We just had our second parent-teacher conference with our almost-four year old's preschool teacher (he's in a Montessori school, that follows the technique well, mostly), and among other things, learned that the main issue the teacher felt that needed to be addressed was his respect for authority - and by that, she clearly meant "doing what he's told".

Both my wife and I believe in raising independent, self-sufficient children who have the emotional and intellectual tools to be successful. We don't believe in a discipline model that relies on parental authority, but in helping our children understand why they need to do what they need to do (whether it's going to bed on time, brushing teeth, not hitting, whatever). We believe that, other than in issues of safety or health, as much as possible they need to find out for themselves why they should or should not do things - with some guidance and suggestions, but ultimately fewer and fewer as they get older.

This clashes with the general discipline model, though; certainly teachers expect that if they tell a student something, he does it, no questions or "talking back", and to a large extent that's seen as necessary. Even in a Montessori classroom, that's still the expectation, and not one we can really do a lot about (other than choose a different school, I suppose).

We understand that, and also understand that in life you ultimately do need to learn when to respect authority - at least apparently: to act respectfully, at least. Whether or not you think the police officer pulling you over is targeting you because of your left-leaning bumper sticker, you still say "Yes, Officer, thank you". We definitely want him to have this experience (hence, not changing classes for this particular reason at least) for this reason - this won't be the only person in authority who expects him to respect her, and the earlier he learns, the better.

As such, what can we do to help our son here? He's not yet four years old, so it's unclear to me how well he can understand the difference between acting respectfully and respecting someone (in the sense of giving more weight to their opinions or requests based on your past relationship with them, for example). He's not a compliant child to begin with; his younger brother clearly is far more compliant, and will likely have much less trouble with this, but our three year old is already his own very independent person and very much likes to keep it that way.

What we don't want to do is simply tell him "You have to listen to your teacher"; that doesn't give him why, for one thing, and relies on his respect for us and/or parental authority that we prefer not to rely on unless absolutely necessary. A good answer will help us give him the tools to deal with someone in authority without expecting him to become a compliant sheep, and the reasons to understand why it might be necessary or appropriate.

Edit: I talked with my wife about what the teacher referred to, and the specific behavior was "not complying quickly with requests", not talking back or challenging authority explicitly. IE, she will tell him, ", go over and do your bead work next", and he'll require several repetitions to actually go do it. This isn't all that different from getting dressed in the morning - except in how we handle it: we let him know what he's going to have time to do if he gets dressed now vs. if he takes until right before we leave to get dressed, and he typically chooses to dress quickly once he's awake enough to think coherently.

  • 2
    I will ask that answers avoid critiquing the model of discipline/parenting - that's not what I'm asking about. Thanks!
    – Joe
    Apr 15, 2015 at 20:21
  • Can you explain to him that doing what the teacher says helps him and his friends to learn, and that my not listening, he is creating a 'bad environment'? I am not sure my 4 year old would be able to get that, but I am not sure he wouldn't either. I would say it is also essential to get the teacher along with your parenting model - maybe she can help explain why he has to do things (at an appropriate, non disruptive moment) rather than relying on authority.
    – Ida
    Apr 15, 2015 at 20:49
  • 1
    Do you have some examples of when your son refuses authority or talks back inappropriately? Is he just being contrary for the sake of being contrary, or does he really feel the teacher is being unreasonable?
    – Erik
    Apr 15, 2015 at 21:53
  • I don't entirely, because it's not when we're there; of course, he acts differently. I'll see if my wife remembers any specific examples from the conference, but I imagine it's just not automatically doing what he's asked to; he doesn't have the in built "do what adults tell you to do" that a lot of kids do (due to the more common method of authority-based discipline at home). We permit more debate/discussion of activities than most would.
    – Joe
    Apr 15, 2015 at 22:00
  • +1, because I really could have used this in my youth. I still don't inherently respect anyone unless they've earned it (and are respectful to me), although I do respect that certain authorities have sway over me because I choose to let them (laws, bosses, university policies). And then there's the concept of being respectful, which can be separated from respecting authority/individuals. I'll play around with these ideas and try to come up with an answer, because I did somehow manage to find a balance that allows me to be successful, but still independent.
    – user11394
    Apr 16, 2015 at 5:21

6 Answers 6


So, let's first agree that you can't instruct a child how to behave. It's often difficult to instruct an adult.

