How to teach disobedience

In last week’s post about our unplanned week at home, I promised I’d expand on an incident which occurred on Friday at a Hungry Jack’s restaurant.

Where battles are won and lost…

For those who came in late, I had the kids to myself for a couple of days while my wife was interstate for a family funeral. We’d paid a visit to the hospital and, having stayed longer than we planned, found it was time to eat and we were still on our way home with no dinner started at home. On a whim I stopped at HJ’s to grab a bite and ate by the indoor playground.

A small four year old boy (we’ll call him Charlie) was near our table and was slightly interfering with our peace so his parents told him to move away. Charlie showed no signs of having heard, much less acting upon, his parents’ request, though he quickly bored with us and moved back to the playground on his own volition. Twice more his parents issued instructions while he was on the playground, both of which Charlie ignored to which his parents responded by doing precisely nothing.

I quietly talked to my kids and asked if they’d noticed. (“Can you see what’s happening here? They’ve taught Charlie to disobey because they’ve told him to do something, but when he doesn’t there are no consequences.”) So it was hardly surprising that the behaviour continued in such a predictable pattern that most of the time I was able to tell the kids what would be happening next.

It was now time for Charlie’s parents to leave so they called him off the playground. Unsurprisingly, Charlie showed no signs of leaving the playground. The instruction was repeated, still to no effect (why would it work the second time if it didn’t work the first?). Now the threats started. “You won’t go to Nanna’s house if you don’t come now, Charlie”, predictably followed by “We’re going to leave without you”. Again Charlie continued on as though nothing had happened. (“Now what’s the point of saying they’ll leave him here? They won’t do that because they’d be in trouble with the police if they did, so do you think they’re really going to leave without him? No. But do you think he’s going to be scared by their threat? No, because they’ve taught him they don’t mean what they say and there are no consequences if he disobeys.”).

So Charlie’s parents now leave the playground and walk into the restaurant. (“Now they’ll turn around and come back and threaten him some more”). Sure enough back they came, this time with another threat in the vain hope it’ll magically do what the other ones hadn’t. “There’ll be no icecream for Charlie. No ice cream! OK bye Charlie, no ice cream for Charlie!” and off they went again. (“They’ll probably walk out of the restaurant and maybe even get into the car next”). The parents milled in the restaurant for a minute wondering what to do, after which sure enough they went to the carpark, except instead of getting in the car they poke their heads through a gap in the glass wall. “BYE CHARLIE, WE’RE GOING!”. Charlie carried on as though clinically deaf to their instructions, as well he may because there’s no way the parents were going to go through with it. So what else could they do but sheepishly back down on their word, come back, and do the only thing left when authority is no longer respected – resort to physical force to remove him from the playground.


I feel sorry for both Charlie and his parents. Charlie because if the status quo continues he’ll grow up into someone who doesn’t respect authority, doesn’t know life gives out consequences for doing the wrong thing and thus will probably end up blaming others for his mistakes. I feel sorry for the parents because they seemed clueless as to what to do. The only thing they could do when the first instruction was ignored was to hope that threatening more and more dire consequences would scare him into action, without realising the underlying problem was not Charlie’s fear of those consequences but his knowledge they wouldn’t happen because they had frequently allowed his will to overrule theirs. Fortunately Charlie is young enough for this behaviour to be changed, admittedly with some effort; but unfortunately his parents probably don’t realise what they’re doing, and one can’t exactly roll up to an already frustrated-and-at-breaking-point parent and start criticising their efforts!

I’m glad we saw what we did. My kids were able to see a real-time live worked example of what happened when children are not taught to respect authority and that there are consequences to their actions. Being just a little distance away I was able to talk them through what was happening and the problems with each set of instruction and response. It’s sad that this sort of behaviour is so predictable that one can, with a fair degree of certainty, know what steps are to follow, but at least that makes it easier to deal with.

If this sounds at all familiar to you, check out these other posts:

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