Obedience and understanding

On an A3 piece of paper I’d written my own name over a hundred times.

I was in a drama class. It was a few weeks after we’d performed an adaptation of Canterbury Tales. We were supposed to be watching a recorded performance of another class’ play and analysing it in preparation for an exam. I wasn’t doing that.

Instead, I’d decided to practice my signature. On one side of the paper were my notes from the class. A few words. A sentence at best. On the other, squashed into every space, there were countless variations of the same two words. “Matthew Sweet.” 

As you’d expect my teacher wasn’t impressed.

I told Molly this story yesterday and asked her why she thought I’d do something like that? She said, “ADHD?” I laughed. Maybe. But more likely, in that class, like most of my time in formal education, I wasn’t engaged. 

Andy Grove, in High Output Management, determined how to discover why someone wasn’t doing their job. Emphasis mine.

“When a person is not doing his job, there can be only two reasons for it. The person either can’t do it or won’t do it; he is either not capable or not motivated. To determine which, we can employ a simple mental test: if the person’s life depended on doing the work, could he do it? If the answer is yes, that person is not motivated; if the answer is no, he is not capable.”

In the case of my education, it wasn’t a problem of capacity. These days, I read more and study harder than most university students. It was a problem of motivation.

One of the things that most struck me about Ender’s Game wasn’t the lessons on strategy, psychology and survival. It was the letters Orson Scott Card received in response to his story. Ender Wiggins is a young kid. He’s gifted and incredibly bright. And he’s forced to fight against fellow children. He has to navigate the ruthless games (a.k.a. preparation) that adults put him through. 

People who read Ender’s Game can relate to Ender’s isolation and confusion. I can relate to it. Not the being gifted and talented part. I don’t think I’d break into the upper percentiles of human smarts. But the part about being misunderstood. Of being forced into situations without understanding what you have to do and why.

Think about it. As an adult, if someone told you to eat this food that you didn’t like, would you do it? If someone said to you, “you have to go here” and didn’t explain why, would you go? Fuck no. As adults we demand a reason for undertaking a behaviour. We expect it. We won’t do anything without a proper motive. 

But children? Children who are actually not children, but mini-adults? We expect them to obey unquestioningly. We expect them to eat what we tell them to. To be quiet when we say so. To go to school when they say they don’t want to. And we punish them when they challenge and question our authority. How dare they? We are adults. They are mere children.

I get it. Parents and teachers are busy. There’s not enough hours in the day to fit in everything they have to do. They haven’t got the time or the energy to explain the why behind every thing we ask our children to do.

But in the last few years, I’ve come to think that if something is truly important, we can make space for it. We can find time. We can cut out the trivial and the unimportant if we need to. And what is more important, as a teacher or parent, than showing a child why you want them to do the things you’re asking them to do? What is more critical than showing them that your requests are not just arbitrary demands?

If we continue to refuse to do this, if we keep expecting unquestioned obedience to the imposition of our authority, we’ll be okay for a while. Our lives will be a bit easier. But at what cost? Don’t we risk retarding future generations by abusing our power and authority over mini-adults who are unafraid to see our hypocrisy, even if they’re too afraid to call us on it?

One way in which adults and children do not differ is in their response to trust and responsibility. In our reaction to expectations. Generally, we rise to the level expected of us. If someone gives us trust and responsibility, we become more trustworthy and responsible.

In primary and secondary school, I had an implicit agreement with my mum. If I really didn’t want to go to school, she would phone in and say I’m sick. Then I’d stay at home all day, on my own. 

You’d think that, as a child who spent drama lessons practicing his signature, I’d press that button relentlessly. I didn’t.

It was rare for me to actually be sick. It was even more uncommon for me to get my mum to phone up and pretend I was. See, what she did was a masterstroke. She gave me, a child, responsibility. She effectively said, “it’s your choice whether you want to go to school today.” And 99% of the time I did. I liked it there. It was where my friends were. 

Now contrast that to typical parenting.

“Daddy, I don’t want to go to school.”

“Tough. You’re going.”


“Get out of bed and get dressed. If you don’t, you’re grounded for a week and I won’t take you to gymnastics tonight.”

Extrapolate that strategy to the whole of someone’s childhood. Do you think that person will grow up resenting authority? Do you think someone who is told to obey because reasons is going to have a healthy relationship with authority figures?

What about the opposite? A child whose parents and teachers take the time to explain why they need to learn and study. Who is told about the virtues of education and self-analysis. Who is gifted with expectations and trust and responsibility beyond their years. 

Who do you think is better off? The child forced to follow orders without question? Or the child who learns it’s okay to ask probing questions, challenge decisions and figure out why they have to, or don’t have to, do something?