The question was what are the tools to influence child's behavior. Here they are: personal example, role play, storytelling, training (just like you train dogs;)), consequences. Let's have a closer look how these tools can be applied in the context of the question and then discuss what final goal we want to achieve.

  1. Personal example. Show how you respect authority in different situations: a) The traffic light is red, it tells us to wait. I am obeying traffic light because... b) I can't go straight to check-out to pay for your chocolate, there is a queue and I have to queue. It's impolite to do otherwise. b') Instead of impolite argument, you can also say that there is a security in the shop who monitors other people behavior. This will bring up different aspect of respecting rules and authority. c) I can't stay in preschool with you, I have to do my studies at university (I am a grad student). I have a supervisor who tells me what to do and I listen to him because he is very clever and teaches me everything. c') I also show my daughter how I study. I show her the books I read and my notebooks. She is happy when she can recognize letters, numbers and shapes in my notes. I explain her my motivation and my duties. And so on.

  2. Role play. Playing is the best way for children to practice their social skills and safely try different ways to behave. We have a set of Lego figures that represent my daughter, me, daddy, granny, cousins and so on. Using these figures, I model real life situations and see how my daughter develops the game, correcting her gently or questioning her actions, when I disagree or want her to behave differently in real life. So, you can add scenarios in which you want to change his behavior into your game and gradually change his behavior while playing. This will alternate his behavior in real life. Or if you don't want to change his behavior, this method will give you insight into how your child behaves when you don't see him, you will better understand his motivation and attitude. We play "school" a lot with my daughter. She sits on a chair at the desk (they are made of storage boxes), I give her different tasks like reading, counting, drawing and she does them immediately because it's school and it's very serious business.

  3. Story telling. Discuss characters' behavior in stories when you come across relevant examples in books you are reading together or animated films he is watching. When he is older, I think you will watch Star wars with him. Isn't episode 3 a wonderful deep example of authority/respect/personal problems conflict?

There is another technique concerning stories, whose author is Doris Brett. http://www.amazon.com/Annie-Stories-Special-Kind-Storytelling/dp/0894805282. It is a powerful tool in influencing children's behavior. The outline of the technique is the following: tell him a story about a boy who was in school and the teacher asked him to do something. How the boy decided not to do it and what happened next. Ask whether the boy was right or not, what would you do in his place. Make up together a new story, where the boy behaved better. Or make a conclusion that the boy was right as he didn't harm anybody and just wanted to do something else which was absolutely fine.

  1. Training. In preschool there is usually a simple routine which a child has to obey. Ask the teacher what are the typical situations where he has to do what he is told and train him to do it at home. My daughter had problems with tiding up at preschool, but she usually enjoys the process at home. So, when we next tidied her room, I told her "we are at preschool now and I am the teacher", and then with teacher's tone "children, its tidy up time!". She learned the procedure and never had problems after.

  2. Consequences. They were already mentioned in answers, so I will not repeat.

Now let's see what are the goals.

Short-term: well-being in preschool. Tell the teacher that you don't know how teach him do what he is told. Don't say you are not going to do it, but rather ask her for constructive advice how you can achieve what she asks for. My guess is that she will not come up with any constructive advice, but rather she will have to change her requirements for the child. Then discuss what concrete behavior should be changed, why and how.

Long-term: well-being at school. Make sure he studies well and does his homework on time. Good students can usually get away with much more;)

Long-term: life. In my opinion there are two things you should teach a child to respect: 1) law; 2) traditions of other peoples, when being in a foreign country. Everything else is up to him. So, my suggestion: leave it an open question. Make sure it arises in different context and circumstances, provide guidance in partial cases but don't try to give a ready-made answer. Better, ask him proper questions, like: "What do you think about Milgram experiment?"

