Tips for Parenting

Obedience Training

Why worry about obedience? In some cases it is a matter of life and death. Do not run into traffic. Do not stick objects into power outlets. Do not touch burners or pull pots of boiling water onto your self. But there is also the matter of just day to day items like getting up, getting dressed, having breakfast, lunch, dinner, music practice, bathing and bed time. Having arguments about things that happen multiple times a day, every day, is a pointless, painful waste of everybody’s time.

When my son was young, perhaps around nine, we had some visitors. I told my son it was time to go to bed and he took himself off. One of the visitors was astounded and commented “you didn’t have a half hour argument!” I remember thinking – “That sounds awful! That would be a daily occurrence.”

The secret to avoiding this unnecessary pain is to inculcate the habit of obedience A.K.A. socialization. It is key to back up verbal commands with physical intervention. It starts when your baby is old enough to crawl. If the baby crawls off to pull the overhanging leaves of a pot plant, or to pull books of the bookshelves and rip the pages out, or to pull CDs off CD racks, or push the buttons or turn the knobs on a stereo at random, then it is necessary to get up and prevent him, saying “no.” This can be done calmly, with no smacking or hitting involved. Place your baby back where it was and maybe give him something else to do.

This must be done hundreds and hundreds of times. Eventually, the baby will not even try to do such things and the baby will also have learned to obey merely verbal commands. Patience, repetition and consistency are key. If the parent gives in to whining after half an hour, the parent is teaching the child that an initial refusal can be overturned with enough persistence. The parent will now be subjected to hours and hours of challenges and complaints until the parent can stand it no longer and gives in, reinforcing this pathological dynamic.

Hundreds of repetitions sound painful. It is. But there is no alternative. That is exactly what most training involves.

By saying “no” to a child, the child learns to say no to itself. It could not be otherwise. If a child were an emperor whom no one dared contradict, then the child would simply follow every impulse as an uncompromising tyrant. If he wanted the cake from your plate, he would simply grab it. Or perhaps he feels like shoving a fork in your eye. He would never gain any practice in restraining himself.

Boot camps for criminals consist largely in getting the miscreants to learn to follow orders. To follow an order is to not follow one’s own spontaneous wishes. His impulse may be to remain seated. The order is to stand. To obey the order he must renounce his own immediate desire. This is necessary for self-discipline and for doing anything productive.

It may seem strange that mindlessly following orders can prepare someone for living outside the walls of a prison, and boot camps do look somewhat barbaric. But trying to produce in an adult what should have been instilled in the person as a baby requires some drastic-seeming efforts. Most murders are done in a fit of poor impulse control. Very few are planned for months in a particularly cold-blooded manner. Such behavior is more characteristic of a psychopath. It is more likely that the unsocialized will stick a knife in your gut in a fit of rage.

As a parent, you are establishing a hierarchy with the parent in charge. This is a good idea because you as an adult immeasurably smarter, more capable, more insightful, more considerate, more moral than any small child. This provides structure, stability and security. How anxiety-inducing it would be for a child to be expected to make all his own decisions and to live in a rule less, and thus unpredictable and chaotic, world. Fending for himself before a child is ready would be a nightmare.

Older children can be given more freedom as they approach the abilities of adults and they can also be given responsibilities with regard to their younger siblings.

A child learns to respect other people before he can respect himself. He learns to obey an external “no,” before he listens to an internal “no.”

Obedience training will make your child a relative pleasure to live with. Other parents and children are also far more likely to like your child too. This makes it more likely that your child will be included in playground activities and to be invited back to visit. Much of our self-conception is gleaned from how other people react to us. If a child is under-socialized and others react to her as a tyrannical and unlovable monster, then this will influence how the child views herself.

Obedience training means that it is unnecessary to “baby proof” your house. It also means that it is possible to take your baby to someone’s house, one that is also not baby-proofed, with little fear that he will get into trouble or injure himself. I know of couples who loved listening to the stereo, but never figured out how to stop their child from damaging the equipment, who simply put the stereo in storage. That child will also be a menace in anyone else’s home.

In fact, baby-proofing the house denies the parent a chance to train the child as to what it can and cannot do.

Yelling at a child does not ensure obedience, especially if one remains firmly planted in one’s seat, teaching the child that verbal commands are meaningless noises. Hitting your child does not ensure obedience either. It is perfectly possible for a child to simply “take the hit.” I have seen a mother slap a ten year old in the face when he refused to obey her and he replied “I’m still not coming.” Then what? Hitting your child is probably not how you would wish to interact with your beloved child. It is also likely to inculcate fear, a simmering rage and desire for vengeance.

Corporal punishment also produces the possibility that a parent will take out his frustration and anger at the behavior on the child. That may be all very cathartic for the parent, but it is selfish and abusive and violates the necessity to consider the best interests of the child.

