Coercively protecting children

Woty Free

From the archives: Posted on 18th October, 2002

A poster wrote:

I chose “unsupervised play with a loaded gun” to make the issue starkly clear: there are real safety issues where coercion (in the broad Taking Children Seriously sense) is the right thing to do. These are strictly delimited, and we could debate and discuss the exact parameters, but life is a higher value that non-coercion.

I don’t think so. I think that there are things that people properly value more than life and are willing to die for. It’s quite wrong to coercively prevent one’s child from enlisting to fight in a just war in order to preserve their life, for example.

I think the true rule is closer to this:

It is right to coerce a child in order to preserve their life, if the action they are taking is not one they are willing to die for, and there is no noncoercive way to preserve their life. It is morally necessary to be as noncoercive as possible in this situation, and to act noncoercively to prevent the situation from ever arising in the first place.

I don’t think any toddlers are willing to die for the sake of playing with a loaded gun. I think many older kids are willing to risk death in order to experience rock climbing, or driving, or hunting. This should not be overridden in order to protect them.

Living a life is more valuable than preserving a life.

That’s right. And if a child does manage to find and reach the Drano, and is about to take a swig, I advise quickly intervening to stop it, even if the baby cries. Obviously, no Taking Children Seriously parent would seriously argue that if the baby cries, we should let them drink the Drano.

Definitely. But this is rather different from “if a doctor thinks soy sauce is bad for a child, then we should take it away over the child’s objections”. The right thing to do is to act to solve the problem in a way the child likes. Unless one spoonful of soy sauce is likely to kill the child, this is extremely unlikely to involve any coercion.

A health risk is simply not the same as playing with a loaded gun. Treating the situations as though they are symmetrical is wrong.

Woty Free, 2002, ‘Coercively protecting children’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/coercively-protecting-children/