Please tell me if it was helpful.

  • 1
    "Tell the teacher that you don't know how teach him do what he is told. Don't say you are not going to do it, but rather ask her for constructive advice how you can achieve what she asks for." Brilliant! Jun 14, 2015 at 20:05
  • Hi - thanks for the suggestions! Some of that is what we're aiming to do now, and definitely agree that roleplaying is a good strategy - perhaps more explicit roleplaying is needed.
    – Joe
    Jun 15, 2015 at 16:32

The reason people submit to authority is because it's a condition of associating with a group, to keep things harmonious and efficient. The main difference with children is they have a lot less choice over who they associate with. In other words, they usually don't have the choice to end an association with a group in lieu of submitting to its authority.

You want to teach your child to recognize the difference between when an authority's request is arbitrary, and when it is fairly made for the sake of group harmony and efficiency.

This is the difference between expecting a child to hurry up to get ready to leave the house with the family, and expecting him to hurry up getting dressed to play alone. The former affects the entire family, but the latter does not.

The unfortunate aspect of school is the need for efficiency while managing a large group too often outweighs individual autonomy, but again, that's the cost of associating with that group, and the parents chose that association on the child's behalf even if the child didn't. Teachers simply don't have time to debate with each child individually over the reasons why complying will benefit the group.

You need to clean up quickly as a courtesy to the next child who will use those supplies. You need to get ready quickly so everyone can have lunch earlier. You need to be quiet when requested so as not to disturb the group. It's okay to have questions, but you often need to hold them for a more appropriate time. These are things even adults do in similar situations.

  • 1
    What you say is, to some extent, reasonable, and largely what I believe; but I'm not entirely sure how to turn this into an actionable solution. Even as an adult it's hard for me to do what you suggest - in large part because it's hard to tell why an authority is making a request.
    – Joe
    Apr 16, 2015 at 16:09

Sounds like you may have a strong willed child, which is excellent but challenging. Balancing appropriate obedience with independent thought is a tough process, and I salute you for undertaking it. I have three children ranged from 10 to 18 that I have raised this way, successfully by all accounts, so I hope I can be of some insight.

This does not have to be an exercise into deep psychological insight or social engineering. The goal is to raise an independent and self-sufficient adult that is capable of functioning in society without bowing to conformity. However, being a part of society requires a degree of conformity, even if it is only to obey reasonable laws. There will always be an authority with which your child will have to deal with, even if it is just the police. Or in this case an over zealous teaching authority whom it would seem is not familiar with toddler behavior.

There are really only two concepts you need to use in order to raise your child as you are seeking to. First is Choice and Consequence.

Choice and Consequence

One side reinforces free will within your child, the other teaches that free will does not mean free pass. At this age you cannot reason with a child, they lack the experience and knowledge necessary, so demonstration is more important than conversation.

For example, little johnny is asked to stop throwing his bowl of cheerios into the floor. If he refuses, then there must be a Consequence, such as no more cheerios. He will refuse, because he will test your authority. Independent thought is not hard for a child, their universe is comprised of themselves, so pushing back against authority comes naturally. What he has to learn is that there are consequences to his actions, and you as a parent must consistently keep to those consequences. Once he is about four or five, depending on his maturity level and ability to converse, you can start explaining consequences prior to incidents. You will know him well enough to anticipate issues by this time, so you can head him off.

A typical interaction at that age would be "Johnny, remember how I told you not to draw on the wall? Your not going to do that again are you, because you know if you do then you will have your crayons taken away". Johnny will say yes, and depending upon how well he is progressing either keep it on the paper or paint a new picasso all over your living room. When that happens, again reference the previous conversation, and rather than just met out punishment, explain that he Chose to disobey, and since he decided to do so, then there must be a Consequence.

This is the crucial part that many parents skip, because they are worried about crushing potential, or making up for their own crappy childhood. That is a mistake, and you can usually tell how well it is working for them based upon the level of destruction in their household. Being firm and fair, not angry, but rather acting out of love and their best interest will not only help shape them into responsible and strong minded adults, but also reinforce their feeling of security. Kids like boundaries intrinsically, it helps define their safe zones.

