A chat about Taking Children Seriously

From the archives: 2002

“Look, I don’t have much time, Sarah. Could you tell me what Taking Children Seriously is briefly? Just give me the short version for now. You’ve got 15 minutes,” said Elizabeth, checking her watch. She had just had her first baby and was anxious to get home.

“I’ll try,” I said. “But I must warn you that I find it quite difficult to express a deep idea accurately in just a few words.”

“Try,” urged Elizabeth, firmly. “Forget the subtleties; just give me a quick summary of the Taking Children Seriously method.”

“The problem is that Taking Children Seriously is not an educational method or a parenting strategy, and if you think of it as a method, you’re likely to get a wildly inaccurate impression of what it is like.”

“Not a parenting strategy? Well what is it then?” asked Elizabeth.

“It is a style, a way of thinking about human situations, a philosophy.”

“Whose tenets are…?” prompted Elizabeth.

“Taking Children Seriously holds that all human beings are fallible and can make mistakes. You can feel 100% sure that you are right, when actually, you are mistaken. We think that there is such a thing as truth, and right and wrong, and that through conjecture and criticism, human beings can come to know and understand truths about the world, including moral truths. But what we can never get is authority, or proof, that any particular idea or belief is one of those truths. By thinking of family interactions in particular with that in mind, Taking Children Seriously addresses a very important problem: the problem of people in families hurting each other.”

“Hurting each other?” queried Elizabeth. “Oh I don’t think that many parents are into corporal punishment these days, Sarah.”

“I wasn’t particularly talking about corporal punishment, I was just referring to the idea many people have, that for one person to get what she wants, another has to suffer – in other words, not get what she wants. What I am saying is that we can all get what we want. No one enjoys making loved ones suffer. But it doesn’t have to be like that.”

“Hmmmm… that sounds interesting, if a trifle difficult to believe at the moment.” said Elizabeth. “Tell me more.”

I continued: “Taking Children Seriously holds that improvement is possible and that the best state to be in is one in which you are solving problems and effecting improvements.”

“OK, but how?” asked Elizabeth.

“When Taking Children Seriously families have a disagreement, instead of one person imposing her will on the others, they try to solve the problem in such a way that no one gets hurt.”

“Not even the parent?”

“Not even the parent. Parents are people too, m’kay?

“Glad we got that straight,” said Elizabeth. “But if you think we’re going to solve all the problems in this world, Sarah, I hate to break it to you, but that ain’t gonna happen this lifetime.”

“Yes, there will always be unsolved problems and unresolved disagreements in the world,” I said. “Scientists haven’t solved the death problem yet, and probably won’t in our lifetime. But what is relevant here is that they might well have found successively better states of mind in regard to that problem, each the result of successive failures to solve it. The aim is not zero problems: the only individuals who have zero problems are dead ones. The thing to avoid is not so much unsolved or even unsolvable problems, as a state in which our problems are not being solved – where thinking is occurring but our theories aren’t changing.”

“Oh, so what you’re really advocating is mental progress.” said Elizabeth.

“Yes,” I said. “Solving a problem means doing whatever it takes to cause those involved to adopt states of mind which they prefer to their previous states, and which do not cause them to hurt each other. This might involve taking some visible action, or it might just mean making a change in your mind.”

“But how exactly do you solve problems? If you have some ideas about this, tell me quickly, Sarah…”

“I can give you a few ideas, but the answer is that you do it however you can,” I replied. “Solving problems and making improvements can’t come from any formula. It requires creativity and thought, though not necessarily conscious thought: most of it is unconscious or inexplicit.”

“Inexplicit?” asked Elizabeth.

“Not explicit. Expressed only in the brain’s internal code, not in words. For example, a child who is learning to speak is improving her knowledge of the grammar of the language despite not being able to express in words her knowledge of grammar.”

“I don’t know any grammar. We never did that at school.” said Elizabeth.

“You don’t know it explicitly but you must know it inexplicitly or you would not be able to speak or understand English sentences. Similarly, when you are driving a car, you you might be thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, and not consciously be thinking about driving at all, but your driving is nevertheless controlled by your mind.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Have you seen the way I drive?”

“Of course even when you are thinking consciously about a problem and you solve it, creating a preferable state of mind, you might be mistaken in your theory of what the problem was or how you solved it. As fallible human beings, we are often mistaken even about our own minds.”

“Especially if we’ve had one too many beers,” said Elizabeth.

