Common misapprehensions about Taking Children Seriously

From the archives: Posted on 27th May, 1995

Coercive parents sometimes claim that they themselves grew up in complete freedom and hated every minute of it. When faced with such disingenuous statements, I am often at a loss as to how to respond. There was a striking example of this on a newsgroup recently. Someone who didn’t like my suggestion that potty training is unnecessary claimed that her daughter had not been potty-trained, and as a result, had still been in nappies at age 16….

Sometimes such parents are more honest, and don’t claim to have had complete freedom but almost complete autonomy, and that they were allowed to make many of their own decisions, but not all. But even the paddlers say that they only coerce as much as is “necessary”. Such statements are vacuous. “Almost” and “many” suggest “permissive” parenting, not consensual/non-coercive parenting. What is known as “permissive” parenting is not the same as non-coercive parenting at all, though I can see why it might appear that way to those whose idea of good parenting is to control and train their children.

But as it happens, I think that people who make even these statements are at best mistaken about the way they were raised. I very much doubt that the children here, whose parents the paddlers would describe as “non-coercive” (as an insult, of course 😉 ) will grow up thinking that their parents have given them far too much freedom and insufficient “discipline”. I think that children raised by parents who are less coercive than the norm will grow up feeling good about their childhoods, and probably wanting to be even less coercive with their own children.

NON-COERCION IS NOT LEAVING PROBLEMS UNSOLVED

When someone says “I badly wanted my parents to make some decisions for me” he is saying that he had problems which were not being addressed. Whatever such a person thinks, he is not talking about a non-coercive upbringing. Non-coercive parenting involves working to avoid raising internal conflicts and these sort of bad feelings. In a non-coercive household, this sort of situation would not arise. If anything like it did arise, the child would talk to his parents, and a solution would be found – a solution the child would be happy with. Since the whole point of non-coercive parenting is to solve problems – and that means finding solutions everyone likes, not just the parents or the children – it is inconceivable that a child raised this way would have these sort of unresolved problems. I’d guess that when someone says that he wished more than anything that his parents would control him, it might be that he was being left to rot, as it were, with his parents not giving him the support and advice he needed.

NON-COERCION IS NOT NOT CARING

Sometimes coercive parents argue that when they were children, growing up in free and easy households, they felt bitterly disappointed that their parents did not coerce them in the way their friends’ parents did. They say that they felt unloved, and that their friends’ parents displayed more love for their children, through their coercion, than did their own “non-coercive” parents.

But if they felt unloved, their parents must have been doing something to cause that. It is inconceivable that this would happen with the sort of parenting I advocate. As I said, the whole aim of it is to solve problems, avoid entrenched ideas and internal conflicts, to allow knowledge to grow. Unhappiness is caused by intractable or immutable internal conflicts or problems. Being in an environment whose very ethos is about solving problems is hardly likely to make a child suffer in the way suggested.

There is something a bit twisted about equating love with coercion, but it certainly seems that this idea is very deeply embedded in our culture. Indeed, most adults, at least in their relationships with children, are addicted to domination. They literally cannot form relationships with children which do not contain a strong element of subjugation. Children usually dislike being dominated just as much as adults do, but when this abuse is clothed in the language of love, some children – perhaps most – get confused, and can’t see what is going on. After all, everybody knows that “love” equals “good”, and therefore anything done out of love, must itself be right. This timeless piece of ethical analysis was used to great effect by the Spanish Inquisition, which, out of pure love, tortured many a heretic to death. The truth is that feeling love for another person confers no rights upon one to act towards him in a way that would be wrong if you did not love him. In particular, love cannot be a licence for tyranny. But that is exactly what the discipline-is-an-expression-of-love doctrine tries to assert.

I think that when a parent says that as a child, he felt unloved because his parents were insufficiently coercive, he is subscribing to this false piece of reasoning in our culture: mistaking too little love for too much freedom. Stripped of that fallacy, what we should learn is this: children need to be loved; disciplinarians need to discipline.

NON-COERCION IS NOT DECIDING NOT TO TEACH THEM CERTAIN THINGS

Another common misconception is that non-coercion means deciding not to teach one’s children anything. Someone on the home-ed list said that her parents decided not to teach her housecleaning. Having such a preconceived idea of how to proceed is not non-coercion. Non-coercive parenting is not about making conscious decisions not to teach children things (good grief!). It is about real problem-solving. It involves thinking about what the children might be interested in or like, and facilitating their interests. Denying them the opportunity to learn the skills they’ll need in later life is very bad, in my view, and nothing to do with consensual parenting.

NON-COERCION IS NOT ANTI-INTELLECTUAL

Sometimes it is argued that non-coercive parenting means intellectually unstimulating. This is not non-coercion! Anti-intellectualism has no place in non-coercive parenting. What we are aiming for is to give the children access to as much of the world as we possibly can, and to facilitate their interests as much as possible. It involves bending over backwards to be aware of any budding interest, and thinking about what the children might like, and helping them to follow-up their interests.

I have many many interesting, thinking people passing through my home, and have had many get-togethers and lectures and philosophical discussions here, which children are welcome to take part in. Non-coercive parents are likely to take their children to talk to interesting people, and to see interesting things. Non-coercive parenting does not mean just leaving them to rot. That is about as far from non-coercion as is the total domination of children that other parents engage in.

NON-COERCION IS NOT GIVING THEM NO ATTENTION

And the fact that so many parents seem completely unable to conceive of any way of interacting with their children which is not either coercing them or ignoring them seems rather sad.

NON-COERCION IS NOT REJECTING ALL ROUTINE ON PRINCIPLE

When I say that I do not usually cook big dinners, and that I think it wrong to force children to eat when they are not hungry, or make them come to the table when dinner is served, people often jump to the conclusion that I am arguing that non-coercion means rejecting all routine on principle. They then go on to tell me how much their children love the dinner routine. I can imagine dinner being a lovely time for conversation in many households, and when I have quests, I do (usually?) cook, and we all sit around the table conversing, and everyone is happy with that. I have no problem with that – if you all feel happy with it. I just find that the eating patterns in my household do not generally fit the “three meals a day including a big dinner” routine.

NON-COERCION IS NOT NOT INFLUENCING THEM OR LEAVING THEM TO ROT

It is not good enough just to “not prevent” children from doing things. Parents engaged in non-coercive child-raising try always to give their children the best possible guidance – information, advice, their opinions. They do not deny their children their opinions and knowledge in the interests of not influencing them. That is not the idea at all. They do not deny their children information about how their behaviour affects those around them. That is, yes, they avoid making sad faces at their children to emotionally blackmail them into conforming; but no, they do not hide their real feelings, as has been suggested.

The way some parents seem to view non-coercion, one would think that our “ideal” is to raising children in a vacuum of ideas. That is a complete misapprehension. The growth of knowledge is about allowing ideas to compete, and that means we must give our children access to our best theories. BTW, I use that term broadly, to include all ideas, values, feelings, opinions, conjectures, and so on.

Telling a child why we think his proposed course of action is foolhardy, say, is not the same as making him adopt our idea about the matter. The chances are, (if we are right) he will listen to us. If, when we have explained why we think his idea foolhardy, he remains unconvinced, then logically, at least one of us must be wrong, but given our fallibility, we have no reason to think that it is the child. So in a non-coercive situation, we would be trying to come up with a course of action we both find preferable. Unfortunately though, adults do tend to hold entrenched, irrational ideas, which no amount of reason on the child’s part will shift.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Common misapprehensions about Taking Children Seriously’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/common-misapprehensions-about-taking-children-seriously/