As our children grow up, they push back against our authority. It's natural, and parents ought to be tolerant, rather than treating it as an offense.
Being a parent is a joyful experience, but it’s also a trial. In the moments when it’s hardest, humanist philosophy holds lessons on how to respond.
My son is six. He’s good-natured and eager to please—most of the time. But he has a stubborn streak that shows up at the most inconvenient times. Sometimes when I’m helping him with homework, he’ll argue about basic facts, like the spelling of words, seemingly just to be contrary. Or when I ask him to do chores, he’ll pull the classic trick of pretending not to hear, or just yell “No!” or “Stop!” if a request isn’t to his liking.
I’ve read the parenting manuals, and I do my best to reason with him and persuade him to cooperate. I try to explain why he should do his homework, or clean up his room, or go to the doctor. I do my utmost not to resort to “Because I said so!”
Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, I admit, I get frustrated. I’m only human. But in these moments, I try to keep the big picture in mind.
A little defiance is normal. More than normal, in fact. It’s the mark of a burgeoning independence. Like a butterfly struggling out of the chrysalis, it shows that he’s growing into his own person.
Defiance should be encouraged, to a point
After all, that stubborn impulse is at the root of all progress. Where would we be without it?
As the older generations frequently remind the younger ones, they have hard-won stores of wisdom to pass down. We shouldn’t dismiss the accumulated experience of humanity. We should learn from it so we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
But as the younger generations retort, with equal justice, the old folks don’t know everything. Sometimes a fresh perspective is what’s needed.
That defiant impulse, the refusal to accept the world as it is, takes many beneficial forms. It’s what motivates people to push beyond what’s known, to ask questions that discomfit the powerful, to scrap customs that don’t serve human happiness, to abolish rules that exist for no good reason, to fight back against tyranny rather than bowing the knee. These acts of rebellion all spring from the core attitude of “No, I won’t do what you tell me!”
Of course, well-chosen defiance is important. It’s not good to break rules just for the sake of breaking rules. Some rules exist for valid reasons, and if you can’t tell the difference, you’ll come to grief. “Don’t touch the hot stove” or “don’t run into the street without looking” are obvious cases, but they’re not all this clear-cut.
Here’s my rule of thumb: You have to know why a rule exists before you know whether it’s good to break it or change it.
A rule may exist for a good reason which isn’t obvious at first glance. Or it may have been important once, but changing circumstances have rendered it outdated, a relic hanging on for no reason other than inertia. Or it may always have been an arbitrary custom with nothing backing it.
Bad ways of handling defiance: The religious hierarchy of obedience
Most traditional religions teach believers to think of the world as a hierarchy of obedience flowing upward: from children to parents, from women to men, from humans to God. In that worldview, obedience is “intrinsically good”, and defiance is a transgression of the natural order. Often, religious authorities teach that it should be crushed with harsh punishment.
The archetype of this moral is the Garden of Eden, where the first humans’ defiance got them kicked out of paradise and condemned them and their descendants to lives of suffering. However, the entire Bible teaches this.
Throughout the Old Testament, God bloodily slaughters countless humans who disobey him in one way or another. In the New Testament, Jesus says a little more about forgiveness, but it’s not true tolerance of defiance—just a short reprieve until death, when those who don’t repent are condemned to eternal torture. And while he condemns those who won’t help the needy, he teaches that imaginary crimes like blasphemy are just as bad.
Why does religion respond so harshly to defiance? It’s not because of God’s will, or because this is a moral law of the universe. Simply put, it’s because it’s how religions reproduce themselves.
Most people never shake off the beliefs they learn in childhood. This creates a selective pressure for parents to impose their faith on their children. A religion which didn’t teach indoctrination of the young would be outcompeted and driven into extinction by the ones that do.
That’s why defiance is such a grave sin. It threatens religion’s ability to propagate itself if the next generation is allowed to make their own choices. That’s really all it is. It has nothing to do with morality, well-being or happiness.
Better ways of handling defiance
In contrast to religious teachings, I believe a wise parent doesn’t demand absolute obedience. There are rare instances where a command has to be obeyed immediately, and sometimes we all have to do things we’d rather not.
But the rest of the time, I try to let my son have his way as often as possible, and not make demands about things that don’t really matter all that much. In particular, I want to give him the freedom to be the person he wants to be. I don’t want to force him to conform to my expectations.
And who knows? Maybe sometimes he’s right!
I shouldn’t assume I always know best, just because I’m the parent. Maybe there are times when I could do things differently. Parenting should be a cooperative endeavor to find the structure that works best, not a dictatorship where I hand down rules to be obeyed or else.
Some parents think it’s their job—or worse, their right—to make their children into obedient clones of themselves. That belief has served to justify harshness and cruelty. It’s torn apart families and quashed intelligent and creative spirits. I reject this belief and all that comes with it.
I believe there’s a better way, but it takes trust and patience. We have to accept that we can teach lessons, but we can’t control outcomes. The most we can do is model the values we hope to pass on, and when the time comes, let our children go. We have to trust them to become the people they’re trying to be.