“Yes, that certainly doesn’t help,” I said. “But even when stone cold sober, we can still be mistaken. All we can do is to try to correct errors as best we can and keep improving things. To do that, it helps if you think that that is possible. If you think that there is no possible solution to a problem, or no way to improve a given situation, you might not be applying enough of your creativity to do any good. So if you want to improve things or solve a problem, assume that a solution to the problem is possible. It really makes a difference to keep in mind that problems really are soluble. To increase the likelihood that you will solve a problem, actively try to solve the problem. Think laterally. Play! Run thought experiments. Question everything. Listen to other people’s ideas including children’s! Including the ideas your child’s teddy bear comes up with. (We have a very brilliant and wise bear who is never short of good ideas!)”

“A teddy bear comes up with ideas??”

“Of course. Sometimes our toys are able to express things that we might be thinking but not quite want to say. All those ideas are important.”

“Oh, OK. Bringing the toys in helps make sure everyone’s ideas are being expressed so you can solve the problem.”

“Yes. But it is not just when there is an obvious problem. We do this when everything seems fine too. Instead of complacently taking the view that a particular situation is unproblematic and that no improvements can be or need be made, we actively seek possible improvements. Don’t miss a delightful improvement that would have created an even better situation. One improvement leads to another.”

“But if there was no problem in the first place, why would you want to change anything?” asked Elizabeth. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Trying to improve something that doesn’t need improving seems a bit negative to me.”

“I don’t mean that you should be approaching life with pessimistic glasses on, always looking for trouble,” I replied. “On the contrary, optimism is very important. What I am saying is that good situations can be even better situations, and that effecting such improvements is worthwhile and, for that matter, a source of joy. A child can be perfectly happy playing on the climbing frame in your back garden, but might well be thrilled and excited when you suggest going inside and making her own ‘climbing frame’ or a ‘house’ out of some tables, upturned chairs, and a blanket or two. (I still smile with delight when I remember building such ‘houses’ as a child!) And yourself might realise that yourself actually prefer to be indoors instead of outside, even if you had been quite happy outside until that moment.”

“Oh, OK, I get it,” said Elizabeth. “So, could you give me an example of solving a problem, to make it more concrete?”

“Suppose you are having a discussion about where to go for dinner, and the Indian you had all wanted to go to is full, and you think that a great solution would be to go to the Chinese one over the road, but one of your party doesn’t like Chinese. You might point out that the Chinese place also serves non-Chinese food, but if the person also doesn’t like the smell of Chinese food…”

“What’s wrong with that person?! I love Chinese!”

“Well, if you tell them this they might be ready to change their opinion of the smell, and re-interpret it as a lovely smell, but if they aren’t, it is probably time to think of another restaurant or some other solution to the dinner problem. To put it simply, we keep making bold conjectures and subjecting them to criticism until we have a solution that everyone involved wholeheartedly prefers. Then we enact the solution tentatively.”

“Why tentatively? You all agree wholeheartedly, right?”

“Yes but lots of people can agree, and still be mistaken. Everyone used to agree that the Earth was flat. We might all wholeheartedly agree to go to a particular restaurant, but when we get there, it turns out to be very smoky and one of us hates smoke. Or even if the restaurant is exactly as we were expecting, it may turn out to be the wrong place to go, because you yourself weren’t as you were expecting. Remember, we can be mistaken about ourselves too. But even if our proposed solution seems to solve the problem, that is just the beginning!”

“Is it? How? Why?”

“Because when you have solved a problem, that implies that there is a new state of affairs, and although it may be a great improvement over the preceding state of affairs, progress doesn’t stop there. There is always another improvement to make. There are then new and better problems to identify and solve.”

“You keep making problems sound like a good thing, but surely they feel bad!” said Elizabeth.

“It is not having problems that feels bad; what feels bad is being stuck, unable to solve them. Solving problems, growing as a person, and improving your life feels wonderful. And that is what Taking Children Seriously people do: they improve their lives and the lives of their loved ones, both on an individual basis and jointly, and they keep on doing so, always. And the more you do this, the better you get at doing it. The more you improve your life, the better your life is, and the more able you are to improve it further. The same goes for the improvements you make with your family, jointly.”

“So let me see if I’ve got this: you’re saying that Taking Children Seriously advocates solving problems and making good situations better on an on-going basis,” said Elizabeth, “And the way you do this is by out-of-the-box lateral thinking to come up with possible solutions or improvements, checking whether any of those ideas are actually a solution or improvement, and if not, you keep thinking until you find one that is, then you drop all the duds, like the smoky restaurant, and go for it with the surviving idea, and then see how that solution works out, and start trying to find a way to make this new and better situation even better.”

