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The Virtue of Obedience- Or the Post I Never Planned to Write

alec vanderboom

I used to listen to hour after hour of Christian radio programs while driving through the long, flat state of Indiana. My trip home from Madison, Wisconsin to Buckhannon, West Virginia ran ten hours. Except for the one time I listened to eight hours of Suze Ormon tapes, my mind was usually too frazzled from law school exams to remember to pack cassette tapes for the trip. The radio was a fun medley of new finds and old favorites until I left Chicago. From Southern Illinois to Ohio, there was nothing but talk Christian radio stations.

Somewhere in deep Indiana, during three years of cross-country trips from 1997-2000, is when I first heard this notion of “wives being obedient to their husbands”, and “fathers being head of their families”. I don’t mind telling you, that about five minutes into any discussion of this topic, I turn off my radio in disgust at such old-fashion drivel.

Like all virtues in my faith journey so far, my children have taught me the importance of “obedience.” I have hit the age where my eldest can now, we Southerners say, “sass her Mother.” It broke my heart the first time. By age four, I had gone from being hurt and shocked, to wondering out-loud to my husband “How can I get some positive reinforcement on this subject fast because the repeated time-outs in the naughty chair are just not cutting it!”

It was at that moment that I realized, “When did my daughter ever see me being obedient?” There were lots of things, such as table manners, that my husband and I were able to model for her. When we wanted the kids to sit still in their chairs or to chew with their mouth closed, we’d make an elaborate “thank you Daddy for sitting so still in your chair tonight” production during dinner. That system worked well for us. But how would I “teach” the virtue of obedience.

At first, my method was obvious and forced. Jon would ask me to pass the peas at dinner. I’d make a big, showy production “Look, I’m passing the peas to Daddy because I’m being OBEDIENT. I’m not saying, “I don’t want to!” or “Not now, maybe later.” I’m passing the peas, quickly and cheerfully because I liked to do what I’m asked.”

Then I started to slip “obedience” into our nightly rosary intensions. Each night since the beginning of Advent, I’ve prayed for the same things for my children. I pray for Hannah to become more obedient, Alex to finish potty training and Maria to stop her teething pain and start sleeping again. The virtue of obedience seemed to fit neatly into my own quest for increased meekness and humility. I didn’t know what I was praying for exactly, or who I wanted to become more obedient “too.” It was more a vague feeling that sort of stayed vague and undefined for a few weeks.

My first act of conscious obedience to my husband occurred over this hallway chair. As you can tell from this interior shot of my apartment’s front door, I don’t have much room. The hallway is less than three feet wide. There’s no entryway, screen porch or mudroom. Only a few feet of linoleum to handle two young kids, a baby, and a jumpy, nervous dog.

When my husband first moved a chair in the middle of the hallway, I disliked it. I thought it made the place look “cluttered.” I tripped over it. The kids kept dropping toys under it. It was hard to vacuum around it. For a few days, I moved the chair back to the living room each morning. Every night, my husband moved it back.

One day, I thought, “I guess I can leave the chair there. I’m trying to learn how to be obedient.” So that was my little silent gift to my husband. I chair, in a position I heartily disliked.

Nothing happened for a few more days. Then I noticed that it made a convenient place to sit a child down to put on his snow boots. It was a place to put the dog leash in between dog walks. I could place the baby carrier on it while sorting the mail. This chair, that totally violated my inner homemaker, was full of useful purposes.

About five days into “the chair as a gift” experiment, my husband started loudly praising me. “Thank you so much for letting me keep a chair here. It really helps me to have a comfortable place to change my shoes in the morning.” The praise, repeated night after night left me feeling a little sheepish. It was just one chair after all.

