Isn’t obedience kind of repressive and controlling? Doesn’t it imply a lack of critical thinking, creativity, and independence? Isn’t obedience why horrific events like the Holocaust happened?
In short; no, no, and no.
Obedience is the most misunderstood and undervalued virtue in our culture.
In the moment, it is not particularly fun. In the words of a certain 3 year old I know particularly well, when asked why he wouldn’t just listen already:
“Because I don’t like to follow constructions.” (imagine the crossed arms and foot stomp for full effect)
Join the club, little man. Most of us do not enjoy following the “constructions” of others, particularly when they run counter to our own desires. Obedience is somewhat different from other virtues in this respect. Most people want to love, want to be hopeful, want to see justice. In our human weakness, we fail at these things, but we still desire them. Obedience, we desire less.
What Is Obedience?
Let’s start with what it isn’t. Obedience isn’t:
- Acting thoughtlessly.
- Blindly complying with any given instruction.
- Not thinking for ourselves.
- Doing things that are wrong, immoral, or unethical because someone told us to.
- Respecting the people who are in a valid position of authority over us.
- Keeping the rules.
- Doing what is right and just even when it means sacrificing our own desires.
When we obey people who are in a valid position of authority over us- like parents, coaches, bosses, bishops, and teachers- we practice aligning our will with God’s will.
Obedience looks like a child who comes home at the time his parents told her to be home, the football player who executes the plays identified by the coach, and an employee who completes a task in the way his boss directed.
The question that always follows is, “But what about authority figures who instruct their subordinates/charges to do something that is wrong?” The short answer is, directives to act immorally or unethically or which cause harm do not fall under the virtue of obedience. No one is obligated to do something wrong, to hurt others, or allow themselves to be hurt in the name of obedience. The long answer is, we’ll talk more about this question in Part III.
Obedience Allows Children to Be Children
Obedience is crucial for our overall growth in virtue, and particularly so for children. It is not oppressive, repressive, or controlling. Obedience is actually liberating.
A couple of months ago, Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum shared this post on Rules and the Role of Obedience in her family and I just love it.
Kelly quotes author Laura Berquist on obedience and it’s relationship to prudence:
Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, teaches that prudence is the cardinal virtue. It is prudence that makes it possible to do the right thing in the right place at the right time. An action that is courageous in one instance may be rash or foolish in another, because the time and place are not right. Prudence puts the actions in the right order.
Children are not capable of prudence. Of the virtues, prudence most of all requires experience. To know that now is the time to speak up, and now is the time to keep silent, is something one learns by doing and observing. To be able to determine that in this case the virtuous action is to stay home and work on a project, but in that case the virtuous action is to leave the project an go to the talk, requires experience and reflection on that experience. Children don’t have experience. But their parents do.
For children obedience takes the place of prudence and that is why it is so central to their training. By obedience children participate in the prudence of their parents.
In other words, small children lack the wisdom and experience to reflect on the proper course of action in a given situation, and obedience is the vehicle for participating in their parents’ wisdom and experience.
It was the general practice at a particular school where I taught to allow kids to walk through the hallways not in line, just sort of moving as a pack. This drove me insane, but since it was a part of the school culture I ignored my own inclinations on the how-children-should-travel-through-the-school subject. These were good kids from good families, so generally speaking, the only issue was that they got a little loud sometimes.
On the day of my first fire drill at this school, students straggled out of the building, repeatedly got out of line, continued to talk, moved away from their class, etc. I was furious.
“Get in line! Stop talking! Stay put! Be quiet! No, do not move over there!”
Here’s the thing, though. Kids don’t have the prudence to understand the demands of subtly different situations. They know the fire drill is a drill, and they don’t actually expect the school to catch on fire, so who cares? If they can chat and roam any other time they’re walking down the hallway, why not now? If they aren’t ever expected to follow adult instructions immediately, why now?
Life is complicated. Adults are responsible for the discernment of different situations and how to behave in a given situation. Ambiguity, waffling, and inconsistency don’t work for kids. A six year-old is simply not capable of saying to themselves, “You know, this is a fire drill. We are practicing for what to do should a terrible emergency occur. Therefore, I better behave as if this is the real deal, because I don’t actually know and in a real fire, I would need to be attentive to the adult in charge of me.”
This kind of reflectiveness and self-mastery have to develop over many years and through a lot of practice. We allow kids to develop these skills when we tell them what the right thing to do is, not when we endanger them by letting them roam aimlessly (literally as well as figuratively).
Obviously, the number of topics on which the adult in authority is going to be giving explicit instructions decreases with age. You might let your teenager experience the natural consequences of staying up too late, but not your preschooler who can’t connect, “I didn’t go to bed 12 hours ago when I should have,” with “and now I am cranky and generally miserable.” Instead, you just put them to bed.
While you let the teenager find out about staying up too late the hard way, you don’t let them find out about texting and driving the hard way. Because the consequences are so grave as to demand that your prudence as an adult take precedent. And how do children participate in prudence? Through obedience.
Requiring the obedience of children in our care allows them to be children. It protects them from negative consequences they can’t yet foresee or be responsible for.
While I’ve talked mostly about children here, these same principles apply to adults.
In the army, a soldier is required to obey orders from his superiors because they have a broader view of the situation and more military experience. The consequence of disobedience is the endangerment and death of other soldiers.
In a workplace, employees are required to comply with their supervisor’s instructions. Failure to do so means that the organization will be unstable, inefficient, and lacking focus.
Obedience is the virtue necessary for any group to function, to serve it’s purpose, and to protect it’s most vulnerable members, while allowing them to grow in wisdom and knowledge.
In the next two posts in this series, I’ll talk about:
Obedience Is Not the Enemy of Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Problem Solving
Obedience Is Not the Cause of Historical Atrocities