There is a difference!

As you can imagine, my perceptions and ideas about children’s behavior have evolved over the years, including shifts in the vocabulary and conceptual framework I use in my writing and seminars. These changes have been especially evident in relation to the concepts I explore in this post.

Because it’s so easy to think of behavior and power dynamics in rather black-and-white terms, I have made an effort over the years to steer clear of terms like obedient which can, for some adults, suggest disobedience as the only alternative.

I assure you, this is not the case. While surface observations might suggest that cooperative kids are behaving much like obedient children, there are significant differences between these two groups—in their attitudes, goals, respect for boundaries, consideration for others, sense of responsibility, feelings and emotional costs, perception of their own options and autonomy, and the strategies and tools kids develop to express their preferences.

So I present this material cautiously. While today I am more inclined to emphasize behaviors motivated primarily by an adult’s reaction versus cooperative choices reflecting a greater degree of self-motivation (in the context of a mutually respectful environment), I decided to include this content for anyone still struggling to differentiate between these two concepts.

The Obedient Child: Behavior Under Adult Control

• Motivated by anticipated reaction of others, including the need to please in order to experience another person’s approval, or to avoid another person’s anger, disappointment, rejection, abandonment, or ridicule, for example.

• Follows orders; obeys, may think. (Note: Obedient children may also exhibit passive-aggressive behavior, agreeing to things they have no intention of doing, or agreeing to comply and then “forgetting.”)

• May lack confidence in ability to function without authority; waits for orders; adult-dependent. May be overwhelmed by conflict between personal needs and the needs of others; may experience guilt or resentment when conflict cannot be resolved. May ultimately see rebellious or passive-aggressive behavior as only alternative to compliance and people-pleasing.

• Sense of self is defined by other people’s reactions; feels worthwhile when getting approval.

• Difficulty seeing connection between behavior and consequence of choices (good and bad); difficulty anticipating outcomes.

• Difficulty seeing options or choices; difficulty making decisions. Helplessness or perception of not having any choices or power.

• Difficulty understanding or expressing personal needs; limited ability to get needs met without hurting self or others.

• Likely to make choices to avoid negative reactions from others and may make choices that have potentially harmful or destructive outcomes to gain approval or avoid rejection, criticism, or some other hurtful reaction.

The Cooperative Child: Behavior under Child’s Self-Control

• Motivated by factors such as the desire for autonomy, weighing and selecting options to exert a certain degree of control over outcomes; less vulnerable to making choices simply to please another person (or avoid negative outcomes)

• Thinks, may obey. Confident in ability to function without authority; takes initiative; more independent.

• Able to resolve conflict between personal needs and the needs of others without guilt, helplessness, or rebelliousness.

• Sense of self is defined internally; feels worthwhile with or without approval, or even with disapproval.

• Able to see connection between behavior and outcomes; able to anticipate possible outcomes of choices and make decisions.

• Able to understand and express personal needs; able to get needs met without hurting self or others.

• May make apparently poor choices to satisfy curiosity or simply out of inexperience (rather than complying with potentially harmful or dangerous suggestions to please others).

Adult Behaviors, Beliefs, and Attitudes that Encourage Obedience (Dependence on Adult Control)

• Authoritarian, critical, judgmental; threatening (implicit or explicit); conditionality of approval based on child’s compliance

• Criteria offered for choices may be unrelated to task or outcome: “…Because I told you” or “…Because I said so.”

• Demands: “Clean your room” or “Go upstairs and study right now.”

• Makes decisions for the child: “I know what’s best for you.”

• Protective; has difficulty allowing child to experience negative consequences of  decisions or mistakes; offers few opportunities for child to make decisions.

• More likely to cover or make excuses for child’s decisions or lack of follow through.

• Mistrusts child’s ability to make constructive choices. May mistrust child’s motivation in making decisions.

• Threatened by child’s independence; may discourage or prevent independent behavior.

• May take responsibility for child’s behavior and outcomes or believe themselves to be the cause of child’s behavior: If the child is late for school, it’s because the parent didn’t hurry him or her enough.

Adult Behaviors and Attitudes that Encourage Cooperation

• Offers criteria for choices based on probable outcomes: “If you tie your shoes, you won’t trip on your laces.” Or, allows shoes to remain untied.

• Avoids making decisions for child. Will provide information and clear instructions, encouraging the child to make decisions based on that information.

• May have difficulty allowing child to experience negative consequences but are willing to allow child to make mistakes and learn from them (except in life-threatening situations). Unlikely to cover for the negative outcomes of  child’s choices.

• Trusts child’s ability to make decisions; likely to understand and respect the fact that the child is motivated by  personal needs, which may be different from the adult’s needs.

• Can still feel needed by an independent child; encourages child’s independence.

• Will leave responsibility for child’s behavior and outcomes with child: If child is late for school, it is because of poor decisions made by child; child faces consequences of lateness.

This material was adapted from a 1985 book, Parents in a Pressure Cooker, by Dr. Jane Bluestein and Dr. Lynn Collins. This book is now out of print, although plans for a revised edition are still a possibility.

© 1983, 1985, 1990, 2014, Dr. Jane Bluestein

Related links:

An Alternative to Advice-Giving: Building Problem-Solving Skills
The Challenge of Setting Boundaries
Characteristics of a Good Boundary
Dangers of Obedience and People Pleasing
Guidelines for Handling Your Children’s Negative Behavior
Guidelines for Offering Choices to Your Children
Good Parenting or Effective Parenting?
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Questions, Not Answers
Reasons for Parents to Use Boundaries
Reasons to Not Ask “Why”

Similar topics with links for educators.


Book: The Book of Article Reprints
Book: Listas Para Padres: Qué Hacer Y Qué No
Book: The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting
Book: Parents, Teens and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line

Audio: Parent Tapes (CDs or mp3 download)

Articles: Individual article reprints for educators, counselors, parents, and general interest.


The Choice is Yours with Lynn Collins
“Constructive Differencing” with Jared Scherz
Is Control the Goal? with Tammy Cox

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