One of the very best life lessons I’ve ever learned occurred when James was just becoming a toddler. We were at my mother’s farm when James took off running across the yard. Being concerned for his safety, I instinctively ran after him as I had seen a hundred other mothers do, calling out, “Stop!” To my surprise, however, Jack said to me, “Don’t chase after him. Make him come to you.”
These are probably the most challenging words Jack has ever spoken to me. I was stumped. How could I possibly make this new toddler come to me? I have since learned, however, that not only can I do it, but that I must.
Little did I understand it then, but my urge to chase James was counterproductive to the very obedience I was trying to instill in him–as well as constituting a threat to the safety I so deeply wished for him. In his mind, he had initiated a fun game with Mommy and the merriment of the moment far overpowered his young habits in obedience. He interpreted my chasing as mere playing along–following his lead. It is no wonder that the spectacle of my chasing completely erased any sobering effect that the command “Stop!” might ordinarily have had on him. As Jack would point out later, even things like the plaintiff tone I had used (pleading rather than commanding) and the repetition of the directive are all signals to the child that “Stop!” doesn’t really mean “Stop!”—or, at least, it doesn’t mean it yet!
James’ running that day just happened to be in a safe direction, but had he ventured toward the road where cars come speeding past, I’d have been powerless (because of the mixed signals I was sending) to modify his behavior, or even to communicate the danger to him. It would soon become clear that the very best habit of interaction that I could instill between James and me is that of instant obedience to my commands.
Laura Ingalls Wilder aptly illustrated the blessings (to parent and child alike) of trained instant obedience in an episode from Little House in the Big Woods that involved Ma, Laura, and a bear. After Ma and Laura had retreated safely to the house from a dangerous run-in with a bear, Ma said:
He didn’t hurt us. You were a good girl, Laura, to do exactly as I told you, and to do it quickly, without asking why.
You see, Laura and Ma, lantern in hand, had mistakenly assumed that the large, shadowy figure that was blocking their gate was their cow Sukey. Ma realized first that it was a bear, and not wanting Laura to entice the bear to a chase by running and screaming, she told her to turn and walk toward the house. Laura obeyed.
Laura’s obedience on this occasion, however, was no stroke of luck; it was the result of deliberate and continual training in obedience. Ma and Pa Ingalls certainly reaped the rewards that day of having made the consistent effort to train their girls. Can you imagine Ma’s sense of relief in the aftermath of this episode? What a great affirmation this must have been as to their paradigms of good parenting!
Charlotte Mason mentions in Parents and Children a mother who claimed, “I always finish teaching my children obedience before they are one year old.” And Miss Mason added, “Why not? Obedience in the first year, and all the virtues of the good life as the years go on…”
Consistency, I have learned— even for the smallest child—is a key to training obedience. Never give in and never give up. And good habits, as Charlotte Mason said, are the best schoolmaster.
Every habit of courtesy, consideration, order, neatness, punctuality, truthfulness, is itself a schoolmaster, and orders life with the most unfailing diligence.
Jack, who taught James that “the better you obey, the more I’ll allow you to do,” likes to tell this story to illustrate the wisdom and benefits of immediate, unquestioning obedience. As he recalls the story, it was about a World War II Navy captain whose ship was towing a disabled ship using a huge steel cable. From his vantage point above the deck, the captain could watch both the ship under tow and the sailors hard at work with various tasks on his own deck. Upon noticing that the towing cable was beginning to unravel under the great stress of the load, the captain shouted “Everybody down!” The entire crew on the deck immediately dropped face down on hearing his command. Immediately afterward, the cable snapped and cut like a whip just a couple of feet above the ship’s deck—just above the prone sailors.
There had been no time for explanations or for cajoling. Nor had there had been any of the plaintiff bargaining that so many parents employ today when they unwittingly seek their children’s approval for each command: “Time to get down now, Oh-KAAAAY?” To seek the child’s approval in this way is to communicate that he is free to choose whether and when to obey. To give such latitude to a child is nothing short of cruelty, for he cannot help but to wield it foolishly. He must first learn to obey, and only later, to judge for himself. Because the captain had the crew so well trained as to obey without delay, he saved many lives that day when nothing short of immediate obedience would do.
Looking back on that day in Grandma’s yard, perhaps it would have seemed an unlikely time and place to learn a major life lesson, but that was the day when I adopted a new paradigm that would prove over and over to save our family from the strife and dangers we see so many others suffering. From time to time, we all come to a fork in the road in our journey as parents. It thrills me now, years later, to have affirmed over and over the benefits of the new road I took that day. As the poet might say, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”