Is Taking Children Seriously permissive, authoritative, uninvolved or authoritarian?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

“What parenting style is Taking Children Seriously? Authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, or uninvolved?”

The answer is none of them:

Taking Children Seriously vs coercive approaches not taking children seriously

The approaches not taking children seriously are coercive. They are either unapologetically coercive (authoritarian) or the coercion is less overt. The prevailing view of children that does not take them seriously is paternalistic. In the past, women were viewed paternalistically – as needing to live under the (benevolent fatherly) control of their father or husband – but now (at least in Western culture) it is obvious that that is a mistake. Women are now taken seriously as full persons in their own right. But even Western culture has not quite yet noticed that children too are full persons whose lives are their own.

Taking Children Seriously is a new view of children: children are people just like adults are. Their lives are their own, just like ours are our own. Just as we ourselves do not appreciate being coercively controlled (even if the person doing it genuinely thinks we need to be controlled for our own good, and he tries to be benevolent about it!), neither do children.

Human beings are all fallible: we all make mistakes, including parents. We also all lack knowledge. But for adults, lacking knowledge and making mistakes does not result in other people thinking we need to be controlled for our own good. We still get to control our own lives no matter how stupid, ignorant and devoid of sense we are, and no matter how many mistakes we make.

There is nothing wrong with children. They are no more defective, broken and needing to be fixed than we adults are. If anything, children are more rational and creative (able to come up with brilliant new ideas, explanations and solutions to problems, able to learn, improve, make progress) than we are.

So instead of interacting with them in a top-down authoritarian relationship in which we are bossing children about, setting limits for them, moulding and shaping them, and paternalistically channelling them into our pedagogical agenda for them that is independent of their own wishes, we interact with them as fellow full human beings, each of us having our own life, our own preferences, our own wishes, our own interests.

Paternalistic approaches are very well-meaning but they violate children’s personal boundaries by coercively intervening in their business. Taking Children Seriously involves giving our children lots of support, engagement, love and protection, but we do that without violating their boundaries. Their life is a matter for them, just as, ultimately, your life is a matter for you. If that, to you, sounds like advocating leaving children to rot, you may be viewing children through the lens of paternalism. Children being free does not actually imply that they are being left to rot. Happily, they can be free and have loving parents engaging with them. A parent can be supporting and engaging with his children without coercively controlling them, just like a husband can be supporting and engaging with his wife without coercively controlling her. When it comes to us ourselves, thinking about our happy marriage or our relationship with our dearest friend, it is easy to see that there is a possibility other than coercive control or nothing: mutually-delightful, loving, supportive, non-coercive engagement!

“Isn’t checked-out uninvolved parenting another kind of non-coercion? Like, the kid’s not being told what to do.”

There is a lot more to taking children seriously than merely not telling them what to do. And in the relevant sense – what is going on in the mind of the child – having a checked-out uninvolved parent is very much coercive. What must it be like to be a child with a parent who is, for example, a checked-out addict or who is severely depressed or suffering from some other (untreated) debilitating psychiatric condition? Imagine how it would be to be a child in such a scary, lonely, situation, with a parent who is unable to give you the engagement, the protection, the love, the resources, the access to the world, to interesting people, to all the opportunities children taken seriously have. You wouldn’t even be able to enjoy the creative conversational togetherness of watching a video together and talking about it. Even if the issue were not addiction or mental illness – say the parent lacked the wherewithal to give the child the involvement needed due to having to work three jobs to keep a roof over their heads – the effect could be terribly coercive for the child. If you want to call that ‘non-coercion’, then Taking Children Seriously is not just any kind of (what you call) ‘non-coercion’, it is a very engaged, thoughtful, interventionist, connecting kind.

“If Taking Children Seriously is not about leaving children to rot, surely it must be permissive parenting?”

No. “Permissive parenting” is an authoritarian’s disparaging term for parents who are falling down on the job, irresponsibly failing to give their children the firm hand they (allegedly) need. Perhaps there are parents who feel aligned with the “permissive parenting” label, such as those who favour “yes parenting” and those who ‘let’ their children do a lot more than “authoritative” parents do, but the idea of being “permissive” still assumes it is the parent’s right to give permission to their children – or to refuse it – rather than viewing children as full persons free to make their own choices for their own lives.

Taking Children Seriously is not about increasing the number of things we allow our children to do. It is not about saying “yes” more. It is not about being more lenient. It is not about giving our children more choices, and it is not even about giving them more freedom. If we are the ones deciding how much freedom to allow, or what to say “yes” to, then we could choose to allow less freedom, we could choose to start saying no more. In other words, we are still viewing our children through the lens of paternalism, and we are in an authoritarian hierarchical top-down relationship with them instead of an equal, side-by-side relationship in which no one is deemed to be an authority.

Taking Children Seriously views each person, including each child, as being a full sovereign individual whose life is their own, not ours to control.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘Is Taking Children Seriously permissive, authoritative, uninvolved or authoritarian?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/is-taking-children-seriously-permissive-authoritative-uninvolved-or-authoritarian/