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Is Obedience a Desirable Characteristic in Children?

By Chip DeLorenzo, M. Ed


I was in the book store recently with my oldest and youngest children looking for a gift for my wife’s birthday. While shopping I ran into a mother of one of the children who attended our school about 10 years ago. As I usually do, I asked how her daughter was doing in school.  The mother responded that her child was doing very well academically, but had made a few trips to the principal’s office recently, and implied that her child could be “sassy.” I found myself smiling as she told me this, as I remembered her child well. She was certainly had a big personality and strong will. I could certainly see how she might end up in the principal’s office from time to time. Interestingly, I found this information comforting. I was glad she still had her strong personality, and while I’m sure the time in the principal’s office wasn’t pleasant, I was also glad she had been questioning authority.  

Now, I must admit, that I can say these “blasphemous” things with some authority, because I also spent my time in the principal’s office and at the back of the room when I was a student. Now, as a principal (Head of School), I receive children just like myself and the girl above, in my office from time to time. I appreciate them, and I see them as a barometer to how we treat children in our school.  

In our school, we view obedience as a form of misbehavior. Misbehavior meaning a behavior that is not conducive to personal or social growth and harmony. Sometimes adults will do a double take when we express this idea. After all, shouldn’t children respect their elders, and trust in our guidance and direction? Let’s consider the word obedience as defined by Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary; “to be submissive to authority; yielding willingly to commands, orders or injunctions.” Is this what we really want for our children? Is this a quality that employers or our society really needs?  

A now famous report conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, published in the early 90’s, entitled “What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America 2000”, identified personal qualities that employers needed to be competitive in the growing global economy. In addition to basic academic skills, like reading, writing, math and communication skills, the research indicated that employers were in need of foundational personal qualities like individual responsibility, self-esteem, integrity, self-management, decision making and problem-solving ability, creative thinking, and the ability to reason and know how to learn. Nothing about obedience! A recent Forbes article also discussed what employers are now looking for in future employees:

As a parent, I really want my children to be cooperative, respectful and helpful. But I also want them to experience respect, cooperation, and helpfulness. I want them to know that they are valued, that they are safe to make and learn from their mistakes, and that they are capable. I want them to value others, and give them the respect to learn from their mistakes and give them the room to experience their capability. I want them to question authority, even my authority, when it is appropriate! I also want them to learn to trust authority when that is appropriate.

Respect and obedience are not the same thing. But, it can be confusing as a parent. In a moment when I’m exhausted and overwhelmed, obedience from my children sounds like the perfect elixir to all that ails me in that moment. But what am I teaching them if I promote obedience as a value or a virtue? Am I preparing them for the decisions that they will have to make on their own, when I am not around (drugs, personal safety, sex, friends, moral choices, etc.)? Am I preparing them to live in a world where they are needed to solve problems, manage themselves and think creatively? As a colleague of mine said, “We complain about strong-willed children, but do we really want weak-willed children?”

What most parents are really seeking is cooperation rather than obedience. So, how can we create an environment where children can develop their personal autonomy, have a voice (respectfully), develop reasoning skills, and want to be cooperative? Below I have outlined a beginning, using steps for building cooperation with children. Next month, I will also focus on how to use family meetings to help develop cooperation and autonomy at the same time.

Building Cooperation with Your Children

  1. Take time to listen. Dig deep to understand where your child is coming from when you and he/she have a problem. Take a deep breath and try to see things from their point of view, even if their view isn’t logical. Express understanding. “So, it sounds like you’re really angry that you have to clean your room because you really wanted to go with your friends to the pool. ” Check to see if you are right.
  2. Show empathy. You don’t have to agree or condone your child’s point of view, just that you understand their perception. “I understand how disappointed you must be that you had to skip the pool time to clean your room. I had to miss a golf game this week because I didn’t get my monthly report finished on time.”
  3. Share Your Perceptions or Feelings. Be honest. “I am feeling frustrated, myself. Saturday morning is the time we clean our rooms, and you chose not to do it then. Then you blamed me for your missing the pool trip because your room wasn’t clean yet.” If you really listened and expressed empathy in the first two steps, your child should be open to listening to you.
  4. Problem Solve Together. Invite your child to help you come up with a solution to the problem. “What can we do to solve this problem?” or “What could you/we do in the future to avoid this problem?”

With an attitude of kindness and openness, and willingness on your part to solve vs. direct, you will be surprised how well this tool works.  

Gratitude And Anxiety: Competitors In The Fight For Safety

By Barry Walker


Several years ago, Ben came to see me in my role as a psychotherapist.He was 71 years old, but looked like he was ready to die. Really beat up. He said that he was a cancer survivor, and handicapped with PTSD. He was a veteran of the US Army, the CIA, and several news organizations having served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other similar war zones. It happened that he lived in Oregon, near where I was spending the summer in Montana, so I invited him to meet with me over three days at one of the houses on our property.