If the method of following up verbal commands with active prevention until the behavior stops and verbal commands alone are sufficient, the child is not afraid of the adult. The adult is not a source of physical pain and violence. It’s simply a case of “resistance is futile.” If the habit of obedience is learned before the child can even think clearly and the parent does not make a habit of abusing his authority with copious and constant commands, then hopefully there will be a minimum amount of resentment and the child will still be reasonably compliant in his teenage years.

Crufts Dog Show

The perfectly trained dogs of Crufts are not beaten. If it is possible to have a perfectly trained dog without beating it, the same is true of children. Dog trainers who are also parents confirm that raising dogs and very young children is remarkably similar. The well-trained dog does not cower in fear and anticipation of a kick or blow.

When I went to London, I stayed with a family whose dog was expertly trained and frighteningly smart. Taking the dog with us to Hampstead Heath, he was, much to my surprise, taken off the leash. Soon thereafter another dog came over to say hello. Since many of the dogs where I live are maltreated and untrained, I feared for the worst. The dogs greeted one another, played briefly, romping in a friendly manner, and returned to accompanying their masters. This happened repeatedly. All the dogs were unleashed. The ability that these Englishmen had to civilize their animals inspired real admiration in me and brought up thoughts of the former British empire. When a dog expresses the desire to rip out your throat, you are looking into the wild, undisciplined, uncivilized, careless, and emotionally incontinent heart of its owner; someone who thinks this behavior is acceptable and who is prepared to live with such an animal.

Many dogs in Oswego, New York, are chained by the neck and left for hours on end in their front yard. This inspires a feeling of vulnerability in the dog, as it would a human, and they noisily react with fear and hostility to passersby. They are never walked and thus live a rather pitiful existence.

The dogs in this fairly fancy part of London are systematically exposed to strange people, to strange dogs, to traffic, etc., under the careful supervision of their owners making sure that the dog is not frightened or upset by each new phenomenon and thus can be counted on to behave in a calm manner at all times.

Do I Still Need to Do What You Ask?

I remember when my son was about eight. I said it was time to have a shower. A light bulb went off above his head and he said “no.” So, I playfully wrestled him into the bathroom which was right next door to the room where I had been reading to him his bedtime story. We were both giggling. He then said the equivalent of “all right then,” and took his shower. It never really happened again. It seemed like he had got to the age when the thought occurred to him “Why do I do what my dad says and what happens if I don’t?” Just going through the motions of physically backing up the command was enough. I don’t know what I would have done if I had got him into the bathroom and he had still refused.

As a member of a Mom’s club, I would sit with mothers who issued verbal commands but remained glued to their seats. The results were abysmal and painful to witness. They were training their children that the parent and any other authority could be ignored with impunity.

I know one young girl where one parent in particular refuses to be an authority figure. It is unbearable to be in the same room as the girl. She yells commands at the parent who adopts a slavish attitude, trying to grant her every wish. “Get my socks!” She yells. “Where are your socks?” the timorous and plaintive parent responds. “In my room, you idiot!” She screams. He returns with the socks. “No. Not those socks. The other ones!” Also delivered at maximum, derisive volume. There was no way that she appeared to be happy. She is a tyrannical monster, but one created by a reversal of the parent-child hierarchy.

Cèsar Milan

The Dog Whisperer’s formula for dealing with pathologically unsocialized dogs is “structure first, love second.” A common scenario is a middle-aged woman whose dog is out of control and tries to bite her husband or boyfriend and makes everyone’s life unbearable in various ways. The women shown typically just want to smother their beloved dog with physical affection and nauseating baby-talk; their darling boobsy-woopsy boo.

Milan’s advice is to wait until the dog is behaving calmly and then to be affectionate. This reinforces that particular behavior. If the dog is smothered with affection when it has just tried to disembowel the boyfriend, then the dog is being taught that this behavior is good and acceptable.

“Please” and “Thank You”

These social graces should be taught before the child is capable of understanding why they are necessary. If the child wants a drink ask “What do you say?” The child will eventually grudgingly say “Please.” Before removing your hand completely wait for “Thank you.” Once this habit is established, the child will be much nicer to interact with and other parents will find him much more likable.

Not Being the Child’s Friend

You are not your child’s friend. You are his parent. Your job is to do what you think is in the best interests of the child at all times, not to do what you think will curry favor with the child. That would be to be entirely selfish. If you relinquish your role of parent, then the child needs another parent.

Two times when my son hugged me with the most warmth and enthusiasm were days when I said that he did not have to do his music practice – the practice that I always supervised. In a cosmically just universe, it would be the reverse. And of course, if he never had music practice, his gratitude would wane within days anyway.

