This is a guest post by Ira Chaleff, author of the book Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong

The project of the book, Intelligent Disobedience, began when I found that guide dogs for the blind are first taught all commands they need to know, and then are sent for higher level training to learn to resist and disobey commands which, if executed, would cause harm. I immediately recognized the power of this metaphor for human development.

In my research for the book, however, I found that human education placed almost all its emphasis on the first stage—learning obedience—but virtually omitted the second stage. Teachers are typically trained on the primacy of classroom management before learning can occur. This creates a zero tolerance approach for the slightest failure to follow each successive instruction given by the teacher.

While this may be an efficient approach to marching students through a set curriculum and between classroom activities, it has the meta-effect of creating a mindset for surviving in an authoritarian culture but which is poorly equipped to question or improve that culture.

Homeschool educators reading this may, with some justification, feel a sense of satisfaction that they are working from a better balance of values. And so they may be, but I caution them not to be too sure on this point just yet.

The role of the teacher contains a paradox:  he or she is the authority in the classroom while a key part of that role is to encourage young minds to question authority. The tension in these different aspects of the teacher role requires self-awareness to minimize the tendency of the first obligation to not undermine the second, higher obligation.

This authority issue may be compounded in homeschooling as the teacher is also the parent; both authority roles are charged with the sacred responsibility of raising children to be independent thinkers and accountable members of their communities. Homeschool educators, it can be argued, have an even greater responsibility to appropriately balance being the authority figure and teaching to question authority figures.

Here are a few thoughts that may be of help in playing these juxtaposed roles.

Talk about why.
Whenever possible, back up your commands with reasons rather than appeals to your authority. Help children to understand why they are being told to do something. This takes self-discipline when your patience is stretched like taffy. (A good way to introduce the concept of intelligent disobedience is to use the analogy of the guide dog.)

Talk about personal responsibility of followers.
Stanley Milgram talks about the autonomous state and the agentic state. In the autonomous state we make our own decisions and feel accountable for them. In the agentic state someone else is making the decisions and we are being told to follow them, as if we are an agent of the other person. In this condition we do not feel responsible for what we do. But we are still responsible.

Teach the path of conscientious objection.
Classroom discipline places almost all responsibility on the external authority. To develop the capacity for intelligent disobedience, kids must develop a capacity to listen to their inner authority and their innate sense of values. Help them be aware of this source and how to balance it with the knowledge and prerogatives of the external authority. (Often religions call this “listening to your conscience.” Stories of great conscientious objectors allow for natural discussion of how to hear your inner voice.)

Expose kids to arguments. Dissent is part of education.
Respectful disagreement between two authority figures—two adult family members, a parent and teacher—in front of children helps them understand that authority figures can’t always be right if they sometimes disagree with each other. It humanizes authority and makes intelligently questioning authority a social norm.

Done well, these lessons will influence crucial junctures where preparation for intelligent disobedience makes all the difference. It is my hope that these thoughts generate a conversation throughout the community about making intelligent disobedience part of every education.


16 replies
  1. Jennifer Jo
    Jennifer Jo says:

    I really appreciate this post. It gives a different—quite useful—perspective on raising children.

    However, I am not sure I understand how the authority issue may be “compounded in homeschooling.” All parents, whether or not they homeschool, are in positions of authority, and all parents, whether or not they homeschool, are teaching their children. Can you clarify this for me, please?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The way I read this is parents give up a lot of authority to the school. It’s like a checks and balance system with the parents and teacher.

      I think the whole thing is BS and why would I want to give up my parenting authority to a teacher. But the less autocratic an authority system the kids grow up with, the more they are likely to question authority. So when there is only the parent and no teacher, that could be more autocratic in terms of where authority comes from.


      • Betsy
        Betsy says:

        When I was a classroom teacher (eighth grade), I strove for a very Socratic environment. I wanted my kids to be able to articulate their own positions and respectfully question others. Even though that was my goal and my classroom model, I was still operating within overarching systems (a school, a district, a state, a nation) that had totally different aims than I did (receiving funds, raising scores, pleasing parents, managing chaos.) I didn’t plan to have any children, but after six weeks of teaching I knew I would never send my kids to public school. It’s not just kids who are discouraged from dissent – it’s parents, too! One of the many reason there is a sustained market for educational advocates.

  2. Erin
    Erin says:

    I really liked this post. It’s always been important to me that my daughter understand WHY she’s doing things because I want her to have an independent way of reasoning through situations, whether or not I’m there to guide her. The world is not black and white. Our kids need reasoning skills as well as the sense that they have agency and can make choices in their own best interests in order to navigate everyday life.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      How relevant. Today I was reading up on the history of education and came across this: After 1800, as the Enlightenment gave way to Romanticism, there was less emphasis on reason and challenge to authority and more support for emerging nationalism and compulsory school attendance.