We spent the first meeting on Day One reviewing his life story, much of it centered around being present when thousands of people were killed, including some of his close friends. He was full of stories: Memories of village elders, feeling at home with the Afghans, his friends in the Army he did Civil and community work with, being hunted by warlords, killing people.

He told his stories with a kind of detached humor, as if the memories weren’t quite real. Of course, they were real, and he was detached in that way PTSD causes. His body was kind of frozen and rigid, especially his diaphragm and breathing. Just the sort of physical reactions terror and fear will do to you. He was a man walking around in a fear seizure.
On the second day, we sat on the deck of the house and looked out over fields and mountains. Lots of Angus beef cattle wandering over for a drink from the river running by us. Hawks, Eagles, Herons, Swans, Ducks, Cranes. He gradually went silent, watching the whole unfolding performance of Mother nature. I said nothing. At least two hours went by, interrupted only by drinks of water and tea.

After these hours, Ben began talking about his friend, Bob. He said that he and Bob had been friends for several years, working in the same Community Liaison unit of five solders. “Bob was shot in the head in a village square while he was standing right next to me.” He turned and looked at me with a blank stare, but visibly trying to compose himself.

I said, “You lost your closest friend in such a horrible way. Tell me what your friendship had been like.” Ben proceeded to tell numerous small stories and memories of touching moments. Finally, he looked at me and said, “I really miss Bob.” Tears began to roll down from his eyes, and he began to speak to Bob, as if he were present: “Godammit, Bob, not much made sense after you died. Going to the elder meetings wasn’t warm and meaningful anymore. I missed our trading stories at the end of each day. But, you know, as much as I miss you, I am deeply grateful for having you as my friend. You taught me a lot about how to talk with people. You were right there with me for all those years.”

He cried, and then laughed as some unspoken memory popped. And then cried again. His breathing was open as he quietly sobbed. Rocking a bit in his chair. Then, he looked up at a small group of ducks and said, “Thanks for being there, guys. I love you Bob. See you soon!” Cried and laughed. The rest of that day, and most of the next, we walked along the river. Ben kept stopping to point out small creature trails, flowers, second-growth
grasses, nest, and the history of stones lying around. He was alive. Again.

He wanted to show me what he knew. And he wanted to give me his books, and pieces of art. Mostly he gave himself life again. The PTSD shrank as his heart with gratitude opened up. Thank you Mother Nature.


Everybody agrees: Gratitude is a good thing. Lots of testimonials to the wonder of ‘Gratitude’. And, it truly is a wondrous feeling and awareness. For me, it’s what love is. “I am so grateful for you” is what I mean when I say “I love you”.

The great news is that Gratitude is always present in our lives. It is a fundamental organ of consciousness. It is love, forgiveness, tenderness. And Empathy. If only we could allow it to have its voice. To sing its song. To guide our lives.

As I said above, we do not have to go in search of Gratitude; it lives within us all the time. The real question is: “How come we don’t feel it all the time?”

The answer: “Anxiety gets in the way”. Reduce the toxic impact of anxiety and Gratitude will be there most of the time. There is no work to do to initiate Gratitude. Perhaps there is work, like journaling, that can be done to keep Gratitude fueled up, especially when anxiety wants to run you. But, in the end, the work is with anxiety. Your anxiety. At whatever level you live with it.

So, here’s the core question, vexing though it is: “How do I get more gratitude in my life?” “Or, in the lives of our communities, our societies?”

The answer is, “Reduce anxiety and fear”.

“How do I reduce anxiety without a lot to medications?”

The answer:  Pursue Safety. Become intimate and conversant with your own anxiety. Tell the truth, Reveal yourself.  Notice when you are anxious. Say so.

At first blush this ‘Reduce Anxiety’ pathway to Gratitude may seem simplistic. For sure, it is simple. Indeed, if it’s right, it’s elegant. Instead of seeking ways to amplify Gratitude, we will find the pot of gold that is Gratitude as we do our work to reduce anxiety.

There is no pill that can do this, apparently. Although there are some meditations and ‘mindfulness’ practices that can help us towards Gratitude. (Medications that are intended to be ‘anti-anxiety’, like Xanax and Ativan relieve only the symptoms of anxiety, at a cost.)

There is plenty written about using the power of personal intention to notice and reflect on Gratitude in each of our lives. Keeping a ‘Gratitude Journal’ is high on the list these days. Oprah says so. ‘Gratitude arrives as a heart-based fuel in your life as you seek to allow it in’. Being grateful begets more life satisfaction. Being deliberately grateful stokes the fires of well-being. All good. And true. Until anxiety gets in the way.

