actual work is something quite different.

A child should learn early some independence in the control of money. A few unrestricted pennies given him can in the course of time be increased to his allowance, which he learns to use wisely by his actual, gradual wise use of it.

It seems that a large part of the failures in marriage can be traced to children who were childishly dependent upon their parents and who as adults cannot stand on their own feet.

Certainly many a failure in business and the professions is a person who never got the training that might have made him a fully developed, mature individual.

That safe attainment of the adult stage is most important, and it requires on the part of parents skill and planning.

Do you think that children should obey on the instant, as they did thirty and more years ago? Or should we allow them to act as individuals rather than as rebels?

The records show that the Army and Navy had a tough time in World War II with the youth who had learned to take his time to think over a command.   A lot of training and some rigid, blind discipline were demanded before these young men learned to obey a command first and think about it afterward.

“Gold braid” in the Navy is a patently clear symbol. The man who wears it gets instant obedience. The reason for that is obvious: In battle, with ships and airplanes moving at lightning speed, there is no time to thresh out the rightness or the wrongness of an order. There is time only for action, obedient instant action.

So in the training for battle there are only three recognized answers: “Yes, sir!” “No, sir!” and “No excuse, sir!”

It seems strange that the very young people who take time to sit down and think over a parental order, obey with the response of an electric light to a switch whenever on the gridiron football field the quarterback gives a command and shouts a signal. Believe me the athletic coach of the winning team would be amazed if the athletes practiced on him the weighing and appraising of orders that are actually encouraged by some parents.

Let’s go back however to the parents.   Parents have the God-given right to command.   If they give stupid or silly or wrong orders, they are abusing their rights. They should not expect their children to obey this type of order with other than reluctance or bad grace.

If the commands are correct, valuable, helpful, and important, the parents have every right in the world to be obeyed — and promptly. There can be good reasons for the parents’ explaining, if there is plenty of time, why they have given a certain hard command. But parents have no slightest obligation to submit to the judgment of a child a command that is right and correct.

However parents may possibly have, even in their own way of thinking, a way of lumping under the head of commands directions that are not by any means entirely commands.

A parent may make a request: “Son, will you please go to the corner and pick up a package of biscuits for me?”

She may make a suggestion: “It looks as if it’s going to be a little chilly. It might be a good idea for you to wear your sweater.”

He may open a discussion: “Son, what do you think about your taking a turn wiping dishes for mother?”

He may issue a command: “Hereafter you will be in by eleven o’clock on Friday nights.”

To call all these very different things commands is to use language carelessly. The request for the biscuits is like any request that one civilized and well-mannered person makes to another.

Adults do not ask unreasonable favors of adults. A decent adult does not greet a polite request with a rude “No!”

Since parents are training their children for participation in social living, they try to make reasonable — and only reasonable — requests; they expect civil and courteous answers.   But a request is not a command.

The suggestion that the child wear a sweater remained in the realm of suggestion. It was not a command; hence to punish the boy if he did not wear his sweater would be to blame him for a not incorrect use of logic. He might answer the suggestion thus: “I’ll be too hot if I wear my sweater. I was out, and I found that it isn’t nearly so cold as it looks.” Reasonable enough, with the whole matter balanced by fact and argument.

If the parent turns this into a command, the whole matter is changed. But that parent is not too wise who constantly offers suggestions that are not suggestions at all but commands couched in delicate language.

A discussion is a discussion, whether between adult and adult or between adult and child. “What do you think about . . . .” was the form that the opening gambit about the dishes took. If his answer is, “I can’t, dad; I have homework . . . . .” or “At that time mother wants me to empty the scrap baskets,” he is only following an adult lead.

An appeal to his love of his mother should naturally lead to a generous response. But here too it is a suggestion calling for a free and reasonable response, not for obedience to a command.

The last statement — the hour at which the son or daughter is to be in on Friday nights is a command. I am taking it for granted that the reasons for the command are obvious or have been sufficiently clarified. The order is not given, I hope, out of the blue, with no reasons back of it, a command based merely on adult caprice.

The father is a reasonable adult and commands something that he knows is for the good of the boy or girl or the common good of the household. He may even have permitted a discussion on the matter prior to the command.

When the command comes however, the command is a command. A parent is simply failing in his duty to the boy if, once the command is given, he sits back until the youngster has decided that he will or will not accept the order.

It is wise to make not too many requests. Children should not be servants or slaves.   Most often only suggestions are needed.   A discussion should not be started if the adults do not intend to be swayed by reason and argument.

It is unfair for an adult who has decided to give a command, no matter how the arguments go, apparently to lead the child into a discussion of the pros and cons of the command.   Real commands are most effective if they are given not too frequently, if they are concerned with things of real moment, if they are reasonable in content, if they are given once and for all, and if they are held as the law until circumstances change and the need for the commands disappear.

“Think of the Queen of Heaven and Lady of the World as humble housewife at the same time that she is mother and caretaker of God’s Son. It makes me sigh of tenderness, fills me with goodwill and love for the small and great chores of the home. How fragrant would be the robes that this pure lily washed. How tasty would be the food her delicate hands prepared. From her holy lips, not a whisper, no complaint or claim, only praise and sweet words. A life of worship and continuous obedience, in the freedom of those who choose to love – were she to kneel in prayer or clean the floor.” -Veronica Mendes, A Mulher Forte

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