A Student Objects

“I have seen a two year old child stand there and scream a litany of obscene verbal abuse at his mother. I would hit him in the mouth,” said a student.

First of all, children are mimetic. The obedience training advocated here does not involve screaming. It seems unlikely that the child will scream abuse spontaneously. Secondly, where did the child learn the obscene words? If the parent does not swear and the social environment is minimally decent, the child should not know any swear words.

Children’s Food

There should be no such thing as children’s food; just smaller portions of healthy adult meals. This is normal practice in most countries around the world. What Americans called “children’s food” is actually unhealthy, nutrient-poor food too high in fat, salt and sugar.

If a child does not like some particular food, then it should be permissible to eat just a small amount of it, until hopefully the child gets used to the taste and learns to like it. One method is to offer the child a range of healthy food to eat and the child can pick and choose as it likes with the important proviso that an unhealthy alternative is not available. Turning meals into a torture of finishing everything on the child’s plate seems unnecessary. This may encourage overeating and be a source of needless antagonism. Letting the child serve itself as the child gets older means that the child figures out how much to put on its own plate. It also means learning to leave enough for everyone else at the table and thinking about that.

Music Practice

There are anecdotes of child prodigies who the first time their eyes fasten on a piano or violin demand lessons and practice hours a day with no prodding. I have never actually met such a child and the chances that your child will be like that are infinitesimally small.

The more normal experience is that there will be a honeymoon phase of about six weeks when the new instrument seems like fun. The novelty will wear off and the child realizes that learning a musical instrument involves hard work and will probably want to stop.

If it is important to you that your child learn a musical instrument then you decide. If the parent decides to leave it up the child, the child will almost certainly stop practicing. In that case, it seems better never to start.

Do not buy a cheap instrument and wait to see if your child likes it. The cheap instrument is likely to be harder to play, depending on which type, and will sound awful. You are effectively taking a defeatist attitude before you have started. Let any deficiencies in sound be the result of the player, not the instrument.


It seems to be remarkably hard to get children to read these days without going to great lengths to remove every other possible source of amusement and distraction – and this in the most literate households, where the parents can be seen reading every day for pleasure, let alone in more commonplace homes.

Spontaneous reading for pleasure is likely to remain the behavior of those destined for an Ivy League education. It seems that girls are more likely to do this than boys these days and they are indeed outperforming boys academically.

If you read to your child from when it is about two months old until the age of twelve and read just above its (self) reading level, the chances are that your child will be formal operational by that age. Only ten percent of all Americans are formal operational. Being formal operational, to use this term slightly aberrantly, means being able to think about thinking; metacognition. A person is able to describe his thought processes and the step by step sequence of thought that led to a particular conclusion. It is real abstract thinking. Someone does not just use counterfactual reasoning, but can do so explicitly. The level immediately below this is concrete operational – which means knowing the rules and following them. Formal operational cognition means knowing why the rules are what they are and when it might be necessary to break them. Sometimes following the purpose of a rule means not following it in a particular instance.

If the parent is not himself formal operational, I cannot say for certain what the results of reading will be. It is of course also helpful if the parents are modeling this kind of thinking and if their vocabularies are large and varied.

Being formal operational does not make one a genius. It just provides the necessary potential to write well-structured, coherent, argumentative essays or to learn how to program a computer, for instance. Any failure of reasoning or lapse in logicality will render a program unworkable or the essay compromised.


All this is predicated on a background assumption of love. The parent is teaching the child how to control his impulses. The parent is socializing the child so that he is a pleasure to be around for other children and parents. The parent/child relationship will be reasonably peaceful. Many of the rules of the house will be implicit and not need to be explicitly enforced. By training your child not to pull pot plants, rip pages out of books, etc., when it is preverbal, there is a good chance that by the time the child can think, the desire to do any of those things will not even enter its head. Verbal instructions will only be necessary for unfamiliar situations.

If the parent is calm, fair, consistent, loving, affectionate and patient, then they will be a source of dependable, stability and reassurance for the child and there is every possibility that the child will take comfort in the presence of the parent and will love the parent back.

Everything said applies to children not suffering from mental illnesses and the like.




19 thoughts on “Tips for Parenting

  1. Pingback: Tips for Parenting | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Tips for Parenting | Reaction Times

      • Good parenting, in my experience, is a *learned* set of skills. Of course we learn how to be effective parents in part by our own trials and errors. But (again, by my experience) a good and effective parent most generally was given a good foundation in parenting skills by his own parents and/or grandparents.

      • @ Terry Morris – Absolutely. It is most likely that you will do what was done to you. Only a conscious effort will normally be enough to alter this.

  3. A mother is unlikely to be able to (safely) inflict an appropriate level of pain for effective corporal punishment of a ten-year-old boy. This is what fathers are for.

