Coercion needed to prevent cavities?

From the archives: Posted on 26th October, 1994

A poster wrote: 

“But what should a non-coercive parent do when a child  does not like to have her teeth flossed and brushed, and will kick and fight to avoid it?

Sarah will probably say that the kicking and fighting is a reaction to  the coercion, and to my reaction to the kicking and fighting, and I partly agree: If I didn’t think it was funny/annoying, it wouldn’t keep happening. But our oldest, at least, never liked having his teeth brushed, and always resisted. And, this is not something we can just  ignore and wait for him to grow out of: He already has a mouth full of cavities (well, $2K worth of fillings and caps, now) and we do not want this to happen to his second set of teeth.”

This implies that coercion will prevent your child from having bad teeth. But, if I read correctly, you did use coercion and yet have a child with bad teeth. You can force him to brush his teeth but you can’t make him care enough to do it well.

While I think coercion would be wrong even if it did work, I think it’s worth pointing out that it often doesn’t. Worse, coercion often  has other effects, whether or not it succeeds in accomplishing whatever particular goal is used to justify it. For instance, it may cause children to resent their parents, to retaliate, to become sneaky, to learn to lie, to learn to tolerate or enjoy punishments, to adopt compulsions around the subject of coercion, etc.

“I readily agree that coercion in general is bad, but I do believe that  holding Absolutely No Coercion as an ideal to work towards is not just unrealistic, not just impossible, but potentially damaging to the parent (and their child) who believes that they should not be coercing yet finds that coercion is the only way to get their child to do something that is necessary. Obviously, there are very few such things, but they do exist.”

Non-coercion is (relatively) easy so long as adult and child agree on what to do, or so long as the adult is willing to go along with what the child wants. It is important, I think, for a parent to usually genuinely accept what the child wants, but it is also important to consider what happens when they fundamentally disagree about what the child should do.

Kevin Schoedel, 1994, ‘Coercion needed to prevent cavities?’,