In evangelical communities there is a popular idea about the necessity of “breaking children’s wills.” Many evangelicals believe children’s wills are inherently evil and thus need to be subdued and crushed. This is usually accomplished through corporal punishment: beating children until they cry and have no option other than to submit to an adult’s commands.
A corollary principle to breaking children’s wills is immediate, or “first-time,” obedience. Immediate obedience says children must snap to attention and obey instantaneously when given a command by an adult. Any delay in obeying is considered disobedience and results in, again, beating the child until they cry and submit.
Breaking children’s wills and forcing children to immediately obey are extraordinarily damaging doctrines. They are, to put it simply, examples of spiritual abuse: using religion to justify maltreatment of children. God gave children wills for a reason. Our wills keep us safe, give us a sense of agency, and instill resilience. When you destroy a child’s will, you are destroying their ability to feel safe, to have a healthy sense of selfhood, and to draw boundaries.
You are also setting children up to be abused.
If you break a child’s will, if you force them to be compliant and submissive and immediately obedient to adults, I cannot say this more clearly: you are grooming that child for abuse. You are doing the abuser’s job for them. You are acting as the abuser’s wingman by setting them up for success.
For a child to have the courage and strength to say, “This trusted, loved, and respected authority figure in our community has harmed me,” that requires a really strong will. That requires that a child has a strong sense of self and is empowered to disobey. So often we myopically focus on and preach about how children need to obey, that we forget that it is equally important to teach children how to disobey. As childist theologian Marcia J. Bunge writes in The Vocation of the Child, “Although almost all theologians today and in the past would emphasize that children should honor and obey their parents, they often neglect a third and corresponding responsibility of children that is also part of the tradition: children have a responsibility and duty not to obey their parents if their parents or other adult authorities would cause them to sin or to carry out acts of injustice” (p. 42).
Sometimes disobedience is godly. Sometimes disobedience is holy.
Children should never be taught to suppress themselves and obey authority figures without thinking. This means we need to empower children so that they develop the skills necessary to think through commands they are given and determine whether those commands are right and just. Children need to learn how to draw boundaries and say “No!” to authorities that are trying to harm them. Contrary to evangelical teachings, disobedience does not always come naturally to children. This is especially true of healthy disobedience. Children need to be given opportunities to develop their skills of disobedience so that they can exercise the mental muscle that inspires independent thinking and righteous rebellion.
Healthy disobedience goes by a number of names. Author and speaker Ira Chaleff, for example, calls it “intelligent disobedience.” This is a reference to how service animals are taught to disobey their owner when obeying the owner’s command would be dangerous (like if the owner wants to cross a street intersection when there is oncoming traffic). Service animals thus do not mindlessly obey their owners. They are taught to assess whether obedience in a given situation is appropriate or inappropriate.
Another term for healthy disobedience is “reflective rebelliousness.” Author and lecturer Alfie Kohn uses this phrase to describe disobedience that has a righteous cause behind it. The person disobeying does not merely and simply disobey every command given by authority figures, as that would be unhealthy. Rather, the person disobeying takes the time to reflect whether rebelling against authority figures in a given moment would be moral and helpful.
Even traditionalist theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth believed children should ultimately follow their consciences, not their parents’ every demand. Aquinas called this “conscientious disobedience,” arguing that a child’s conscience trumps all other obligations (such as obeying one’s parents).
So how do we help children develop intelligent, reflective, and conscientious disobedience?
One easy way to start teaching your children to disobey in a healthy way is to give them everyday opportunities to do so. Encourage your children and give them freedom to think about the commands and rules you give them and speak up if they disagree or think they are unfair or wrong. Actually listen to their concerns and interact with them. Don’t just shut them down and say, “You must obey because I am the adult.” Take their opinions seriously so they learn to trust their inner voice. Create space in your home for children to feel comfortable being conscientious objectors. You can do this by making sure your family is a safe space for practicing how children can speak out prophetically, even if those prophetic critiques are directed towards you.
Model for your children what healthy disobedience looks like. Take your children to rallies. Involve them in sign-making for protests. Show them examples from history about civil disobedience. Take them with you when you vote. Read diverse books to them about freethinkers and rebels whose disobedience changed the world for the better.
