How did Taking Children Seriously start?

“How did Taking Children Seriously start?”

I had been opposed to children being coerced for many, many years before I had children. My view was that children are people and that they have as much right to control their lives as other people. I had been thinking about freedom, including children’s freedom, since quite early in my childhood.

When I was a child, I noticed that my parents had different ways of treating me. Their ideas and practices conflicted. My teachers at school also each had different ways of treating the school pupils. And the horror stories I heard from my friends about the awful things their parents did suggested even more conflicting ideas about how to treat children. My parents were not non-coercive, but they were quite relaxed and hands-off, and I had vastly more freedom than my friends. My friends’ parents were micromanaging and freaked out about every little thing. My friends were often not allowed to go out, and were forced to do household chores, and were forced to eat food they hated. Their parents even read their private diaries – something my parents would never dream of doing.

Like my friends, I was subjected to school and seemingly endless extra-curricula activities including Brownies, Girl Guides, piano lessons, violin lessons, ballet lessons, tap lessons, acrobatics lessons, church, and so on, all of which felt like the theft of my precious time – indeed, the theft of my life – but my parents did not engage in the endless scrutiny and pedagogical coercion and micromanagement of my free time that my friends’ parents did. Because there were such obvious differences in the ways the different adults treated children, I thought about the differences critically.

At the age of about 11, my father and I watched a re-run of the 1967 British television series, The Prisoner, and I started thinking deeply about freedom and how children should be treated. I already knew, by then, that if I should ever have children, I would not force them to go to school. School was absolute torture, and was utterly useless educationally.

I had started school at four years old, yet school entirely failed to teach me to read. Like other children who had not managed to learn to read, at 6 years old I was put in the dunces’ remedial reading class for slow learners. I still did not learn to read. So much for the educational value of school and the expertise of teachers.

I finally taught myself to read on a very long family car journey when I was 8 or 9. I did so by spelling out words and asking my parents what the words were, until I could read the entire first page (one paragraph!) of The Wind in the Willows without help. I felt ecstatic! Overjoyed! I started reading voraciously in every spare moment. Reading, for me, was like video games are for children now. I was regularly told off (and sometimes made to stand in the corner or beaten!) in school for reading an unrelated book I was trying to hide under the table.

As a teenager, I read many of the classics including books like George Orwell’s 1984 (as well as less obviously germane books like those by Austen and Eliot), and continued to think more and more about freedom in general and children’s freedom in particular.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I set about trying to find other people who shared my ideas about taking children seriously and found no one. I joined various organisations for parents and started speaking about my ideas at them. Even the radical unschoolers of Education Otherwise were scathing about the idea that children should be free rather than controlled by adults. The more I spoke about my ideas, the more dismayed I became. Not a single person seemed to agree with anything I said about children. I felt terribly alone.

But one of the many people I spoke to about my ideas happened to know David Deutsch, and after receiving a lengthy letter from me about my ideas, she suggested that David and I should meet, as we had “the same educational philosophy”: we were both opposed to coercing children. We were both opposed to compulsory schooling and to coercive education more generally. We both took the view that children are people with as much right to control their lives as we have to control ours. We both believed in freedom irrespective of age. We were both optimists and fallibilists. Excited to learn that there might be a likeminded soul in the universe, I met David immediately.

What thrilled me about David was that not only did he have the same ideas as mine about children, he had a deeply thought-out philosophical theory about it all that was mind-blowing in its brilliance and in its utility. I had known that children are people and that they should be free just like adults, and I was very opposed to the coercion of innocent children including educational coercion, and had had some good arguments of my own, but I did not have a deep unified explanatory theory like David’s.

David suggested I read Karl Popper’s Objective Knowledge, then explained the link he saw between Popper’s epistemology and educational theory. This was the most exciting idea I had ever heard. The more I thought about it, the more practical, real-life implications I could see, and the more valuable I found David’s insight.

I continued speaking about my ideas, including at libertarian events, conferences, in panel discussions, on radio and TV, and elsewhere. A few childless libertarians liked my ideas, but I had still not found a single parent who liked what I had to say.

In 1992, I started running a newsletter for home educators in London, but within a couple of issues some of my subscribers were quite angry with me because I did not want to publish their stuff advocating coercion. Clearly something needed to change. What I really wanted to write about was children being free to control their own lives. Surely I couldn’t be the only parent in the world who held that a childhood without coercion is possible and desirable?!

A friend of David’s who at that time shared our ideas, suggested that I should change the name of my journal to Taking Children Seriously and change its focus accordingly. This, I did. (Of course I offered all my subscribers a pro-rata refund, and several did accept a refund.) David and the friend who suggested the new name for the journal started writing for the journal, and you can find many of David’s Taking Children Seriously articles on this site.

Soon after that, I got on the internet (such as it was in those days) and started discussing Taking Children Seriously ideas on usenet newsgroups and mailing lists. (This was before the advent of the world wide web!) Eventually, after finding that the list owners of the lists on which I was posting were getting annoyed with me for what they saw as my off-topic posting, I decided to start my own list.

Everyone told me that it was a terrible idea to start my own list. Friends on the usenet newsgroups and discussion lists where I was posting said that there was no market for a new list, and that no one would join it. They couldn’t understand why I was not happy just to keep posting on the existing forums as I had been doing. Even David refused to have anything to do with my Taking Children Seriously list idea, saying that it would never work, because parents would not be interested in it.

But with the help of my good friend in America, Tim Starr, who kindly hosted the list, took on the technical management of the list and paid the ongoing fees required in those days for list hosting, in 1994 I went ahead and started the Taking Children Seriously list anyway.

Even though no one else could see it, I knew that by creating a forum on which I could discuss my ideas freely, I would attract likeminded individuals, and thereby create a community of parents taking their children seriously. This is exactly what happened, and as a result, in 1996, to my great joy, David finally agreed to subscribe to the list and started participating.

I was being invited to speak about Taking Children Seriously more and more, all over the world, and thanks to that and the list, I had finally begun to meet many likeminded parents – so many that we actually had a Taking Children Seriously conference in America, with families flying in from all over the place to attend it.

Meanwhile, the world wide web was beginning to take off, and I wanted to create a web site, but initially, this proved prohibitively expensive. Then I met Popperian Professor Barry McMullin at a conference on the philosophy of Karl Popper, and he offered to provide space for my proposed Taking Children Seriously website on the server at Dublin City University (which was at that time the home of The Karl Popper Web).

Eventually, on Fri, 24th October, 1997, with lots of encouragement and help from a number of people including especially David Deutsch and Kevin Schoedel, I set up the original Taking Children Seriously website on the Dublin University server. Without Kevin’s vast technical expertise and ongoing endless help and moral support none of the iterations of the Taking Children Seriously website would have been possible. Without David Deutsch’s brilliant understanding of what Karl Popper’s epistemology implies in terms of educational theory, and his generous intellectual engagement, and his many contributions to the content, Taking Children Seriously would lack the unified philosophical theory that is so central to it now. Later, I bought the tcs.ac domain name, and created a US mirror, again, with Kevin Schoedel’s help. Later still, I bought the takingchildrenseriously.com domain name, the permanent home of the Taking Children Seriously website.

I continued editing and publishing my paper journal, Taking Children Seriously throughout its existence, ceasing publication when there was no longer a need for a paper journal given that everyone was by then on the internet. (Only one subscriber wanted the pro-rata refund I offered when I ceased publication, and many wrote to thank me for having kept the journal going for so long! Progress!)

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘How did Taking Children Seriously start?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/how-did-taking-children-seriously-start/