Raise Thinking Individuals. Teach your children to Disagree, Disobey and Dissent

Oops! Did the title shock you?! I hope not! This post was meant to be published two days ago – on the eve of India’s Republic Day. But as you can see, I am late. Many many conflicting priorities!! Anyhow, the topic I want to discuss remains equally important today and always. I wanted to talk about Dissent. This is because the right to dissent is the “biggest” and “most important right” granted by our Constitution. (Look at my blog from last year on how to explain our constitution to your kids)

Just like last year same time, there is a lot of discussion going on about dissent these days. Last year, there was a massive civil society protest in India against a new law on citizenship and this January we have been spectators to another massive protest that has been ongoing for the last few months. This one by farmers of the country against new farm laws. Everyone has had an opinion, for or against and some even going on to say that there is too much democracy in this country and that it is impeding our reforms. I don’t want to get into a debate on this but rather focus on the importance of dissent and why as parents we should teach our kids how to dissent.

Let me first explain what I mean by dissent. Dissent simply means a disagreement or opposition to a prevailing idea, or a policy enforced by someone in a position of authority or even prevailing social norms. For a functioning and progressing society, dissent is not only important, I believe it is essential. Because only when new theories or new ways of living are introduced, does the society change or move forward. It is common that what is dissent at one point, becomes a standard later in time. (Case in point: Galileo Galilei dissented against the Church by stating that the Earth and other planets revolve round the Sun.) Dissent can be religious, scientific, organizational, political and so and so forth.

Dissent also plays an important role in reinstating balance of power. Whether they were struggles for independence or struggles for equality, we all know about the revolutions or movements that changed the world. They all started with dissent. Often by one person or a small group of people.

And all dissents need not be about changing the world and all dissenters need not become world leaders. Dissent can be all about just changing our own circumstance. And this is why it is important that we teach our kids to dissent, to raise their voice if need be.

I will give you a very small example from my own life. During my graduation, I lived in a girls’ hostel and we had some really draconian and obsolete rules, prime among them that we all had to be back in the hostel at 7 p.m. sharp. When I was in third year, our hostel president along with many others dissented against these rules and by systematically getting opinion on our side, succeeded in getting these rules relaxed. By doing so, these women not only changed their own circumstance but also made life much easier for the future inhabitants of the hostel.

But people who have the courage to dissent, don’t get it suddenly in their adulthood. The foundation is laid in their childhood. So, let’s talk about teaching dissent to your child. (To read about developing courage of conviction in your children, read my blog here.)

Let them question and encourage them to form their own opinions

The first thing you need to encourage is to be able to question status quo and form their own independent opinions. I can promise you that this is not going to be easy at all – it will be rather uncomfortable. Because when you teach your children to question – be prepared that you will be their first target! But if you look deeper, it might even lead you to question some of your own assumptions or practices that you may have been following without thinking.

Even our education system expects us to conform – to the extent that we learn definitions, answers and even chapters by heart, afraid of making even one small change from the book, for the fear of losing marks! Remember Amir Khan in 3 idiots?!! (see the clip here.) I remember a conversation with a college friend after we had settled into our post graduate schools. She had joined LSE and recounted her experience of her first assignment. Her professor told her that while she had done a good job of researching various opinions, where was her own?! She was speechless, because you see, we were never taught to have an opinion! We had been taught or rather fed loads of economics theories in the three years of our education, but never discussed or debated or developed our own theories or opinions.

While we are talking about having your children to form an opinion – don’t forget to make them understand the importance of having informed opinions – opinions that have been formed by looking at both sides of the argument – opinions that can be substantiated by facts. This is even more important in a world that is filled with fake news and where even a majority of adults are unable to differentiate between fact and fiction.

Allow them to disagree

Disagreement will have to begin at home. Otherwise children will never have the courage to disagree with the outside world. On the flip side though, authoritarian rule at home may also lead to dissent or disagreement coming out in a negative or destructive manner. One way or the other, it is important to let your kids disagree.

We need to tell them that it is okay to disagree, it is okay to say no. This one mantra can help them at any point in their lives especially when they may be feeling vulnerable or in a disadvantaged position – think bullying, think saying no to peer pressure to do drink or drugs, think saying no to sex, imagine having to stand up to friends and later in life having to stand up to their boss, spouse, the society at large or the system.

At home, make it a habit of discussing rules, decisions etc. together, letting your kids voice their opinions and in cases of disagreement, try to come to a solution that works for all. It is important also teach them to voice their disagreement in a mature and honest way and always being open to discussion and hearing the other side. For instance, the ability to voice your opinion calmly even when it conflicts with others is a sign of maturity.

How about allowing them to disobey?

