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Should Compliance Really Be the Goal of Childhood Behavior?

Compliance is a word that’s used constantly in the world of behavior. We write about it in school IEPs, we use it as a goal when students have behavioral episodes, and we collect data on how often it does and doesn’t occur. Even in personal interactions with kids, such as with our own children at home, we often place a more significant weight on compliance than we do decision-making.

“Listen and obey,” we tell them. “Do as I say. Don’t argue. No questions or backtalk.”

Think through what kind of message that’s sending kids. Do we really want to teach them that obeying is more important than making decisions or thinking critically?

When we teach compliance, we’re instilling in kids’ minds that the lesson to be learned is how to follow instructions. And while that’s a crucial life skill to learn, we must teach it alongside the evaluative process. We can’t teach kids to ONLY go against their natural impulses, or to stop questioning authority, or to keep their heads down. We need them to be able to follow a boss’s instructions one day without arguing, or follow a sergeant’s commands in the military, but we also need them to be able to question authority when appropriate.

We also need them to learn when it’s appropriate to question authority and when it’s not. These are life skills that require deeper thinking, but offer greater benefits than only encouraging obedience.

Some of the most influential people in history have only made an impact because they refused to blindly follow the demands of authority figures in unfair moments. Without critical thinking, which led to their active disobedience, we never would’ve had the social progress brought about by Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Malala Yousafzai, or Nelson Mandela.

Teaching pure obedience, or working entirely toward compliance, steals a child’s ability to develop critical thinking skills. Those critical thinking skills are what kids use to keep themselves safe. If that instinctual willingness to disobey is completely squashed, they’re less likely to report someone who is abusing them, less able to interpret their own fight-or-flight instincts in emergency situations, and less willing to create significant social change in their communities.

So how do we teach kids to be respectful and non-demanding while also teaching them to critically think about whether or not they should follow a certain rule? How do we avoid raising argumentative, entitled brats (for lack of a better term)?

It starts with giving kids options. When we remove every option a child has besides obedience, they aren’t able to learn how to make healthy decisions on their own. They can only how to listen to decisions that have already been made for them, but they can’t make those decisions alone.

Not only will this stunt them as adults because they won’t know how to think through the pros and cons of behavioral decisions, but it can also damage a child’s sense of self. Kids need to understand that they’re autonomous human beings who are allowed to make choices for themselves, so long as it keeps them safe.

Using phrases such as, “You don’t get the option to BLANK right now,” is actually untrue. Saying it makes you a liar, which steals your credibility as a trustworthy adult. Kids ALWAYS have the option to disobey, wreak havoc, hurt others, etc. The only thing they DON’T have the option to do is escape the consequences of those choices.

Instead of telling kids what they can and can’t do, try laying several options out in front of them and asking them what would happen if they chose each option. Help them connect actions to consequences and watch them learn to start making the right decisions for themselves. Kids are so much more willing to make moral decisions that we give them credit for.

Oftentimes, when kids disobey or make “bad” choices, it’s not because they want to be harmful. It’s because they haven’t connected their actions to the correct negative consequences, yet. It’s our job to teach kids to make those connections, give them opportunities to learn by trial and error, and help them process scenarios they might not be mature enough to process on their own, yet.

We’ve got to stop forcing compliance and start helping kids learn how to think.

Should Compliance Really Be the Goal of Childhood Behavior?

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2020). Should Compliance Really Be the Goal of Childhood Behavior?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Apr 2020
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