Obedience Is Not the Enemy of Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Problem Solving
Modern parents often list critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving as skills they want their children to learn or traits they want them to develop. These are all good, desirable things. Unfortunately, parents also tend to believe that obedience is the enemy of these things. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I want my child to think critically, and not blindly accept every message that gets passed along to them. If I stress obedience, they won’t develop habits of critical thought.
Critical thinkers examine, engage, and analyze. They ask why and how. Meaningful critical thinking tends to enhance obedience rather than detract from it, and obedience tends to improve critical thinking as it gives us the chance to understand the why behind directions.
The moment a direction is given may not be the moment to ask why, particularly in an urgent situation. That moment is the moment to simply obey. Later, when everything is calm, is a perfect opportunity to ask why.
“Why did you call that play, Coach?”
“Why can’t I have my phone in my bedroom, Mom?”
“Why do I have to wear my bicycle helmet?”
It’s great for kids to understand the game strategy, the problems with smart phones in isolated locations, and the dangers of a bike accident.
Obedience doesn’t preclude offering explanations and reasoning. It just means that compliance isn’t predicated on agreement. At the end of the day, the child doesn’t have to agree that he puts himself in danger by not wearing the helmet, but he does have to wear the helmet.
An authority figure who never gives directions also never gives his charges the opportunity to ask why and how.
But! I want my child to create new things and express themselves without being hung up on doing it wrong or making a mistake. If I focus on obedience, they’ll be too concerned about rules and form and procedures to create.
So, here’s the thing. Creativity isn’t enhanced by a free for all.
Beethoven spent decades studying music theory under other composers before writing the Missa solemnis.
Michelangelo learned by copying paintings in various churches and studying under other painters and sculptors.
Shakespeare’s early education was based on the study of classical Latin grammar.
Every art form has it’s own rules and principles. Without them, we wouldn’t have art. We’d have meaningless nonsense. Form is to art as the skeleton is to the human body. It provides support, shape, and structure. In it’s absence, you have a blob.
This is why for centuries, the arts were taught through apprenticeship. First you learn to handle and care for the tools. Then you learn to use them. Then you begin to learn the theory, and then you practice. A lot.
This is how all the great masters learned their craft, and it does not appear to have impeded their creativity. To the contrary, the creation of beautiful art, buildings, books, and music seems to have been more prolific in periods with a respect for direct instruction in form.
If I tell my child what to do all the time, how will they ever learn to solve problems on their own?
Teaching obedience does not mean dictating exactly what children may or may not do at every moment and in every detail. This is a major misconception. In fact, I’d advocate for dictating what to do as sparingly as possible.
Direct commands should be mostly limited to non-negotiables and safety issues. Much like the critical thinking issue mentioned above, obedience opens a door for conversation.
If the rule is that there is no playing with friends until homework has been completed, but the child really wants to ride bikes with the neighbor, the parent now has an opportunity to work together with their child to solve the problem and come up with a plan that will allow them to obey the family rule about homework first, while still managing to fit in a bike ride with their friend.
Rules exist to prevent problems; in this case, an exhausted child trying to do long division at 9 pm. They provide us with a concrete way of talking about potential problems, how we can avoid them, and how we can solve other problems that crop up.
You can find Part I here.