In my experience, ‘getting anxiety out of the way’ is a learnable task that can be added to mindfulness practices in everyday life.

While acknowledging the expanding and sophisticating explorations being done in the worlds of neuroscience, psychiatry, spirituality, and philosophy, I can offer the following from my vantage point as a psychotherapist.

Have you ever had a life-threatening experience, or deep fear of loss? Many have. At least, you’ve seen people who have had such experiences. Almost universally, if the threat goes away, or is suddenly relieved, potential victims break out into ‘love for life’, Gratitude for being safe, determinations to ‘live life being of service’. And so on. This happens in part because in these ‘survival’ events anxiety is suddenly removed from current experience. And what pops into consciousness is gratitude, safety, love, compassion, empathy.

I have watched people for decades finding Gratitude as the result of experiences in nature, for example. The wilderness offers opportunities to become one with nature. Gratitude follows. As well, the urge to share the experience with others.

I have been present in therapy session with couples when one of the partners reveals a secret which has been held in fear. I’ve seen those people break down in combinations of relief and agony as they choose life in the open rather than life in fear of being found out. I have seen shame overcome by the simple act of being revealed in truth. Often love and understanding have followed. I have seen business partners tell the truth to each other, scary though that might be, and then seen their businesses grow and evolve.

What I am saying here is that anxiety and fear suppress our natural inclinations towards gratitude and empathy. Remove, or reduce, the anxiety, and gratitude emerges. Remove the anxiety without diluting presence. Gratitude is as natural a state as breathing. On the other hand, anxiety and fear squash gratitude and love into small corners for safety.

Imagine the impact on the world of psychotherapy if we had tools to actually remove anxiety from people while they considered their lives? Hardly any of us realize the extent to which even everyday anxiety distorts our experience. We have become habituated to anxiety. Much current psychotherapy happens in the midst of the haze of anxiety. Medications to reduce the anxiety simply create a different kind of haze.

“How can I speak with such certainty about how gratitude happens?”, you might rightly ask. Life’s experiences, both personal and professional.

Anxiety, too, is a natural state. As organic beings we need anxiety just to survive. Alertness! Our senses provide us with safety information. As they should. Are intended to do. But, that same anxiety becomes exponentially elaborated and intense when we have been wounded emotionally while in vulnerable states, traumatized through violation or the horror of war. In severe events of anxiety, our bodies freeze, our blood flow retreats towards our organs, our breathing goes into panic mode, or stops altogether. This kind of fear leaves a wreckage which frustrates our ability to feel secure and safe. Fear can crumple everyday life into a semi-lifeless wasteland devoid of joy, and certainly without gratitude. In this state, some of us contemplate suicide. Some of us use anxiety medications like nicotine, alcohol, opioids. Others of us retreat from life into depression. Depression, after all, is a good antidote to anxiety.

In the end, there is, currently, a world of interest in Gratitude. Saying it one more time, I believe that Gratitude is a natural state of being. I also believe that anxiety is a natural state of being. But Gratitude disappears when anxiety becomes too much, for whatever reason. You will find Gratitude, and Love, and Empathy, and Kindness, as you are able to reduce the Anxiety in your life. The implications are obvious.

In another paper I will discuss some cases where Gratitude emerges as Anxiety recedes.

Barry Walker@2017. Barry Walker is a practicing Psychotherapist and teacher in NYC.

Art of Quitting Book Cover

A Talk with Alan Bernstein, LCSW, Co-author of Mastering the Art of Quitting

Art of Quitting Book CoverIn our culture, quitting anything other than a bad habit has a negative connotation—but you argue that quitting is positive. What are some situations in which quitting is beneficial?

Rumination and self-doubt can be physically exhausting. If you find yourself in an endless loop hoping for a positive outcome, it’s likely you’re operating in an energy deficit. Prolonged periods can impact your health. So, watch your moods and physical sense of well-being; are you routinely exhausted? Unable to enjoy activities other than prescribed ones? If so, you may be in a locked situation where you should consider whether quitting is a healthier choice. This doesn’t just apply to your habits—you can quit a job, a relationship, or even a hobby that no longer fulfills you.

Why does quitting have to be learned?

We’re primed toward optimism, and culturally speaking we admire stick-to-itiveness. Quitting should be an equal opportunity choice, and choosing to quit is not instinctive. We have to train ourselves away from the unconscious associations that quitting is for losers and a sign of weakness.

Are some people naturally better at quitting than others? What makes a person oriented toward approach or avoidance?

