Coerced to change their values

From the archives: The original post was posted on 7th October, 1995

A poster had written:

“[…] Since we have limited TV watching, there has been more interactive play, more laughter, more creativity, and more use of toys, crafts, etc. We have certainly not banned TV. I personally enjoy TV too. But when it became the first resort for an activity most of the time, it created cause for concern. I think the kids are all enjoying themselves more now, and that our ‘program’ was just a jump start to break the TV habit. We have found that now they often forget to watch TV all day, and that when they do turn it on it is often turned off fairly quickly.”

Another poster wrote:

“You don’t think the children may have been enriched by this experience, do you?

The restrictions were imposed, but now they no longer seem ‘necessary’.”

Coercion can have that effect. One of the common responses to coercion is to lose interest – to no longer care – about the thing one previously cared about but was coerced out of or whatever. That is not really surprising if you think about it. That was the whole point of the coercion. To force the child to no longer value that thing. When one is forced to give up something one values (or indeed, when one is forced to do it, etc.) the chances are, one will be in distress, and so something has to give, and often it is the very thing the parent wants to happen (some coercion does have the “desired” effect) – that is, in order to not feel distress, the person has to change her values, to not value that thing any more. This is a change for the worse, by her own standards.

Every failed attempt to solve a problem (this is an example of that) widens the problem. One’s values are connected to each other, and when you force a person to enact a theory of yours while they still have a rival theory active in their personality/mind, you are affecting not just that one value or set of values, but wider values that relate to that. This interest in television or whatever did not come from nothing. It arose out of the person’s own personality and problem situation. Chopping that off cleanly is not an option.

As I said in my “what-if” questions post, you might as well say that if a person does not complain after you have hit him over the head with a sledgehammer, then you have done nothing wrong. The fact that a child has lost interest in something as a result of action which has forcibly caused a change in her mind can’t be a justification for that action.

The second poster wrote:

“When you ask a child ‘would you like to do X’, they might reply, ‘no, I don’t.’ Their response might not be an informed response – it might well be they have no notion of what X is at all, but having experienced it, they may decide it was wonderful and they love it.”

No justification whatsoever. See above.

The second poster wrote:

“There might be a certain amount of cajolery involved in stretching a child’s notion of what is possible. I think Sarah would still call this ‘coercion’. Perhaps not, it is cajolery, but the child is still free to veto to the experience, or at least to put an end to the experience once it is under way.”

If the child is free to accept or reject it, what are we arguing about? If that is genuinely the case (not just after it has started) then there is no coercion. There is a big difference between reasoned persuasion using one’s best arguments (and thus actually persuading the child that it is a good thing, BY HIS OWN LIGHTS) and getting him to do something by manipulative or coercive means (I think manipulation is a subtle form of coercion). I certainly think there is nothing wrong with trying to persuade children by reason – indeed – I think that is a duty even. The growth of knowledge is about the best theories competing. I don’t hold with denying our children access to our best theories.

The second poster wrote:

“Yes, the child knows what it wants (certainly more so than does the parent) but the child may not know what it doesn’t want, in the sense of not knowing what they are saying ‘no’ to.”

My argument against coercion holds. And then there’s Godwin: “If a thing be really good, it can be shown to be such. If you cannot demonstrate its excellence, it may well be suspected that you are no proper judge of it.” (William Godwin, 1797, The Enquirer, Part I, Essay IX: Of the communication of knowledge, p. 69)

“Adults are the same way, and a little good natured cajolery can expand their horizons, too.”

A little good-natured argument, yes, coercion, no.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Coerced to change their values’,