Consider role playing as well. Guide your children through various scenarios where it would be important and right to disobey and give your children the chance to articulate how they would respond if they find themselves in a similar situation. A helpful phrase to teach children how to model healthy disobedience in these scenarios is “Blink, Think, Choice, Voice.” This phrase, created by Ira Chaleff, is an easy way to teach children the steps they should take when they feel obedience to a command would be wrong. “Blink” means stop, pause, take a big breath, and ground yourself (by blinking). “Think” means you consider the command given and think about whether or not it is right to obey. Does the command go against your values? Will someone be harmed if you obey? (What other questions can you ask yourself to determine whether or not it is appropriate to disobey?) “Choice” means you have a choice regarding how you respond. You can obey, disobey, get a second opinion from a different authority figure, propose an alternative course of action, and so forth. And finally, “Voice” means you should state your decision clearly and as confidently as you can. Don’t communicate mixed messages.
When roleplaying situations where disobedience is justified, using the Blink, Think, Choice, Voice method, make sure to include the following four steps: (1) instruction, (2) demonstration, (3) rehearsal, and (4) feedback. First, instruct children about what skills they will be learning. Be age-appropriate in how you communicate the lessons. Second, demonstrate for children what the skills look like. Model for them how to communicate clearly and confidently when disagreeing with someone. Third, have children practice using the skills themselves. Let them act through various scenarios. Fourth and finally, give constructive feedback. Praise three things a child did well, and then highlight an area that the child could work on and improve.
One significant qualification and disclaimer must be made here: race can make a huge difference in how a child’s disobedience is interpreted and responded to. Disobedience and rebellion are often times privileges only white children have. As New York Times bestselling author Sa’iyda Shabazz writes, “In an age where white parents are teaching their children about #resistance and dissent, Black parents are teaching their kids to toe the line because it’s quite literally a matter of life and death.”
For children of color, disobedience and rebellion can lead to corporal punishment, arrests, and even death, as research has consistently shown that authority figures treat children of color more harshly than white children. A black child who rightly speaks out against a police officer mistreating him, for example, could lead to that officer using force and violence against the child in a way that white children rarely experience. We must be intersectional, therefore, in our advocacy on behalf of children. We must understand how forces like racism (and sexism and ableism!) impact the way society reacts to a disobedient child.
Not every child can safely disobey in every situation where disobedience is appropriate.
Resources for further reading:
R.L. Stollar, “Children, Disobey Your Parents in the Lord, For This is Right”: link
R.L. Stollar, “Give Children Space to be Conscientious Objectors”: link
Ira Chaleff, “Intelligent Disobedience for Children: A Handbook for Parents and Caregivers”: link
Ira Chaleff, “Blink! Think! Choice! Voice!” website: link
Ira Chaleff, “Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong” book: link
Jody Allard, “Raising a Rebel With a Cause”: link
Alfie Kohn, “The Grass Moment: Helping Kids to Become Reflective Rebels”: link
Alfie Kohn, “Challenging Students… And How to Have More of Them”: link
Sa’iyda Shabazz, “Remember This When It Comes to Raising Rebel Kids”: link
Bruce Pascoe, “Teach your children to rebel. Teach your children to doubt”: link
Annalisa Barbieri, “Since when did obedience become the epitome of good parenting?”: link
Margaret Berry Wilson, “When Children Are Defiant”: link
Carl E. Pickhardt, “Rebel with a Cause: Rebellion in Adolescence”: link
Francesca Gino, “Why Your Kid Should Be a Rebel”: link
Mattie Kahn, “How to Raise an Activist, According to the Harris Women”: link
Francesca Cavallo and Elena Favilli, “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” book: link
Francesca Cavallo and Elena Favilli, “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2” book: link
Ben Brooks, “Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different: True Tales of Amazing Boys Who Changed the World without Killing Dragons” book: link
Jessica K. Taft, “Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change Across the Americas” book: link
Jessica K. Taft, “The Kids Are in Charge: Activism and Power in Peru’s Movement of Working Children” book: link