Oddly enough, pessimists may have an edge in judging the likely outcomes of situations. Optimists by and large overestimate their likelihood of success and their predictions exaggerate toward positive outcomes. As to questions of “approach” or “avoidance,” the tendency towards that psychological tilt is usually established early in life. Some of your approach may be genetic, of course, and part of your character make-up, but many tendencies may come from either integrating a parent’s style or the subtle rewards we received for following their approval. If you had been encouraged to try options where you might fail—like applying to a top tier college, for example—you may be biased toward “approach.” If, on the other hand, you fear the consequences of rejection and stick to “safe” schools, you may have an avoidance temperament. These tendencies usually radiate into other areas of life as well, encouraging some people to constantly expand their social circle while others are only comfortable with old friends. We can train ourselves to recognize these biases and allow for their unconscious persistence.

What are the factors that encourage people to persist?

Some factors are genetic and psychological as mentioned above, and others are moral and societal. Culturally speaking, most advanced societies treasure the notion of improvement and mastery. Quitting interrupts that trope and forces us to evaluate our self-worth at a primal level: are we failures? Do we lack the moral fiber to experience discomfort and maintain our position in life? Are we doomed to an ongoing series of failures and disruptions? The anxieties and fears raised by these associations may keep people locked into relationships or careers that are, in fact, troubling to their mental and physical well-being.

How can people tell it’s time to quit?

There is no single answer to that question. The first order of business is to examine the underlying issues which support the status quo. How prevalent is your anxiety about losing respect from key people in your life? How impacted will you be by the concern that you have labeled yourself a “quitter”? Once you have established some equanimity about these questions, you can go on to evaluate the choice from the perspective of a value proposition—what are you getting vs. what are you giving up? Our book takes you through the research of “choice” so you’re less likely to operate off unconscious biases and more likely to operate with a conscious sense of opportunity.

What are the basic steps to quitting successfully?

We have a number of different tables in the book which may help you decide your quitting style. It’s important to know the biases in your particular make-up that may orient you toward getting stuck or lurching precipitously toward the exit. Once you have established the possible tendencies in your personal psychological construct, you are more likely to review options based on their current and potential future outcomes. Our book is not a “how-to” manual; rather, it helps you understand through current research what the potential biases and blind-spots in your thinking may be and then how to form long and short-term goals to move your decision-making forward with a conscious sense of choice.

How should people manage the thoughts and emotions associated with quitting, especially regret?

There is no ultimate screen against regret, though some people charge ahead trailing less doubt and replay than others. In order to use regret to keep you focused on how to succeed next time instead of letting it keep you stuck in the past, you should think about how your regrets relate to the goals you want—instead of defending the decision you regret, putting off new decisions, or transferring blame to others. I also encourage people to operate with some time-limits on their “pity party”—such as taking a half hour for “why me” thinking—as needed– and then moving ahead with your next plan.

What is incomplete quitting?

Incomplete quitting, at least on the surface, often looks like a person disengaging from an unproductive goal, but it often leaves in place the mechanisms and motivations for persisting with it in the first place, preventing the person from moving forward towards new goals. A person could temporarily sever a relationship, or suggest a new course of action, but not stick with their new resolutions and fall back on existing patterns—or even just threaten to, and never follow through at all. Whatever shapes it takes, incomplete quitting is marked by an inability to disengage.

If the regret loop keeps replaying and seems out of control, shadowing your capacity to move ahead with plans, you’re likely caught in an incomplete quitting cycle. In the book, we have an example of a highly qualified person who kept reminding his friends and interviewers what a “mistake” he’d made in his career choice and what a hash he’d made of his young life. He had not organized himself to move ahead in new directions and >was <cueing his audience to see him as a “quitter.” Not surprisingly, until he was able to acknowledge his self-doubt he >was< unable to develop new pathways.

Quitting is a prime opportunity for reframing a situation, imagining new possibilities, and reinventing yourself. How should people establish new goals to move them in a better direction?

The most likely source of encouraging success in new directions is actually writing down goals, creating objectives to get to those goals and establishing workable timelines. All these can be modified or even eradicated as you move forward in your planning, but the act of committing your future plans to an organized series of thoughts and timetables seems to be a key factor in releasing yourself from rumination, stuck thinking and self-blame. The transition from past analysis to future planning seems to reorient the psyche, though as I mentioned some time should be reserved to “what-ifs” and self-doubt.

Instead of sayings like “winners never quit and quitters never win” and “no one likes a quitter,” what saying about quitting would you suggest society adopt instead?

Review your options and remind yourself: the creative life involves constant choice. No single maxim should control the decision-making process.

Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein, LCSW

Find out why the happiest, most successful people have the ability both to persist and to quit.  You can also read the New York Times review here!