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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Obedience: Is it their work or own glory?

Published: Monday, Dec. 16 2013 5:00 p.m. MST

One of the more glorious memories of my childhood is when my mother voiced in frustration, “You are utterly defying me.” To avoid those kinds of fights, the question is not what we want our children to obey but why.

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One of the more glorious memories of my childhood is when my mother voiced in frustration, “You are utterly defying me.” I suspect I was. I was known to do that from time to time.

The reason for the flashback was recently caring for grandchildren. The parents had traveled and their grandmother and I were called in to action.

We were quickly reminded how tough it is being a parent. Our son and daughter-in-law do a far better job. It was tough to get our grandson to obey. I thought it, but didn’t say, this child is utterly defying me.

Then the flashback from my childhood brought some light. I needed to know why he was struggling to follow my directions. It also made me think why we want children to obey.

Initially a whole list of what we want our children to do came into my head. It is only later that I thought about why we want children to obey.

Of course all parents want their children safe. We tell them so. We also want our children to learn deference for their elders, which would be us. A subset of that reason is that we want children to respect authority. We don’t want our kids to have a police record by the time they are 7.

Self-discipline and self-efficiency demand a person to obey rules of honesty to oneself as well as obedience to the law of the harvest. You can’t fudge the laws of economics. You can’t spend what you don’t have.

As parents we would like our children to learn manners. Please and thank you can go far to tame the frontier of incivility that seems to be more and more at our doorstep. Besides, it wouldn’t be cool if our children were kicked out of fine restaurants or never invited to parties.

Obviously the list is incomplete. There are a lot of “whats” that we want our children to learn and do. They demand repetition and modeling. They learn by doing, and they do by obeying.

Now the light. The better question is not what we want our children to obey but why we want them to obey.

There are only two reasons. We want our children and grandchildren to obey for either their salvation or our glory. This salvation is not the specific definition of the theologians. This is saving our children from excessive pain and waste. It is a salvation from doing stupid harm. We want them to be saved from the disappointment of failing to reach their full potential. We want our offspring to obey for their good, not ours.

On the other hand, too often we want kids to obey us for our glory. We want them to behave and obey us so we won’t look bad. We don’t want to be the folks who can’t manage their children. I took our grandson to a church class at which point he got up and ran away down the hall. One of the women in charged asked who was managing that boy. It was obvious it wasn’t me.

We want our children to obey oft-times simply because we say so. Certainly, there are many times reasons go unexplained at that exact moment. However more often we just want our kids to obey.

We need children to obey us for our sake. If we feel inadequate as a parent, that means insecure as a person, any time a child deviates from our expectations we are wounded, our egos crushed. We demand obedience for our state of mind. We believe our weakness, and it only painfully deepens when we say jump and the kids fall down. It would be easier to tell kids to go crazy. Then at least you will be obeyed.

When we ask for obedience, think about not only the what but the why. Is it for their salvation or our glory? Otherwise they are utterly defying us.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. He can be reached at jgcramermd@yahoo.com.

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