Compliance is a word that is used regularly in the world of behavior. It’s written about in Individualized Education Programs, it’s used as a goal when students have behavioral episodes, and data is collected on how often it does or does not 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.”
“Do as I say.”
“Because I said so.”
“Don’t argue with me.”
Think about the kind of message that is sending kids. Are we conveying a message that obeying is more important than making decisions or thinking critically? When compliance is the primary focus, we’re instilling in kids’ minds that the lesson to be learned is how to follow instructions. And while that is a crucial life skill all must learn; it must also be taught alongside the evaluative process. 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 unjust moments. Without their critical thinking, which led to their active disobedience, we never would have had the social progress brought about by Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Malala Yousafzai or Nelson Mandela.
Focusing solely on 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 suppressed, kids are 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 changes in their communities.
So how do we go about instilling these crucial traits while also avoiding argumentative and entitled behavior?
It starts by giving kids options. Instead of telling kids what they can and cannot do, try laying out several options out in front of them and asking what would happen if they chose each option. Help them in making the connection between actions and consequences and they in turn will become more confident in making the right decisions. Kids are more willing to make decisions that we give them credit for.
Oftentimes, when kids disobey or make “bad” choices, it’s not because they want to be harmful or disruptive. It’s because they have not connected their actions to the correct negative consequences, yet. It’s the job of parents, teachers, coaches and advocates to help kids in making those connections, giving them opportunities to learn by trial and error, and helping them process scenarios they might not yet be mature enough to process on their own.