Children do not need what conventional wisdom says they need

A Poster wrote:

“An efriend has been trying to convince me that my kids should have a set bedtime so I could have some time of my own. S/he wrote:
           ‘And as (a child psychologist s/he knows) has always said, a child without loving discipline, clear borders, clear bottom lines, is as frightened as a child in a pitchblack room which doesn’t have walls…
           Not trying to frighten you here, but almost nothing can prepare you for adolescence except your history of loving parenting with them, which also marks off your boundaries and your children’s boundaries. Because if you haven’t marked your boundaries by then, they sure do!’
           I’m not sure how to respond to that or even if I need/want to. However, I would appreciate some ideas about how to respond to/refute the above quote. I’m only interested in Taking Children Seriously ideas please. Thanks in advance.”

I think that the reason why conventional wisdom is completely worthless on this issue is that it evolved under conditions where noncoercive education as we understand it here was not just unknown but inconceivable. If we take for granted (as almost everyone still does, of course) that the total subjugation of children by their parents is simply a fact of life, then we can understand the quoted piece of conventional wisdom in context, and we can see that it does indeed contain some valuable truth: “a child whose discipline is not loving; a child whose borders are not clear; a child who is unsure of the bottom line but knows it’s there – has good reason to be frightened, perhaps more frightened than a child subjected to even harsher rules and punishments but without love or clarity”.

OK, we can buy that, can’t we? In fact it’s a special case of a more general rule of thumb, namely that when using force, it is usually (not always) right to be clear and open about one’s war aims, to stick to them implacably, but subject to that, to act with compassion and respect for one’s enemy, and without malice. (In Churchill’s words: “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.”)

It also applies moderately well as a critique of laissez-faire (i.e. neglectful) parenting, because one of the bad effects of parental neglect is that the parents and children do not engage in joint problem solving, and then when, as inevitably happens, the come to some disagreement, they collide like Demosthenes’ metaphorical aeroplanes, and great coercion results. Moreover it is all the more painful for coming at an unpredictable time, over unpredictable issues and with unpredictable force. That is one of several reasons why neglectful parenting is necessarily coercive as well.

However, this conventional wisdom is completely inapplicable to taking children seriously. None of the reasons why enforcing “clear borders” is good for coerced children carry over in any way to children who are in consensual relationships with their parents. On the contrary, enforcing fixed borders and bottom lines is irrational and coercive, and sabotages the very means by which such children remain happy. It seems especially ironic to me that your friend chose the ‘pitch black room’ metaphor to justify bed time coercion in particular, because such coercion is notorious for making children feel excluded, abandoned and frightened.

Incidentally, a “child in a pitch black room which doesn’t have walls”, literally, need not be frightened either, if she has the company and assistance of loving and competent parents taking their children seriously. Think about blind children enjoying themselves on a hiking trip, for instance. Darkness and night do no harm, and need hold no fears for a child, but callous, coercive parents always do.

See also:

David Deutsch, 2000, ‘Children do not need what conventional wisdom says they need’,

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