Home » Blogs » Childhood Behavioral Concerns » Changing Our Vocabulary From “You Need to Obey” to “You Need to Do What’s Right”

Changing Our Vocabulary From “You Need to Obey” to “You Need to Do What’s Right”

I’ve always had mixed emotions about the word “obedience.” Even before I became a behavior worker, I struggled to get on board with it. I thought for a long time that those feelings came from my natural tendency to rebel against rules, but it’s deeper than that.

Rules teach us what someone else thinks is appropriate, and teaching “obedience” tells us to follow those rules regardless of our opinions on them.

But what happens when the people making those rules aren’t healthy? Or kind? Or moral?

I use the phrase “listen and obey” with my own children because they know they’re safe with me. They know I’ll never ask them to do anything unsafe or unhealthy. However, my kids also know that the phrase “listen and obey” does NOT apply to anyone besides mom and dad.

We teach them with other adults that their job is to do what’s right.

Their job is to think about what someone is asking them, think about how it makes them feel, ask themselves if it is right, and then make a choice about what they want to do. They are still meant to listen, but not necessarily to obey.

They’re meant to make a choice.

It’s important for kids to learn how to think critically about why they’re being asked to do something. Although obedience to parents is (usually) a safety measure, it can’t apply to every adult and every situation. If we don’t teach kids how to ask themselves the right questions, they’ll never know which people are safe, which situations are good, and which choices are “right.”

Our goal, as parents, is not to raise children who will obey, but to raise children who will do what’s right.

And let’s be honest. Sometimes, doing what’s right means disobeying. Sometimes obeying means putting yourself or someone else in danger.

So I’ve decided that even though I try to teach my kids the separation between which adults are safe to obey and which are not, I’m actually going to change my vocabulary altogether.

From now on, when they start to argue with me after they’ve been given an instruction, instead of saying my typical, “Listen and obey, please,” I’ll start saying, “Do what’s right, please.”

My hope is that those instructions will foster conversations that lead to critical thinking about their own choices and the choices of others.

The one thing I really want to make clear is that our words have to be followed up by actions. If we tell our kids they aren’t required to obey adults when they don’t feel safe about it, but then we give them consequences for choosing to disagree with an adult, then we’re sending mixed signals.

Our words will be saying, “Do what’s right,” but our actions will be saying, “Don’t be disrespectful.”

But the thing is, disagreeing with someone isn’t necessarily disrespectful. It’s the way we often choose to disagree that is disrespectful.

Yelling is disrespectful. Slandering is disrespectful. Name-calling is disrespectful. Using a rude voice tone is disrespectful. But disagreeing is NOT disrespectful, even if it’s a child disagreeing with an adult.

We can teach our kids to disagree with other people in respectful ways (we SHOULD be teaching them this), and we can teach them how to reach out for help when they feel unsafe, but we can’t teach them that disagreeing is rude.

Teach them to be respectful. Teach them to choose. Teach them to think. Teach them that you’ll back them up when they do what they think is right instead of doing what was expected.

Changing Our Vocabulary From “You Need to Obey” to “You Need to Do What’s Right”

W. R. Cummings

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2018). Changing Our Vocabulary From “You Need to Obey” to “You Need to Do What’s Right”. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 24, 2019, from


Last updated: 7 Nov 2018
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.