Brits Don't Want To Raise Obedient Children Anymore. Here's What They're Prioritising Instead

When it comes to instilling certain values in our children, parents in the UK are placing far less importance on obedience.

But having good manners and being respectful are some of the values we’re far more passionate about.

That’s according to a new study by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, which found the number of people in the UK who think obedience is an important quality for children to learn at home has dramatically declined since the late 1990s.

Of the 11 qualities asked about in the study, good manners as well as tolerance and respect for other people are seen as the first and second most important values to be taught at home – a ranking which is unchanged since 1990.

Meanwhile, hard work has risen to be fourth most important (up from eighth place), and independence has climbed to third place from sixth.

In contrast, obedience has plummeted from fifth to 10th position, and unselfishness has fallen from third to sixth place.

Of the 24 countries included in the study, only four were less likely than the UK (12%) to say it’s especially important for children to be obedient – with Japan (3%) the least likely to.

This shift in thinking has been noted across all generations. Between 1999 and 2022, the share of the Pre-War generation who said this is an essential quality for children has more than halved, from 56% to 24%.

And while there is less focus on unselfishness compared to previous years, when you look at other countries, we still prioritise it a lot more – 43% of the UK public said unselfishness was an especially important quality for children to learn, second only to France (45%).

The analysis was carried out as part of the World Values Survey (WVS), one of the largest and most widely used academic social surveys in the world, with some questions dating as far back as 1981.

It found less than half (46%) of people in the UK consider it crucial for children to have a feeling of responsibility. Interestingly, the UK is the only western country in the study where less than half the population hold this view. Meanwhile 53% say independence is important.

How attitudes have changed over time

In 1998, half (50%) of the population said it was especially important for children to be obedient.

Similarly, in 1999, 60% of people in the UK thought unselfishness was a key trait for children to develop – a figure which has since declined to 43% in the latest data.

But over the last three decades, other qualities have assumed more importance, such as:

  • Independence – 53% now value this, up from 43% in 1990.

  • Hard work – 48% now value this, up from 29% in 1990.

  • Determination/perseverance – 41% value this, up from 31% in 1990.

  • Imagination – 37% value this, up from 18% in 1990.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said the increased importance placed on imagination and decline in how much we prize obedience “doesn’t mean we want a society of self-centred children”.

“Good manners are still the quality we want to see most, there has been an increasing emphasis on the importance of hard work, and we’re also among the very most likely to value unselfishness,” he explained.

“Instead, this is likely to reflect a more general shift towards valuing self-expression, while still wanting our children to be positive and productive contributors to society.”

Is placing less value on obedience a good thing?

Psychologist Krysten Taprell, known as The Therapist Parent, is a firm believer that our goal as parents should be to work towards cooperation, not obedience.

She notes that if parents expect obedience, they might face one of two scenarios – either there’s a massive power struggle where yelling and punishments ensue, which could lead to kids pushing boundaries more, or your child ends up “blindly obedient”.

“If we stop and think, is blind obedience really what we want? Do we want a child who will grow up to be someone who will just do as they are told?” she asks. “Never challenging authority, peer pressure or being mistreated? Of course not.”

Cooperation – where a parent’s expectations are explained and they invite their child to think of ways to meet these – could be considered a better route.

“It doesn’t mean that your child does whatever they want. It does mean that they are given choices and some control over what they do,” says Taprell. “There are still boundaries, but you work things out together rather than a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude.”