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In Children, Obedience Must Be Balanced with Creativity

I spent most of this weekend writing a report about obedience. That may not sound like fun to the average bear but it had its moments.

What started the ball rolling was some very interesting research that was conducted by a psych professor at Yale and the release of his findings in the early '60s. It was a landmark study that has been replicated, with some variations, many times, including in 2009, and each time the results were about the same.

The report caused quite a lot of fuss for many reasons, one of them being that it brought into question the long-held belief that obedience, especially in children, was a most desirable characteristic.

Here is a very brief description of Stanley Milgram's study entitled 'The Perils of Obedience.

In 1961, Milgram put out a call for volunteers, first to the student population and then to the general population. Those who showed up (eventually 3,000 of them) were assigned the role of either 'teacher' or 'learner.'

Teachers watched while a learner was set up in a chair with light restraint and electrodes attached to his arms. Then a screen was placed between the teacher and the learner. The teacher was given a list of word-matching questions and a control with 30 settings from low voltage to very high voltage that could administer electric shock when wrong answers were given. The experimenter instructed the teacher to use the shock control progressively when errors occurred.

As the voltage increased, the learners began to cry out in pain with each shock and at one point a man told the teacher that he suffered from a heart condition and was not feeling well. Although many of the teachers were reluctant to continue and became very uncomfortable to the point of distress in some cases, they continued shocking the learner with each mistake. When they expressed a desire to quit, the experimenter instructed them to keep going. And they did. At least 65% of them continued to dish out the punishment because they had been told to do so by a self-proclaimed authority figure.


Right now, everyone is thinking, "I would have resisted, I would not have participated."

Only 20% did not participate. Another 15% quit before they got to the highest voltage level.

Obedience is a two-edged sword. Civilization succeeds because of obedience. All of our systems have rules and regulation that provide our society with order and stability.

In our homes, we are the authority figure that sets the rules and monitors them. Obedience is a necessary discipline that children and youth need to learn in order to be successful in the world.

But they also need to learn how to think for themselves.

Milgram's study is a good reminder that we are thinking, creative people, not sheep.

As parents, we need to help our children find a good balance. It puts that old saying, "Do what I say, not what I do" into a different light. Everyone deserves an explanation, even kids!