All through childhood we have been told to obey our elders, teachers and any figure of authority. We have often heard, “Do it because I am telling you to” and indeed we have used this same line on our children many times. Who doesn’t like obedient kids? It makes our lives easy! In school, the most obedient child is considered a shining example.

And I am not saying that is wrong. (In fact, at this point, my life would be 10 times simpler if my four-year-old just listened to me and I did not have to run around getting him to do anything at all! Phew! Anyway, I am digressing). So yes of course, obedience is important. We do need to bring up law abiding citizens. BUT, let’s not put too much emphasis on this. There is no point in bringing up unthinking rule abiders either.

What if the rules are harmful to them? Or to their near and dear ones? Or to the society? Thus, teach them to question authority. Start by telling them the reason behind a rule or instruction or decision. They need to understand that even if they are following someone’s instructions – they will still be responsible for their actions. Teach them to reflect before following a command – reflect upon their conscience, their values and their own gut feel.

Ira Chaleff, author of the book “Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong” has coined a great phrase for children – “Blink, Think, Choice, Voice”. “Blink” means to stop, pause, resist the pressure to obey the authority figure. “Think” means they reflect whether or not it is right to obey. Is it against their values? Could it cause harm? “Choice” means they have a choice regarding their response. They can obey, disobey, get varied opinions, alternatives etc. And finally, “Voice” means that they should state their decision clearly and confidently.

Lastly remember that disobedience is also tool for voicing dissent. The Civil Disobedience Movement in India is one such example.

And finally teach dissent

As I emphasized above, dissent comes with the ability to think independently and question every wrongdoing or even wrong decision making. Dissent also comes with the responsibilities that should go with the right to dissent. Hence building on above points, it is important to make our children conscious both of their rights and responsibilities and the right way of showing dissent. Beyond that encourage them also to come up with an alternate solution.

Finally, and this is more applicable to older children, there are skills of dissent one needs to learn, in order to have a productive dissent. These include consciousness raising – where you make people aware of your opinion or cause, coalition building – where you get together a group of people who are in agreement with your cause, persuasion – the ability to be able to persuade people to see your point of view and subscribe to it. These skills are not meant only for activists or politicians and could come in use at any point of their lives – especially in their careers.

Here is a list of books that teaches kids the value of dissent.

Conclusion

To conclude, I just want to reiterate that dissent is akin to progress – if everyone agreed to the same things, there will never be change and therefore no progress. Please remember that as responsible citizens it is our duty to raise children who are conscious, aware, have opinions and are not afraid to air them, upstanders willing to stand up for a cause and willing to change the world for better.

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18 comments

  1. It takes a lot of courage to stand up for the right things.Without going into the politics of stuff ,you have written a very insightful article.The trick of dissent is to know what is right and not just oppose mindlessly.

  2. Well said I go for this no means no.. If someone says we should definitely respect they decisions.. Everyone’s opinion matters… It was a wonderful read..

  3. Our generations have been taught to listen to elders no matter what. But our kids have to be taught to respectfully disagree on things that they question. Totally agree to what you say!

  4. If a no is needed, it must be said. Kids should be taught to disagree when it is imperative and simultaneously be polite in doing so. Loved your post. Thanks for this insightful article.

  5. though dissent is new term to me but idea is not new. yes, I strongly believe in this concept and as a responsible parent, we should try to teach and develop this quality since young age. I really liked your ideas and detailing about this topic in post. indeed useful for many parents like me who want to raise kids with strong individual opinions.

  6. We need to raise children in a way so that they become responsiblecand self dependent individuals tommorrow. So these ” traits” are equally important to be inculcated in them.

  7. We do this too. When it comes to kids, the choice of words you make is very important. At times it becomes your inner voice. We use words like its ok to say no, you want to tell me why you don’t want to wear this dress. And each time they have amazing reasons petty but good.

  8. I agree kids should learn to respectfully learn to disagree if they find something not matching up their thoughts. Very right way to give learning to kids in early age.

  9. I strongly believe to teach kids saying no and respecting when they say no. We can start by respecting their no when they say while meal times. We moms force them to eat until we feel they are full. Small steps help to define their big future

  10. This is a sueprb post. I agree
    we should give our child the freedom to voice their opinions and not supress them with our authoritativeness that elders are always right. When I talk to my kids I ask them their view and opinion before I give mine as I want them to be independent thinkers.

  11. Every opinion matters the most whether in a family or organization or say running a country. I too agree that it’s ok to say no or to oppose something but with right set of facts and know-how.

  12. This is such an excellent post. I believe that we should encourage our kids to speak up to make them confident individuals. They should have their own voice and that can happen only when we help them find it. Very helpful!

  13. Without any doubt, I second your thoughts. We need to raise kids who are confident in using their voice, and out forth their opinions. This is only possible when we give them an environment where they can speak openly about their thoughts.

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