His repeated praised got me thinking. What say does my husband have at home? Sure we picked out the IKEA furniture together. Once we hung up the pictures together and found a place for the couch, I have made all future “home” decisions. For example, I handle all the grocery shopping. As a result, we eat peas for dinner most nights instead of corn. We use Colgate instead of Crest. We drink Coke instead of Pepsi. Multiply control of a dozen daily decisions over hundreds of days. Over time, my husband could easily feel that his home was as impersonal to him as hotel room.

Recognizing how powerful my role as a full time “home-maker” had become made it easier to cheerfully acquiesce to my husband few stated preferences.

Then came the kid rules. In the past, my husband has made bold pronouncements such as “no toys in Mom and Dad’s room.” I’ve usually argued against such sweeping changes with the rationalization that these rules will be impossible to enforce with a 4 & 3 year old. Since the burden of “enforcement” falls upon me, I should get to set the rules. This time, I let the “no toys in the parent’s bedroom” stand unchallenged.

The next morning, Alex and Hannah both tugged armfuls of toys into our room while I nursed the baby. “Remember Dad’s rule, no toys in here,” I said reluctantly. “But I want to,” went the familiar refrain. I sighed. This was going result in tears and multiple trips to the time out chair. “Remember what Dad said?”

Suddenly, I experienced the power that usually resides with used car salesmen who refer to fictitious managers. “Oh, okay.” The kids left the room trailing their toys wordlessly behind them. What happened? Because I wasn’t the one setting the rules, they couldn’t argue with me. Everyone in the house knew that Dad was fanatic about kicking the toys out of his room. I wasn’t the one deciding what would be and wouldn’t be permissible. I was simply the cop enforcing the rulebook.

It’s only been two months, but I can’t tell you how many arguments this has saved me. I don’t have to decide what the rules should be on the spot and under fire. Once I’ve figured out that the no toy rule can be enforced and makes life so much better, I’m more willing to take my husband’s other parenting advice. Alex should learn how to cut his own food and not rely always on Mom to do it. My soft-heart, and even more honestly, inability to stand loud crying, has stopped by from pushing my middle-child into ever increasing levels of independence.

I don’t live under Jon’s dictatorship. If one of his proposed family rules don’t work out, I’ll bring it to my husband’s attention. My level of input hasn’t change in regard to my home or my kids. Instead, my attitude have changed. When Jon makes a suggestion that I disagree with, I don’t instantly say “that isn’t going to work” and launch into Smith Debate President mode. Instead, I take a “wait and see” approach. If problems arise after trying a new project Jon’s way for five days or more, I’ll tell Jon about them in private. Together we brainstorm solutions. So far, the Mom as ‘loyal first-mate approach” has worked well.

By mid-January, I thought that was “all she wrote” on the subject. I figured out an easier way to make joint-decisions about the household and the raising of our kids. Then my husband made a thrilling announcement last week. Jon is currently working his way to a 3rd Degree in the Knights of Columbus. My husband is traditionally “not a joiner”. The skill that he used to avoid even the basic, mandatory promotions during ten years of Army Reserve Duty is legendary among his unit. So it was with complete surprise that I heard my husband say “I’m want to take this thing seriously and move up high in the ranks. The Knights need a leader who will take seriously his Catholic faith and complete the rituals with honor and respect.”

“Where did this change come from?” I asked bewildered, but pleased. “It came from you, I guess. You made room for me at the top of our household. I’m not naturally a leader, but having you defer to my decisions and respect my opinion has made me more confident, more clear-headed.”

Wow! Where this obedience trail is going, gentle readers, I have no idea. I’m just reporting the facts at this point. (I just told my headstrong daughter this morning that if she wants to become a nun, she’ll have to practice obedience to her Mother Superior. What better way to master that tricky virtue than to start now by cheerfully putting on her knee socks when asked by her actual Mother rather than whine “But it’s not snowing today!” By Jolly, did she now put on her knee socks in a flash.)

Do you have any thoughts on the obedience issue? Do you see any connection between how children mind their parents and how a wife cheerfully, and respectfully obeys her husband’s requests?