Is obedience a virtue?

‘My son/daughter doesn’t listen to me’

I hear this complaint from parents all the time. This is irrespective of whether the son/daughter is 2 years old or 42 years old. At least in the Indian setting, ‘listening to’ and ‘obeying’ parents is seen as a virtue of the highest order. The standard quality for praise by parents/relatives seems to be – ‘he listens to his parents’, ‘she is an obedient child’. In a more personal context,  – ‘ನನ್ನ ಮಕ್ಕಳು ಹೇಳಿದ ಮಾತು ಕೇಳ್ತಾರೆ’ is a matter of great pride to parents (the effect is greater in my native language, Kannada).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘obedience’ as ‘Compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority’.

In the context of Indian upbringing, this quality enjoys a premium position in the list of virtues. A child who is obedient is seen as the apple of the eye and a child who is rebellious is seen as the black sheep. This probably traces back to our ancient ‘Gurukula’ system where a sense of surrender to the master was inherent in education. Whatever may be the roots, it is deeply ingrained in our social conditioning that obedience to parents/teachers/elders is a hallmark of a ‘good’ child. This doesn’t stop in childhood though, continues through adulthood, so much so that it pervades into the professional domain as well. No wonder we see bureaucratic and hierarchical systems thrive in organisational settings – whether government or private. Deference to the boss is seen as an implicit virtue, regardless of the lip service provided to the contrary.

I attended my old school’s annual day function a couple of years ago. The chief guests who spoke on that day all propounded the importance of obedience (ವಿಧೇಯತೆ) and how modernization (read westernization) has uprooted this quality from our children’s lives and has influenced them to become brash and disrespectful towards their elders. If we dig deeper, we do realise that blind obedience has not been a virtue even in the ‘Gurukula’ system. Discussion, debate and deliberations were the prevalent pedagogy. Somewhere in the interim, obedience has raised its head and reached the top of the virtue ladder.

What also struck me on that day was the implied meaning that obedience was the same as respect and lack of obedience was disrespect. Nothing can be further from the truth. A myopic view of obedience would classify asking questions, asserting independent thought, expressing dissent and making unconventional life-decisions as disobedience and hence disrespect. Social conditioning is so deep that parents use these parameters to control and/or emotionally blackmail their children.

That said, obedience is not completely irrelevant. It certainly has its place in multiple life situations, but not all. It is not a blanket virtue that is relevant in all situations. Let us take a look.

(+) Situations where obedience is relevant –

Law of the land:

At the risk of stating the obvious, laws of the land need to be obeyed to maintain sanity in the social civilisation we live in. Robbery, cheating, fraud, assault, murder and other criminal and/or violent acts are not justifiable in the name of independent thought. This is one place that obedience is most definitely a virtue.

Traffic rules:

This is one place where asserting independent thought is extremely unnecessary and dangerous. Regardless of what one feels about the logic or relevance of a traffic rule, one needs to follow it. I have often observed seemingly intelligent people go berserk the moment they enter traffic. Most traffic jams (and the associated inconvenience and frustration) are caused by people ignoring to follow simple traffic rules. Obedience is certainly a virtue here.

Safety rules:

Safety rules fall in the same category as traffic rules. Whether it is safety rules on roads, parks, playgrounds for children or fire/emergency evacuation rules in buildings, they are meant to be blindly obeyed. Again, this is not a place where assertion of independence is relevant. These rules are made for a reason and ignoring them will certainly lead to unnecessary damage to well-being and life.

Medical advice:

Thanks to Google and the growing habit of self-diagnosis, I have observed many (young and old alike) around me ignore physicians’ advice – either in the nature of medication or the duration of the course. They seem to think they know better than a doctor, because they feel better after taking one or two doses of prescribed medicine. If they really know better, they should avoid going to the doctor in the first place.

These are some examples of situations where obedience is good. Other than such related situations, nowhere else is obedience is a virtue, especially in the contexts that it is demanded.

(-) Situations where obedience is irrelevant –

Asking questions:

Children asking many questions are labelled trouble-makers and their curiosity is curbed drastically by parents, teachers and other elders discouraging and downright suppressing this very important learning skill. Asking questions is the primary way in which children satisfy their curiosity and fuel their learning engine. It is very important to encourage and nurture this significant life skill. Obedience has no place here.

Choosing educational/career paths:

Teenagers often face enormous pressure to choose educational paths of their parents’ liking. Parents have an uncanny way of justifying why their child should pursue a degree/course based on their own life experience. This can also stem from their own unfulfilled dreams that they project on their children. Following this, there is also an ever-increasing pressure on young graduates to choose a relevant career that is a logical extension based on their degree. In today’s ever-evolving world, the choice of educational qualifications and associated careers is so diverse that any experience we had during our college days has drastically reduced in relevance. While it is good to guide our children to make informed decisions, it is more important to have them actively involved in those decisions. After all, precious years of their life and their future are at stake here. Expecting blind obedience from children is a big NO.

Making life decisions:

Whether it is choosing a life partner or buying a house or a car or making financial investments, grown-ups face the same problem with parents. The world is a changed place. The life-milestones that were considered safe and secure few decades earlier have increasingly changed in form. Youngsters in their 20s and 30s today live in a totally different world than their parents who lived their young-adulthood in the 80s and 90s. Their choices are different and what they value in their lives is different. Here again, parents need to understand and allow for natural flow. They could give their advice based on their experience and allow their children to make their own decisions, considering all other points beyond the parents’ scope of experience. This will not only instill confidence in young adults but also create harmony in relationships. Demanding obedience in these situations does more harm than good.

In summary, while obedience has its place in some situations, it is not an absolute virtue to be lauded in every context. I urge parents to reflect on this while engaging with children – young and younger.

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Dr. Soumya Sreehari

Co-Founder and Specialist at NumberNagar®
Dr. Soumya is an Educator and Researcher with a passion for reading, writing and teaching. She holds a PhD in Chemistry (Michigan Technological University, Houghton, USA). Her experience as a student and a teacher in two countries led her to pursue a career in Education. Her core work at NumberNagar® involves quality delivery of product and services at every stage of the customer life cycle. She leads the team that makes this happen. Previously she has taught Chemistry to first year undergraduate students at Michigan Technological University. She is a voracious reader and challenges herself to read 50 books every year.

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