  3. Computer
    Computer says:

    Why teach kids to disobey in the first place? Raising kids boils down to their parents’ intelligence and patience. If their parents are intelligent, they (both parents and children) will do well.

    • Betsy
      Betsy says:

      Not all people are intelligent. That is why schools were created, so that workers could be educated enough to do factory work. Also, many people are intelligent but are very bright in limited ways; teaching kids to think critically (or at least exposing them to critical thinking) can be a real game-changer for some kids.

  4. Sarah Pierzchala
    Sarah Pierzchala says:

    Wow, this is so timely!

    In our current culture, it seems that even folks who think they would never just “follow orders” like the soldiers in Nazi Germany did, are still perfectly okay with following along with whatever society is telling them to think, buy, wear, consume, vote for or believe…

    When the authority structure starts telling them to spy on or turn in their neighbors for “incorrect thinking”, are they even going to bat an eye?

    • mh
      mh says:

      What happens when the university student activities coordinator tells a kid to be silent, because she is triggering someone? I hope she’ll have the courage to buck authority.

      • Sarah Pierzchala
        Sarah Pierzchala says:

        Yes! I am really worried about what my kids are going to encounter in college…any careless remark, or a difference of opinion on something or holding the door open for someone or not holding the door open for someone or sitting in an “incorrect” way in public or wearing the “wrong” shirt…any of this could trigger an investigation or punishment or whatever.

        These concerns are a factor in why I’m really pushing them to do as much online as possible. Oh, and the whole academics/convenience/cost thing…:)

  5. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    I had a hard time getting past this:

    “a mindset for surviving in an authoritarian culture but which is poorly equipped to question or improve that culture …”

    I don’t think there’s any such thing as surviving in an authoritarian culture and at the same time being able to question or improve it. It is the VERY NATURE of authoritarian cultures that those who run them are trying to maintain the status quo. They do not want to be questioned and do not believe the system (which primarily benefits themselves) can BE improved.

    If you care about being able to question or improve a culture, you simply don’t stay in a culture that is authoritarian in nature. Conversely, if you are in an authoritarian culture that you cannot escape, you can only survive it by keeping your mouth shut and mentally disengaging as much as you can.

    If you think about something like a very controlling religion, for example, or a heavy-handed top-down corporate hierarchy, or the government, the people running those organizations want to stay in control and nothing else. That’s why it’s called an authoritarian culture. All they care about is obedience.

    So what I conclude here is that although school is stifling and soul-crushing, it is an effective way to prepare kids for the corporate and government sectors of the economy, which is where most of the jobs are.

  6. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    I know there are parents out there, including homeschoolers, who want their child(ren) to be obedient. I’d be surprised if this was the case for the unschoolers. I sure as hell don’t want my child to be obedient.

    You don’t have to teach a child civil disobedience if you have been consistently recognizing that your child has a right to their own life.

    Something else to keep in mind is civil disobedience is primarily an action taking when opposing a government imposed law which the objector considers unjust.

    That last part is the key: unjust.

    So how do you “teach” your child not put up with injustices? You don’t have to teach an unschooled child this. You ONLY have to interact with them in a just manner, and when they are young, you act as their proxy to make sure they don’t suffer injustices they can’t remedy on their own. When you do this, then when they experience any injustices, it will stand out to them as NOT RIGHT. As a parent, are you making sure you don’t give injustices or put up with them? Your child is watching you.

    A precursor to not tolerating injustices is judging. By what criteria are you, and eventually your child, determining a thing as unjust. Now we are getting into the issue of morality. It is our moral code which guides our determination of which actions we consider just or unjust.

    After reading over the article several times I would be really curious to know the authors’ general views concerning the role of the parent in relation to their child. I would also like to know how he thinks children learn. I’m guessing our views would be very different.

    1.) Issuing commands to your child implies that you should have command over their life. I disagree with this. You should be explaining your reasons behind your actions towards your kid as often as you think is necessary for them to fully understand “the why”. This enables your child to see if you are reasonable; if you are consistent; if you are fair. This is part of the process for how they will determine how to judge others and eventually recognize injustices.

    2.) To the extent a person has total volition in a situation, they are completely responsible for their actions. This assessment has to be somewhat adjusted for children. I would advocate something of a sliding scale for kids concerning this issue. Their context of knowledge has to factor greatly into this; just how much is reasonable for you to expect your child to understand given the amount of knowledge they currently possess. Below a certain age, I almost always ascribe “bad” behavior on the part of the child as being a result of bad parenting. If this “bad” behavior, on the part of the child, is directed at me, I will always hold the child accountable for their actions. I don’t take injustices. After I have said or done what I think is necessary to get justice, then I will INTERNALLY sympathize with the child. I sympathize because I know this child has probably suffered injustices on a daily basis from his parents or in a school setting.

