All the coercion done as parents boils down to thinking for the kids. You as an adult are doing the thinking, you are the ones solving the problems, and they, the children are either following your instructions or not.
In the short run it may seem like it is getting the job done – “look how they are eating the vegetables now! If I had not insisted, they would have just thrown them out.” What is lost here is an opportunity for the child to think for themselves, an opportunity to choose, an opportunity to make an error, experience the feeling of the error, and an opportunity to correct the error.
But you say how would they see any benefits of eating vegetables? All they want to do is eat junk food. My question is how do you know this? You might retort, “Well I know because I have read about the benefits; I experienced weight gain when I only ate junk food in my youth,” etc., etc. Does that mean there is an opportunity for you to talk to the child about your gained knowledge? About your experiences? If you think about it the answer almost always is “yes, I could.”
Then why don’t we?
There are several reasons. For one, parents are always in a hurry to get things done. This is their world, they have control over it (or they think they do), they know the consequences of not doing things on time, etc. The kids are – for the most part – just a part of the equation of their life.
This is wrong. The kids have a brain of their own, they are learning, and observing things just like you. Granted, they don’t have the years of experience you do, but that is about to change. They are soon going into the world looking for a job, going to university, getting married, buying a house, having their own kids, and perhaps, yelling at them just like you are right now!
The point is, in addition to learning from you “just eat the vegetables or you will be in trouble,” they are also learning that this is the way to behave with children, that is it right to coerce those who are weaker than you, and over whom you are in a position of power. They are learning from the way you treat them that it is appropriate to do to their children what you do to them. If we treat our children differently, they will no doubt treat theirs differently as well!
It is amazing to see the grandparents having a soft spot for the grandkids when the parents yell at the kids. They run to the grandkids’ defense. Why is that? Is it because the kids are not their direct responsibility? This is the thing – we think we own our kids. We have given birth to them, we have fed them, cleaned up after them, been responsible for them. Why can’t we discipline them, yell at them, scold them, coerce them, manipulate them? After all, it is all for their good, right?
Yes, you can do all those things, as is the norm to do so. But here is an alternative. If we think of the kid as a thinking entity, as having as sharp of a mind as our own (and sometimes sharper), some of the things become easy. Would you yell at a friend who has come to your house for dinner, and who says they are not in the mood for vegetables today? Would you say to your friend, “If we want any dessert, we have to eat our vegetables.”? Would you confiscate your guest’s iPhone if he looked at it briefly during dinner? No. You treat your friend with respect. You view him as a full person who has a right to be in control of his life, even if he is not eating his vegetables and checking his iPhone during dinner. Why can’t we do that with kids?
I am not saying don’t care about them. Of course we care. But we care with giving them an opportunity to think for themselves too. Once they get used to having this freedom, amazing things can happen. When they are not having to defend themselves from our coercion, they come to us with their experiences, ideas, proposals, and learning, they consult us, they correct their errors, and they collaborate with us to solve their problems and to think how to approach something they have never seen or experienced before.
They have the capacity to explore things on their own as well as with us. They have the capacity to make mistakes, to realize them, and to correct them. We are stinting their ability to think by thinking for them. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can take our children seriously.
- Why does parenting feel so hard?
- What is Taking Children Seriously?
- Surely it is natural for parents to control their children?
Aniket Vartak, PhD, 2022, ‘Don’t think for them’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/dont-think-for-them/