Delightfully Disobedient

When my daughter Clementine, was still a toddler, my husband and I were always amazed at the casual way she would flout our rules.

“No more cookies,” we would say, and (foolishly) consider the matter closed. Meanwhile, she would shrug her shoulders, stare straight at us, and then defiantly reach out for another cookie.
“No,” we’d say again, plucking the cookie from her hand. “No.”

There would be a scream, and then one of us would put the cookies away while the other one carried a protesting Clementine over to the timeout corner, where she would be given the first of what usually turned out to be many, many timeouts. It was usually sometime between the fifth and the tenth timeout that my husband would look at me and say, in his best Gomez Addams voice, “She’s so delightfully disobedient.”

“Yes,” I would agree, taking the Morticia role. “Yes, she is.”

Flash forward ten years or so, and the protesting howls from the timeout corner have been replaced by slamming doors and language that could make a sailor blush—or at least take notes. It should also be noted that my husband rarely utters the words “delightfully disobedient” anymore—instead, the words that seem to come out of his mouth most often are “How many more days until she turns 18?” and “Wow—I don’t think I’ve ever heard those two words put together in quite that combination before.”

And yet, the truth is that even though we don’t often say it out loud anymore, in our heads we are still thinking the same thing: “How delightfully disobedient.”

I know it must seem strange to wish for a disobedient child—kind of like wishing for an unfaithful spouse—but the truth is, obedience is overrated. Blind obedience is not very far removed from being an unthinking follower, and while this trait might seem desirable in the two year old you are trying to keep out of the cookie jar, it is dangerous in the extreme in the twenty-two year old you are trying to keep out of the cult.

It’s not that I’m saying that all obedience is bad—as my friend Michelle used to tell her high school students, sometimes you just have to be the pink poodle (meaning that, sometimes you just have to know when it’s time to play the game). But it’s also good to know when the game is optional.

That, I think, is what it is important for us, as parents, to teach. Not blind obedience, but rather, selective obedience. I’m not talking about the kind of selective obedience that only makes you stop for a red light when you think there might be a cop around (because stopping for a red light is always a good idea), but rather the kind of selective obedience that refuses to sentence a man to ten years in prison for jaywalking, because that’s what the judge told you to do.

Voltaire famously said that if you can make a man believe absurdities, then you can make him commit atrocities. I think the corollary to that should be that if you can make a man (or a child) believe in your own absolute authority, then you can make them believe in your own absolute infallibility. And absolute infallibility doesn’t exist anywhere—not in governments, not in churches, and certainly not in families.

I still think that we were right to stop Clementine from eating another cookie when she was two, but that doesn’t mean we’ll always be right about everything, and it’s good that she questions our rules every now and then—good that she’s still so “delightfully disobedient.” Good for her, and good for us.

Or at least that’s what we keep telling ourselves. In our best Gomez Addams voices.

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