    3.) There is no such thing as an inner authority unless what the author means is the core aspect of a child, as a valuer, which he/she has repressed for fear of their parent’s disapproval and/or threats. There is no such thing as innate values for a child. Children are born tabula rasa with only a temperament (and nipple radar). As they mature they will definitely have values. These values can be freely chosen on the part of the child or they can be imposed on from above by the parent. Innate values imply values which are born within a child. Children don’t even have an innate value of self-preservation – otherwise suicide would never be possible.

    4.) No need to purposely try to expose your children to arguments with your spouse. How about, don’t hide things from your kids? Adults argue. It is how they argue that matters, not that a child has seen “authority” figures argue among themselves. Are the parents staying on the facts when they are making their case with each other?

    There was something bothering me within the first few sentences of this article. It was the dog analogy. When I think of children, even away from my gym, it hardly ever crosses my mind to compare them to animals. And if by chance my mind does go there, it doesn’t go to dogs or cats. These are domesticated animals. They have been “broken” (and sometimes beaten) to obey. Children are not meant in any way to be broken down so as to accept authority. Children have a volitional and reasoning mind. Understanding this core aspect of them (and us) is the starting block from which to figure out how children should be treated. If your mind does, sometimes, go to comparing your child to an animal, I hope it will be an animal who is free, in the wild – not broken.

    • Pirate Jo
      Pirate Jo says:

      This was an interesting post, especially with regard to how to teach your child not to put up with injustices.

      You seem to want to raise a child to live in the world as it should be, but not necessarily as it is. In a way it makes me want to applaud you, yet at the same time it seems impractical.

      If your child doesn’t learn how to live with injustices, he will at best wind up alienated and disillusioned and at worst end up in jail. We have lots of unjust laws, for example. People serve decades-long federal minimum sentences over weed. There are lots of unjust tax laws, but your property will be seized if you don’t pay them. That doesn’t mean we can’t recognize the injustice in these things. It just means that for your own benefit there are times you are going to have to suck it up and tolerate it. You aren’t going to fix the system (or enjoy your life) by going to jail.

      And even as far as fixing the system goes, I think a lot of unjust laws are here to stay, simply because the majority of people approve of them. You might be right and reasonable and perfectly correct in your views, but since you are surrounded by irrational morons who prefer the status quo the way it is, the injustice will thrive because that’s the way human nature is and your are outnumbered.

      That said, any time I hear someone utter the phrase, “Well, life’s just not fair!” I think, “Not much of a problem-solver, are you,” and conclude that they are lazy.

      • Aquinas Heard
        Aquinas Heard says:

        Pirate Jo,

        You bring up a good point in relation to unjust laws. I was trying to show how to raise children who will not tolerate injustices when they are children. The first step is to be able to recognize a thing as unjust. When they are older and out of the house they WILL see the laws you mentioned as being unjust. It will be up to them whether or not to abide by the unjust laws – or to work to change them. The fact of reality is that there is only so much a person can do about unjust laws. I don’t tolerate injustices directed at me coming from regular people (not counting government officials). Sometimes all you can do in some circumstances is express judgment about the injustices. That’s what I do. I don’t feel disillusioned. All of my closest friends feel the same way about injustices, so I don’t feel alienated. I appreciate the feedback.


        • Pirate Jo
          Pirate Jo says:


          Sometimes regarding unjust laws, I see opinions polarizing based on age. When I look at people my parents’ age (Silents), they grew up in a time when people tended to trust the government. They trusted what they read in the news. They trusted institutions more, and for their part, the institutions may have been more trustworthy back then.

          If people my parents’ age saw a movie like ‘Reefer Madness’ they believed marijuana makes people jump off buildings, because it was in a movie so it must be true, so they think it’s reasonable to throw people in jail for pot. I mean there were a whole lot of people even before that who supported Prohibition. There are always going to be do-gooders who support the idea of making something illegal “for your own good.” (The big-sized soft drinks in New York.) Now the USA has the biggest prison population in the world.

          If the government told them (older people) that the Social Security taxes they paid were all going into a savings account to be paid back to them in their old age, then Social Security taxes seemed just. Well, to be fair it WAS a while before the trust fund got raided to pay other bills.

          If a police officer pulled you over and didn’t tell you why, well that was fine, because if you weren’t doing anything wrong you had nothing to hide. Now there is a new story about the abuse of police power every day. Civil asset forfeiture, excessive use of force, letting people die in jail because they don’t have access to the medications they need.

          We know by now that we have been bamboozled. And not only are a lot of these laws and taxes unjust, you can’t trust the people who are trying to pass them, because they lie. Righting some of these wrongs is something that requires a massive shift in mentality and it sometimes takes a couple of generations before it happens.


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