As your child ages, continue the concept but with advanced interactions and discussions. Not only will it foster communication with your kid, which is insanely important, but it will gradually dawn on them that you are a pretty cool parent.

Until they turn into teens, and in that case you almost start all over. They will test you beyond what you though possible, and you will start wondering if you messed up raising your kid to challenge authority and assert themselves. My oldest can make the most reasonable arguments out of the most blatant infractions, but I respect her opinion, will listen to the argument, and on more then a few occasions have given her a pass just because of the way she handled herself. You will still need to stick with your consequences, though by this time they are along the lines of "your making dinner tonight" "and thats how you loose your cellphone" and my favorite "better get a job, you now get to pay your car insurance".

Totally awesome though, it is great seeing your hard work flower into a confident, well rounded and capable individual with a deep sense of self worth and a independent streak a mile wide.

Personal Accountability

Second concept is Personal Accountability. This one seems like a no brainer, but it is hard to do right. I find many parents don't want to imprint their concepts of right and wrong, their own prejudices, onto their kids and so they allow them to develop their own. This is right, but usually done wrong.

Regardless of society, ethnicity, or personal beliefs, their are always a set of universal values that will be expected. There is a reason why doctors, lawyers and government workers have to take ethics courses. Murder is bad, rape is bad, hurting others is bad, stealing is bad. Even if you keep it simple, your going to have to impart this knowledge to your child. Especially in our current society which see's police officers dealing with even trivial elementary school issues with the full force of the law.

If you do not teach them right and wrong at the most basic level, society will. Once they are a little older, that is when they can start determining how they feel about issues.

My son asked me when he was eight why some kids were mean to others. I told him some people just don't understand that everyone deserves to be treated nicely. I asked him how he felt about that, and he said it made him mad. So I asked him what he thought he should do about it, and he just sat there thinking. That happened several years ago, and since then he has made it a point to stick up for every kid he see's bullied.

I have had to back him by going to the school and speaking to the principle, or dealing with other consequences, but he makes his choices based on what he sees as right and is prepared to face the consequences.

In learning Personal Accountability, your children learn to not only have an opinion or parrot another's, but to take action based upon those beliefs and hold themselves to a standard. This is the driving force behind developing a personal identity that will not easily succumb to the influence of the herd.


I think the balance lies in reasoning. Children are always curious about what and why (if not when and how) of all things. Why do we brush? is it only because there is a rule or is it because something will "happen" if we don't brush? In a large majority of the issues (though, I may be over emphasis with this), we are really chasing the deadline - whether to put them to school or reach office where children remain stuck with the questions unanswered.

Now, without generalizing as to why parents fail or succeed, i would say it the reasoning and importance of the reasoning which when kid appreciate when we reach out to them as to how should they be seeing the world. Few points i would put from my experience:

  • Attend their questions genuinely
    When a child doesn't appear to appreciate, e.g. 'why should I go to school?' there are several reasons why this question occur. Does he need reason for why study? or does he have conflict somewhere and want to avoid? Does he find it painful or less interesting? When we put authoritarian answer to this, they tend to add disrespect not only for what is being told to them, (i.e. going to school) but also to who is saying this. So in all address the source of inquiry as to where it comes from! The same is true when the kid doesn't appreciate someone's effort or authority. We need to see whether it arise from some kind of friction or dislike or does the child needs space?

  • Develop respect before authority
    Before children are taught why they should follow authority, they should develop a sense of connection with them. Most children, right from the birth, develop and realize the sense of their connection and dependency with mother, and without being told they do treat mothers as authority. The same can be made for the father and elders and teachers as they appreciate why elder people guide them for better. As they say, 'respect-needs-to-be-earned' - it is true even more for kids. When they see that their football coach can do things that they themselves can't, it develops the sense of respect for that teacher. And slowly, as they see more teachers - it develops a generalization that teachers are more qualified and hence listen to them! The same way, they need to be taught policemen are here to protect and if you misbehave they will book you!

