Smile When Your Child Says "No."
This past week, my inner voice drove me to abandon work and attend an afternoon lecture on “Free Will & Philosophy” given by a Philosophy Professor from a top University. As an aside, we all need to listen to those subtle instincts and energies that guide our paths. That’s a hard task for many… filtering the white noise of life to note signals in the system that have deeper personal meaning.
Returning to philosophy, the topic wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was nonetheless captivating. As a bonus, the Professor was entertaining, energetic and nimble. At one point, the presentation focused upon the Yale University Milgram Experiment on obedience: why seemingly normal people when put in the role of “teacher” (and encouraged by a lab-coated authority figure) will administer electric shocks to a “learner” test subject in another room even though they can hear the person screaming. Hold the objections, the electric shocks were faked. The learner responses were pre-recorded theatre to observe each teacher’s reaction. The Professor then mentioned another famous psychology experiment: the Stanford University Prison Study where ordinary people were randomly assigned roles of guards and prisoners. Guards were told to be firm, but their actions grew steadily more brutal. So much so, that the two week experiment was prematurely terminated after only six days.
Perhaps you are now asking “what do these studies have to do with my children or my parenting style?” The Professor viewed the discussion from a philosophical perspective of questioning Society’s idea of morals and blame, and whether we live in a deterministic clockwork world of no free will. This is an oversimplification for brevity, so my apologies to the good Professor. Still, why did more than 60% of the people in the classic Milgram Experiment keep shocking the learner subject until the occurrence of what might have been death or permanent injury, simply for a wrong answer? Why didn’t more people refuse the instruction, or acknowledge the desperate pleas (pre-recorded) of the learner subject? Did the teacher volunteer have free will or was another mechanism running the show? Well, such questions remain under avid scrutiny today, although there are several theories for the unexpected results. As you may have already guessed, I’m tossing out a proposal for you to consider, both as to your children and your parenting choices.
After the Professor’s formal presentation, I took the opportunity to ask questions (as did others). For a while, I listened to everyone… absorbing the ebb and flow. The Professor suggested that humans have a behavioral template that influences choice even when their actions have horrible effects. He posited that in a situation of conflicting data (i.e., I don’t like administering electric shocks that severely hurt a normal person, but the esteemed scientist standing over my shoulder calmly says to continue doing so), humans have a predisposition to obey the person that we think has more information or authority. This may stem from our early evolution, where snap decisions to follow the leader - a person appearing to have better data in a confusing situation - resulted in survival. Standing among the crowd circling the Professor, I agreed that this adaptive “Darwinian” strategy was a component to the equation, but my thoughts drifted to conclusions that would challenge that paradigm.
Before you ask for my academic credentials on such matters of the mind, the short story is “nothing formal.” I am a father, a fan of metaphysics, I believe in critical thinking, and my opinions rely on observation and theory. If that’s not enough, feel free to stop reading here.
As the conversation hit a lull, I asked the Professor, “Have you considered the implications of the Industrial Age public education model on the obedience found in the Milgram Experiment?” He seemed uncomfortable… there was a camera man filming the exchange… I waited, but was disappointed as his reply effectively dodged my question.
I wasn’t about to let the Professor off the hook. After another minute, I politely pressed, “Is it possible that the behavioral template evidenced in Milgram is being dramatically reinforced by our educational model of teacher/student that begins at pre-K? Teachers tell students they must sit down quietly, must memorize what is said, must study the knowledge presented and must be a productive worker/member in society.” I paused, and silence ensued. So, I fired away, “How often can students disagree with their teachers without receiving punishment or social stigma?” I really wanted to add mandatory prescription drugs for ADHD or similar en vogue behavioral disorders to the litany, but opening that door would have muddied the waters.
This time, the Professor launched a counterargument. He knew of a Milgram Experiment variation using test subjects in cultures without public education, and the results were essentially unchanged. Before I could ask him if the experiment’s designers had truly verified if they had a sampling with neither public education, nor a surrogate teacher/student learning system, he moved to another question… another philosophy twist.
I thought about his answer. While that study might have unexplored pitfalls in the analysis and conclusions, what would happen if I assumed for argument purposes that his Milgram variation had merit? This logic pushed my thoughts to another common factor that would reinforce such disturbing behavior. I again wedged my voice into the conversation, “Professor, what about the earliest form of education, the parent/child relationship? Those roles pre-condition an obedience template from birth that is not much different from teacher/student. Could our relatively modern parenting style, from the Victorian Era forward, which emphasizes discipline, respect, and obedience be unintentionally hard-wiring our children’s cognitive weakness?”
I could see him thinking about this… and the camera kept filming. Then, another audience member interrupted with a book reference to a related psychology topic, and after a moment, the Professor shifted to his core material, leaving my supposition dangling over the cliff in the company of Wile E. Coyote.
So, what’s my “takeaway” from this pleasant interlude of philosophical thought? I’m admittedly surprised at the outcome, though maybe I shouldn’t be: when you “select” the path, things happen.
Rather than knee-jerk disagreement or admonitions of impracticality, I hope that some of you will perceive the faint glimmer of light roiling against the darkness. To that end:
Life Lesson: Be open to letting your child explore asymmetrical or unconventional forms of education: apprenticeship, travel, homeschooling, independent study, art, experiential investigation, play, etc. Mainstream public education can be a positive (I have met teachers that give heart and soul to the kids), but as applied across the board in its lowest denominator, today’s public education is designed as a compliance oriented Industrial Age necessity for managing the masses, instilling societal programming and producing workers.
Life Lesson: From this point on, I will do my utmost to look beyond the surface when my child says “No,” whether it’s to me as a parent, to a teacher or to anyone. Safety concerns aside, I will encourage my child’s instincts, independence and critical analysis skills. I don’t want to produce another cog in the great wheel of Society. This approach won’t be easy, convenient, or peaceful. I will suffer a fair amount of impingement upon my existence to the extent that I freely choose to sacrifice my expectations for the sake of my child. Of course, it’s maddening to hear your child reject your direction, and there are certainly risks to encouraging a non-conformist model. But I’m going to reap the wind, and think of it in terms of a contemporary film metaphor:
Neo must awaken from the Matrix.
Extra Credit: anyone recognize the picture reference below?
Labels: Children that say No, Free Will, Homeschool, Industrial Age, Matrix, Milgram Experiment, Neo, Obedience, Parenting, Public Education, Soulstealer War, Stanford Prison Study, Stanley Milgram, W.L. Hoffman