10 Dangers of Encouraging Obedience and People-Pleasing

by Dr. Jane Bluestein on February 9, 2013

It’s not as desirable as it sounds!

Parents can’t choose the mates of their children or the behavior of their children. You actually can’t choose anything for your children without disempowering them. —Abraham*

Most of the parents and teachers with whom I work come to my presentations (especially ones like You Can’t Make Me!and Dealing with Difficult Students, for example) looking for ways to get the kids to do what they, the adults, want. Early in my career, I tried to distinguish between obedience and cooperation. I found that even mentioning the word obedience became a trigger for resistance. Many people had a hard time getting past the idea that the only alternative to having obedient kids was chaos and anarchy, with kids running wild and parents having no authority at all.

Although this wasn’t remotely true, I found the language becoming an obstacle to my ability to connect with my audience, whether in face-to-face presentations or through my writing. So for the most part, I don’t even mention the word any more, focusing instead on a win-win middle ground between the familiar authoritarian approach and the likewise familiar (and even less attractive) permissive approach.

Nonetheless, it’s still a challenge to convince some adults that they really don’t need a bigger hammer to hit them with when conventional punitive approaches have stopped working. (I will admit to having a hard time making this turnaround myself, but it didn’t take me long to realize that the harder I tried to control kids and get them to obey me, the more problems I was creating— for myself and for the kids, including the usually cooperative ones who were stressed out by how my behavior was affecting the climate of the classroom.

So I came up with this list, because the issue still comes up from time to time, and having recently posted a podcast with Tammy Cox about the cost of trying to control kids along with an article by this same guest, I thought it might be a good time to post this list once again. Because there is a huge difference between the child who does what we want to get the task out of the way, to move on to a more desirable activity, or for the love of the task itself, and the child who does what we want to get our conditional approval— or avoid our anger, punishment, or even disappointment.

Likewise, adults who work to generate cooperation and self-management will choose a very different set of parenting behaviors or classroom management strategies than the ones looking for obedience. So I ask you to please consider your intentions: What is it you really, really want? And if you’re still unconvinced, please check out the following problems with people raised to simply do as they are told:

• People-pleasers are motivated by external factors, such as the need for outside (and usually conditional) approval. They often do what others want in order to feel safe, worthwhile, or valued (for example, “. . . so my friends will like me more.”)

• People-pleasers do what others want to avoid disapproval, punishment, ridicule, or abandonment, or for fear of hurting, disappointing, or angering someone else. They base their decisions on another person’s anticipated reaction.

• People-pleasers may obey anyone who appears to be important, powerful, or popular. They tend to be highly influenced by peer pressure. They are far more vulnerable than other children to adults who may not have their best interests in mind.

• People-pleasers have a hard time saying “no,” even when saying “yes” would be unwise, inconvenient, or even unsafe for them. Their negotiation skills are limited.

• Obedient kids have a hard time seeing the connection between their behavior and the consequences of their behaviors. Their sense of responsibility may be limited: “He made me do it.” “Everyone else was doing it.” “She started it.”

• Obedient kids are likely to blame their choices on someone else. They don’t have to take responsibility for their choices (or how their lives turn out) because they were just doing what someone else told them to do.

• Obedient kids may have a hard time functioning in the absence of authority. They lack initiative and would just as soon wait for someone to tell them what to do. They often depend on others to make decisions for them or make their choices simply to impress someone else.

• They believe that their ability to influence or control their lives depends on their ability to keep others happy, even if doing so inconveniences them, compromises their boundaries or principles, or, in some instances, even jeopardizes their safety.

• When people-pleasers experience conflict between what they want and what someone else wants, they may express this conflict as compliance, guilt, passive-aggressiveness, resentment, helplessness, or victimization.

• People-pleasers lack confidence in their own instincts and the ability to act in their own self-interests. They have difficulty understanding or expressing personal needs, or asking directly for what they want.

Note: I use the word obedience to describe the notion of simply doing what one is told, usually without evaluating the request, in order to avoid disapproval, rejection, abandonment, or some other negative, hurtful, or punitive outcome. Contrast obedience with cooperation, which will look about the same in terms of how the child is acting, but which is motivated by something besides the reaction or approval of another person. Our real goal, in building responsibility, is encouraging cooperation, not obedience. In doing so, we can achieve the same behavior results without compromising the child’s emotional safety or ability to act in his or her own behalf.

Excerpted and adapted from The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s & Don’ts of Effective Parenting by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 1997, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL. *The Abraham quote was excerpted from a workshop in Syracuse, NY on October 17, 1996. With thanks to Susannah G. for sending the quote.

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Related resources for parents:

5 Characteristics of a Good Boundary
Alternatives to Advice Giving: Questions to guide problem solving
The Challenge of Setting Boundaries
Good Parenting or Effective Parenting?
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Parenting Teens
Questions, Not Answers
Ways to be a More Conscious Parent
Ways to be an Effective Mentor
Ways to build Irresponsibility in Children
Ways to Model Respect with Your Children

Click here for resources for educators on student behavior issues.

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Positively Positive at Home: Keeping the Focus You Want
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“You Can’t Make Me!” Using Boundaries Build Responsibility, Cooperation, and Mutual Respect

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