“Yes. And all improvement happens through this process, whether the improvement is in a single mind, or in an entire culture. We have been talking about how it works individually and in a family, but the underlying logic applies in all problem-solving, evolution and improvement. All progress. All learning.”

“Could you help me get a better handle on this?” said Elizabeth. “I am just wondering how it all translates into practice. Like, what happens if you and your child disagree about something, and then even after a lot of talking you don’t come any closer to finding a solution you both like? You just disagree and that’s that?”

“Would you agree that if two people disagree, they can’t both be right?” I asked.

“Does it have to be a question of being right? Am I actually wrong for wanting to go to a Chinese restaurant, or is that just my taste?” countered Elizabeth.

“It is not the fact that you like Chinese food that is the problem, it is that you are not taking into account the fact that the smell of Chinese food makes me feel physically sick. Let me put it another way: if neither of us changes our mind and we don’t resolve the disagreement, is it not the case that at least one of us is going to get hurt?”

“Well, it depends. One of us might change our minds. Like if my baby was restless, I might want to go somewhere quieter after all,” said Elizabeth.

“Yes, exactly, and solving a problem like this is likely to involve just this sort of change of mind. There could be many ways to solve this restaurant problem. We could go to a Chinese takeaway to get your food (while I wait at a safe distance outside) then take your takeaway to another restaurant or home, getting a takeaway for me elsewhere en route. Or we could come up with another restaurant that you have been wanting to try for a while and whose smell would not make me retch. Or I could tempt you to come to my place for one of my famous Cordon Bleu soufflé omelettes – the possibilities are endless. It doesn’t follow from the fact that you like Chinese food, or even from the fact that you want to eat Chinese food now, with me, that there is no solution. We both want to find a solution having the property that we have changed to states of mind which we prefer to our previous states and which don’t involve us hurting each other. We both want to get what we want. The secret is to realise that with a bit of thought, we can!”

“Actually, with the baby, it is kind of nicer to be at home anyway, because it’s more relaxed, so I like your idea of getting takeways,” said Elizabeth.

“Yes, when people stop concentrating all their energy on imposing their will, and allow themselves to consider other possibilities, good things can happen, including for them. The first idea you have is not necessarily the best, and sometimes other people, including the youngest child, can have an idea that, given a moment’s thought, you yourself actually prefer. So you can see that in fact, it is not just in the other person’s interests for you not to stick intransigently to your initial idea, it is in your own interests too. Had you imposed your will and dragged me to a Chinese restaurant, apart from having the annoyance of seeing me looking ill and rushing to the lavatory every five minutes, you would have been less relaxed than you would be at home.”

“The takeaway solution is not just a bit better than my initial idea, it’s a lotbetter!” exclaimed Elizabeth.

“That’s a glimpse of why it is best to find consent-based solutions – wholehearted agreement – outcomes having the property that no one gets hurt – rather than ones in which someone is merely going along with the outcome while really wanting some other outcome.” I said.

“Yes. But realistically, how easy is this in real life? We have barely mentioned children yet. In real life, just how easy is it always to find solutions like you advocate? I get the impression that to be a Taking Children Seriously parent, you have to have unlimited patience, time, resources and creativity, and be infallible. How can real people in the real world always find preferable states of mind and never hurt each other? What about those of us are far from perfect?”

“That’s just it!” I said. “That is and always will be the human condition. People are fallible. It is not the distance they are from perfection that makes them unhappy, but being unable to move towards it. You don’t have to be infallible or perfect to improve things. That is what excites me about Taking Children Seriously. You don’t have to get everything right! You don’t have to start out right and have unlimited this, that, or the other, all you have to do is to try to set things up in such a way that what is wrong can be altered, and that what is good can be made even better. Taking Children Seriously doesn’t mean attempting to create a problem-free state, it means having fun solve problems rather than being stuck. Happiness is not being without problems, it is being in the process of solving your problems.”

“Sarah, this is very cheering. I have to get going now, but next time we meet, be ready for a list of questions as long as your arm. I haven’t even asked you how this applies with a baby. You may live to regret having started telling me about this.”

“On the contrary, at least I can be pretty sure you’re not going to make me go to a Chinese restaurant with you.”

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2002, ‘A chat about Taking Children Seriously’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/a-chat-about-taking-children-seriously/