Our society celebrates compliant children. Every parent knows this, particularly if their own child doesn’t rate compliance highly (and I speak from experience). Despite their best efforts, these parents are likely to have felt the critical gaze of people who thought their child was being disrespectful or “naughty”. Even the most generous among us can probably admit to a little envy of the friend whose child just seemed to do whatever they were told. Life for these friends looked extremely easy. A trip to the park – no problem. First day of nursery – whatever. For us onlookers, life was more complicated. We were busy honing our negotiation skills, taking care how we worded things, learning how to calm ourselves with mindfulness, breathwork, journalling or, on a challenging day, some screaming into a pillow. We were scanning environments for potential triggers (noise, bright lights, bossy adults…), and learning how to zone out the critical gazes, so we could only see our child and their needs.
Children also know that compliance is a highly sought-after virtue. If it comes to them easily, they will be frequently praised for it. They will be smiled at and approved of. There will be encouraging words offered to the parents about how well their children behave. If it comes to them less easily, things may be more of a struggle. A friend told me recently that the school her daughter used to go to had a chart on the board at the front of the room. On one side was a rain cloud and on the other a sun. If the teacher thought a child had behaved well that day, their name would be moved to sit under the sun, and if they considered them to have behaved badly, their name would go under the rain cloud. If they did this in any office, I imagine there would be an outcry. Just think of all the reasons an adult would justify not being compliant and sunny. “Of course I was grumpy that day, my dog had just died”, “I’m not happy working with someone who doesn’t respect my boundaries”, “I couldn’t go along with that policy because I think it’s fundamentally wrong”, “I had to shout or no one else would ever listen to my opinions”. If this public shaming happened to a friend, we’d encourage them to take it up with HR, to not put up with such nonsense. Our children on the other hand are supposed to suck it up and choose compliance over public shaming. Yikes.
Why do we want compliance? I wonder if, in part, it’s simply that our modern society is ill-suited to anything else. Our world is constructed for adults, and its smooth functioning relies on our children going along with it all without resistance. To justify this need, we create and believe narratives around the importance of rules, boundaries, homework, and socialisation. We convince ourselves that this is all good for our children. And, because that’s more or less how it was when we were young, we don’t stop to question if these narratives are true. They are convenient. They are probably cost-effective for the government. They allow people to get out and work. But are they actually true? Are they really in the best interest of the child? Can it possibly be healthy to shame a child for non-compliance, with no notion as to the child’s reasons? Is it even healthy to expect or desire compliance?
Within the request for compliance lays a clear power imbalance. The adult is imposing their needs on the child. If the child wants the implicit approval or reward (or the avoidance of shame or punishment) that comes with being compliant, they must set their own needs or opinions aside as unimportant. It seems to me that this goes directly against the basis of consent and of healthy personal development. At best it is problematic and confusing for a child who, for myriad reasons, does not agree or cannot comply with what is being asked or expected of them by an adult. At worst, it is clearly highly risky that our children are not encouraged to have a voice and to feel empowered to use it.
And so what about the children who refuse to comply? If we are open to hearing them, these are the ones that lead us to places we could never have imagined going. Through their school refusal, their anxiety or their defiance of a system that is not in their best interest, they force us to do something that most schooled parents find initially challenging. They force us to be non-compliant. What a glorious gift! To recognise that our children’s happiness and wellbeing matter more to us than other people’s approval. To metaphorically place our names under someone else’s rain cloud and refuse to feel shame. I have heard from many parents who describe how their difficult interactions with schools often left them feeling small, disempowered and very much disapproved of.
The undoing of our own need for approval is key to the shifts that can take place in the home. Understanding that no one needs to shame anyone, and that seeking compliance/approval from others is not a steady way to move through life allows us to hold our children in a different way. When we choose unschooling, we choose to work in partnership with them. It isn’t that they are now free to be non-compliant. It is that the concept of compliance is now entirely irrelevant. Life is now about understanding, respecting and meeting needs. Their voice and their choices are now at the heart and centre. That push and pull dynamic of one person getting someone else to do something is out of the equation, replaced, over time, by an ease and flow to life.
The biggest gift to the parent, however, is not necessarily that first impulse to do things differently and fly in the face of compliance. It is the daily work of seeking connection and understanding, and ensuring that everyone’s needs (our own included) are being met. It is the humbling and empowering realisation that just as we cannot direct our children’s lives, no one can direct ours either. That each of us is more in charge of our own destiny than perhaps we had imagined. And so it becomes a continual unraveling of all the power structures of our own lives. It’s likely to take some time to free ourselves from the internalised disapproval and shame that still may pop up when we feel like we’re not doing things well enough. But, that’s the work that our children are unknowingly demanding of us. They are asking us to be true to ourselves and not to anyone else.
So, here’s to non-compliant children. Let’s allow them to be who they need to be. And let’s celebrate them for opening our eyes to things that just don’t work, and for leading us away from compliance and, eventually, to new, far brighter places.
This is such a wonderful celebration of our spirited children. It fully reminds me of my own and I am sat reading it taking an extra minute to be thankful for these moments of non-compliance that have shifted my own views. Thanks for sharing ❤