    I can believe that there may be some families that can raise obedient children without corporal punishment. I know that there are plenty that can’t. Making that normative requires significantly more than you’ve provided here.

    “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”

    • @ ashv – Many people know only one method of socialization/obedience training; corporal punishment. Take that away and they’ve got nothing. That is why it is wrong for countries like New Zealand to ban corporal punishment without thorough training in the alternatives. I’ve seen parents who don’t want to beat their children like their parents did them, but they have no other model for asserting authority and they just sit there looking helpless. Corporal punishment is better than nothing, but there is still the issue of just taking the hit. And God help you if your teenager gets bigger than you. Everybody’s impulse upon getting hit is to hit back if they possibly can.

      I would love to hear anecdotes of parents following my suggested method and it not working. Unless your child is mentally ill, I’m skeptical. It works on dogs too. But absolute consistency, repetition and patience are required.

      • I would love to hear anecdotes of parents following my suggested method and it not working. Unless your child is mentally ill, I’m skeptical. It works on dogs too. But absolute consistency, repetition and patience are required.

        Corporal punishment is not necessarily a poor method of instilling discipline in an unruly child, or one who has taken things (disobedience) a bit too far. But you are right that it should be used sparingly and that the alternatives you suggest are superior *if* consistently applied.

        Also your insistence (in the O.P.) that socialization must begin early and applied often is spot on. It amazes me that the average modern parent thinks the term “socialization skills” as applied to small children or adolescents means they must be placed in a “daycare” facility with dozens of undisciplined/unruly children coralled by daycare workers who themselves have poor to nonexistent parenting skills.

  4. Prof. Cocks, I cannot commend you enough for raising the issue of “child proofing” in the O.P. It so happens that “child proofing” is one of my personal pet peeves for precisely the reasons you cite. I have preached against this method of (supposedly) protecting children from harm for thirty years. Indeed, I turned a nephew (who has small children, and whose wife incessantly “child proofs” everything in their home) on to the O.P., and he wrote me a text message shortly after reading it stating that he disagrees with “child proofing” because it “deprives the parent(s) of an opportunity [to instill discipline].” I wrote back reminding him of what you stated in the O.P.; that it deprives parents (and the child) of not *an* opportunity, but of hundreds of opportunities.

    • To Terry: yes, hundreds is right. If after hundreds and hundreds of attempts to disobey the parent is calmly and methodically thwarted before the kid can even think straight and a verbal command is backed up with physical intervention all those times, if your kid is still unruly then that is a child incapable of learning or training suggesting either severe mental retardation (though that may not necessarily be an impediment) or perhaps something like fetal alcohol syndrome. When I stayed with a family in London and walked on Hampstead Heath, I met the most civilized dogs I had ever seen on a level that was, for the most part, night and day with the pets of my fellow citizens where I live. The dog owners had, for one thing, systematically introduced their dogs to different scenarios – meeting strangers, meeting strange dogs, etc., to ensure the dog behaved appropriately in all circumstances. When encountering dogs that wish to tear your throat out, you are staring into the wild, undisciplined, emotionally incontinent, uncivilized hearts of their owners.

      • It occurs to me to add, more in reply to something else, that the dog owners at Crufts do not achieve their great heights of doggy obedience by beating their dogs. The Hampstead Heath dogs were left to run without leashes and greeted each other with friendly overtures, sniffed and played for a moment, and then rejoined their masters and mistresses. It was most pleasing to behold! Their joyful and relaxed manner didn’t look like that of a cowering, fearful pet waiting for a swift kick or fist.

      • I have said many many times that much can be learned about the character of parents simply by closely observing the general behavior of their children (exceptions granted of course). The same can be said of dogs and their owners.

    • @ Terry: Taking a cue from your nephew, I’ve added a line in the main text regarding child proofing depriving the parent of an opportunity to train his child. That’s a good point. And I agree that both children and dogs are a window into the soul of their parents and children.

  5. So many kids grow up without being raised. The high school where I work is full of feral kids, whose laissez faire upbringing has infantilized them and has rendered them largely “adult-proof.” The way in which schools often operate simply enables this.

    • To Alan: that sounds frightening and plausible. When I started a new private high school as a student, I quickly became notorious for not doing my homework and was promptly given a detention. My public school just hadn’t given a damn. The detention did me the world of good and I started my new career as a doer of homework. Somewhat perversely, I actually would voluntarily go to detention and study and read there. The teachers would just give a wry smile when they saw my name wasn’t on the list. I was strongly disappointed that my son’s high school was forbidden to give detentions for academic matters. I have the impression that that rule is common, but would love to hear that it is not.

      • Oh, the tales from the trenches I could tell! And from a good high school in an affluent bedroom community at that.


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