Obedi-phobia: Obedience, and other forbidden words.

Jennifer Roback Morse
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Posted: Feb 06, 2006 12:05 AM
Talk radio keeps my brain engaged while I’m doing the all-important Mom work of driving kids around. So, while driving between a child’s therapist appointment, dropping him off at school, and then taking the mini-van in for repairs, I caught Dennis Prager’s radio program on wisdom. He observed that wisdom isn’t valued much in today’s world. If offered a choice between being famous and being wise, most college kids would look at you like you’d lost your mind. No contest. Fame trumps wisdom, every time.

I submit there is a reason we lack wisdom. We are afraid of legitimate authority. In fact, many in our culture question whether any authority really is legitimate. Therefore, we have no concept that obedience can be a virtue. As a matter of fact, obeying your parents can be the simplest and most straightforward way of gaining wisdom.

Yes, you heard it here, on a conservative, semi-libertarian website: obedience can be a virtue. Obedi-phobia is a cultural and personal disaster. Don’t bother looking it up: I just invented it. Obedi-phobia means a pathological fear of obedience to legitimate authority.

What is legitimate authority? Everyone who knows more than I can be a legitimate authority on that subject. Parents are legitimate authority figures over their children. The Law, in our Anglo-American tradition, exercises authority over us all, because the law is made through the participation of large numbers of people, in a reasonably transparent process. Americans obey the law, not because some Dear Leader says so, but because the Law says so. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, people obey God, not because God is a cosmic bully who will punish us if we don’t. We obey God because we believe He loves us and has our interests in mind.

Here is how obedi-phobia hampers our quest for wisdom.

The ancient Greeks called prudence “practical wisdom.” Prudence did not mean, doing whatever you can get away with, as it now means in political parlance. The Greeks considered prudence the virtue of doing the right thing at the right time in the right amount, even when this can’t be deduced from general principles. Prudence shows us the difference between courage, a good thing, and rashness, a foolish thing. Seen in this light, the Greeks regarded prudence as the queen of the virtues, that held all the others together.

Prudence requires experience with actual people in actual situations.

Experience shows us how to recognize the difference between a sincere complement and groveling flattery. Experience teaches us how to distinguish between joyful spontaneity and idiotic self-indulgence.

But children have no experience. By definition, at the beginning of life, it is impossible to have accumulated the store of experiences that would allow a person to be genuinely prudent.

So, how can the young acquire prudence or practical wisdom? As Dennis put it on his show, the relatively pain-free method is to listen to what other people have to say, or to observe other people’s mistakes. The painful method is to jump off the cliff to see for yourself whether gravity really works for you, or whether gravity is just a cynical plot by old people to suppress the exuberance of youth. In the first two cases, the young person acquires wisdom by learning from the experience of other people.

There is an even simpler alternative: The child could obey his parents. (Gasp!)

Many parents are afraid to insist on obedience from their children. We have the bizarre situation in which children learn to negotiate with their parents without ever learning to obey them. I’ve seen families in which the three- year-old essentially runs the household, and I’ll bet you have too. The child decides what’s for dinner, when’s bedtime, and where she has to sleep. There is something slightly pathetic about two grown adults negotiating with a small child over the merits of chocolate pudding as a main course for dinner.

Many adults have come to believe that good parenting requires empowering children at all times. But it is not in a preschooler’s interest to give her responsibility for decisions she cannot handle.

Besides, she has more urgent developmental tasks. Potty training. Holding a crayon. Dressing herself. Learning to share toys. And, incidently, learning that she is not really the center of the universe. Learning to peddle a tricycle is a lot easier and safer for a child who will accept mom’s limitations on where to ride, rather than endlessly arguing with mom. Trust mom. She’s really not trying to hurt you when she limits your freedom by insisting that you stay on the sidewalk.

Trust really is the heart of the issue. Life completely devoid of trust is truly grim, whether viewed personally or politically. I wrote about this in my first book, Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work.  A child who truly doesn’t trust anyone can’t learn very much. If you try to play catch with him, he thinks you’re trying to hit him with the ball. Forget about washing his hair: he is certain you’re going to drown him. When we ask a child to obey, we are asking him to trust us. Trust that we have your interests at heart, and that we know what we are talking about.

Lack of trust is at the heart of our cultural obedi-phobia. Our scary images of goose-stepping Nazis, blindly following orders, actually shows the connection between obedience and trust. We distrust people in power, as well we might after living through the twentieth century drenched in blood by people who abused their power over others. But it doesn’t follow that every request for obedience is suspect, and that every act of defiance is noble. It takes prudence, practical wisdom, to discern the difference between legitimate authority and usurpation of power.

We need to wise up, and trust.