  • Set 'who's in-charge'
    What can be more direct is that we can bring the clarity of people's role in your life - what they can do/can't do to you and what they control - whether you like it or not. Define that "Mom" is going to decide if we are buying this toy and papa will decide if are going to do "x". The school bus driver/conductor will take you only if you are on time. Doctor must be obeyed to so that you get cured. The teacher will determine you will move to the next class; and she also decides whether your homework is done properly or not. This might sound very harsh to put out "this person will punish you with X - if you don't do this'. but the same thing we might want to put up more respectfully as to 'the role of the person is to do X - and they will stick to their duty regardless of whether you like it'. The role effect is very important for children to realize that they need to obey -without developing hatred of being pushed for doing something.

  • Give them the larger picture
    We must not forget that the child has spent much less time on earth than us - and while we think that is the reason why they should follow what we say- but actually it's the other way around. Because they haven't experienced things that you have - they have no reason to believe in a whole bunch of things you are saying. The tactical angle of how-things-happen-in-the-world is i think best left for them to realize on their own; or in other words learn them the hard way! The crucial thing remains is that the better and clearer we can evolve their minds to understand the order of the world more readily they appreciate as to why all those "authorities" exists in the first place. This only comes with time I guess. But we can do some little things - stories, interaction and guide on occasion-basis to set their world-view right.

  • Persuade with reason
    When child has made up his mind on something or if he/she has serious question on why and why not something is good - the pressure lies on us to convince. Even with reasonably young kids - say about 6+, i have seen unreasonable answer just wont' work. To overcome this, they need to be told reason, more vividly. When you get into story-telling time, pickup example stories that shows why certain behavior is good and bad. As you build cause-and-consequence relationship in a more simplistic way that he/she can relate to they will appreciate other people's view point.

I don't know if you may find this to be practical or overly theoretical - but it really lies in your everyday interaction with your kid and how you implement. Also, the process is completely progressive.

Now, your question was how to balance 'follow-authority' vs. 'decide-self', in my view it should be done as the children try to abide by the authority on their own with full awareness (as they can have) with their own reasoning. This will not make them lame submissive but will also not make them arrogant and ignorant.

-but it's the set of little things you do everyday that allows them to evolve things.

Hope this is in line of what you are looking for.


Am I missing something here, or are all the responders assuming the child needs to change his behavior... and can change his behavior... and the parent needs to make this happen?

This teacher is one data point. See if you, as parents, feel troubled by any manifestations of the tendency observed by the teacher. See if he's having troubles along these lines with any other adults. See how he's doing with peers. You might want to spend half a day as a fly on the wall in the classroom -- this can be extremely illuminating!

If your son is starting to be harmed by the teacher's negative reactions -- then you'll need to do something about the situation. Otherwise, my suggestion would be, just let her remarks wash over you like water off a duck's back.


I'm going to start again from scratch with a different answer. I'm not sure if I should make a new post, and whether I should delete my first answer.

Okay, starting from the premises, parent wants to help child conform to teacher's behavioral expectations (which might or might not be reasonable), and child's lack of compliance seems to be mostly around transitions to new activities:

  1. Train your so to work with very short to-do lists. You can use some symbols along with any text you use, to make it easier for him to understand the list. In some cases, you can let him dictate the list items, and in most cases you'll be able to let him develop the list with you collaboratively. Sometimes let him decide the order of carrying things out, sometimes you prescribe the order. They can even be fun things, such as the steps in a fun cooking project. Let him scribble and cross an item out as it gets completed. As a variant of this, when you take him grocery shopping, give him a small pad, notebook or clipboard, with a pictorial list, letting him cross/scribble each item out as it goes in the cart. Make a big deal about thanking him for his help in keeping you organized, and preventing you from forgetting anything. He might want to help you develop the shopping list sometimes.

  2. Once he's gotten the hang of using a list as described, ask his teacher to give him an activity list for the day at school. Hopefully some items will be optional; hopefully the list will be unordered sometimes, to give him the freedom of choosing what he does first.

  3. Even without the use of lists, she can still channel his positive energy without so much locking of horns by offering him choices, such as, do you want to do beads now, or do you want to do number blocks now? Or do you want to do beads at the Fish table or at the Polar Bear table? The easiest way to make suggestions to teachers is to share with them what works at home.

  4. If it's a big enough school, you might be able to get a social worker or the principal to go in and get a feel for what's going on, and make some suggestions (to everyone concerned).

  5. You can explain to your son the idea, When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and give examples from real life that he's already familiar with. I'll make up an example: when we're at Kim's house, we take off our shoes as soon as we get in the door. Kim's rule is, no shoes in the house. We follow her rules when we're at her house. And when Mickey visits us, he follows our house rule, that we don't point toy guns at people or animals. Even though they don't have that rule at their house. Then you could ask, What are the rules at school? (By the way, modern pedagogical ideas have the teacher posting the rules on the wall, keeping the rule set small, and making sure children understand them.)

  6. A simple behavior chart can sometimes be helpful. You could ask that it be sent home every day or once a week. One of the reasons this is often helpful is that it encourages a frustrated teacher to narrow things down and identify a primary goal.

  7. Some children are more easily directed in transitions by the use of a special song.

  8. In some classrooms, there is an aide, or assistant teacher, who could go with the child to the new activity, and get him started with it.

For additional suggestions with transitions, please see http://blog.playdrhutch.com/2013/05/28/trouble-with-transitions/

  • 1
    OP: "As such, what can we do to help our son here?... A good answer will help us give him the tools to deal with someone in authority..." Your answer does not address the OP's question at all. This might get flagged as not an answer. Jun 12, 2015 at 20:26
  • @anongoodnurse, thank you for refocusing me. Jun 14, 2015 at 20:06

I definitely agree with your basic principle: I didn't want my children to grow up to be mindless, subservient robots. I wanted them to learn to make decisions for themselves.

BUT, you have to apply this principle taking the child's age and maturity into mind. I did not allow my children to "decide for themselves" whether to play in the middle of a busy highway when they were 5 years old.

When your child is a newborn, he is not capable of making any decisions for himself. You must do it all. By the time he graduates from high school or college he should be responsible for all his decisions for himself. Between point A and point B you have to be gradually ceding the child more and more responsibility.

Four years old is much too young for a child to understand why he needs to go to school and obey his teacher. Yes, you can explain to him that he needs to learn his alphabet so that he can learn to read so that someday he can function in a business environment. Will a 4 y.o. really understand and appreciate that? I really doubt it. You can explain why he needs to follow the teacher's instructions because that is necessary to have an environment where all the children are safe and can learn. Odds are he just wants to play with his toy cars or whatever. He's just too young to be making decisions about whether to go to school and how to behave there. You're trying to move him along too fast. Do you let your 4 y.o. decide whether he wants to go to the dentist, or whether he will eat vegetables or ice cream for dinner?

If we were talking about a teenager, yes, a discussion about why we need to treat people in authority with respect even if we don't respect them personally might be appropriate. But a 4 y.o. is much too young to understand the concepts.

  • 1
    Sorry, but I asked how to do this, not whether we should.
    – Joe
    Apr 16, 2015 at 16:07
  • (shrug) Okay, so your question is, How can I explain to a 4 year old, in language that he will understand and incorporate into his decision-making, the purpose of education and how this will benefit him in the long term; how individuals can balance their respect for others with their own desires in a social setting; the relationship between individual freedom and social order; ...
    – Jay
    Apr 17, 2015 at 0:17
  • ... the relationship between respecting an authority because the person has demonstrated that they are worthy of respect, showing respect for an office even if the person is not worthy, and obeying authority when defiance is futile or non-productive; and learning how to evaluate the job performance of a teacher ... And you won't accept "this is just too complicated for a 4 year old to understand" as an answer, I can only say, Good luck. I suppose your next question is, "How do I teach integral calculus to a 4 year old?"
    – Jay
    Apr 17, 2015 at 0:18

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .