The ‘Keeping One's Options Open’ Mentality

Originally published in Taking Children Seriously, the paper journal (TCS 30).

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

There is a very nasty syndrome which parents sometimes inadvertently pass on to their children while trying to help their children have better lives. I call it the Keeping-One's-Options-Open mentality. Here is one example of what it looks like:

You study hard to ensure that you pass your school exams. In Britain that would be GCSE exams at the age of 16, which you do to keep your options open so that you can do A-level exams at 18 if you want to. Then you do A-levels to keep your options open in case you want to go to university.

Then you go to university to get a good degree (not necessarily one that you will enjoy) so you can get a good job. Then you take the wrong job (a ‘good’ job) and kowtow to your boss so that you can get promotion and thereby security, to keep your options open after retirement.

This is a very common syndrome in which people sacrifice themselves for the next phase of life, which itself consists of nothing but sacrificing themselves for the following phase.

A friend of mine, whom I'll call Henry, has this syndrome badly. He is so desperate to keep his options open and set himself up financially that life is passing him by. He is living for retirement, and totally forgetting to live now. And as retirement looms, he is increasingly fearing it. In this lifetime of unhappy sacrifice, he has systematically sacrificed his real interests, and has destroyed his capacity to acquire any. When I think of Aristotle's dictum: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, I think of my friend Henry. What has his life been for? It was supposed to have been for him.

And the most frightening thing of all is that in his desperate wish to help his daughter have a good life, he has successfully instilled in her the very same syndrome. She now studies hard whether she enjoys it or not in order not to end up in a dead-end job. Henry's job, apparently, is not a dead-end job, but it does take all his time from when he gets up to when he goes to sleep, almost every day, and this has been the case for the many years I have known him – and there is no reason to expect that to change.

No Way Out - And Loving It

What if children want to risk doing something that you think might be distressing for them? For example, what if they want to spend the weekend with their very coercive grandparents, or play with a neighbourhood child who is rather violent, or go to boarding school, or play Truth or Dare?Based on a Fri, 7th April, 2000 TCS List post

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

What if children want to risk doing something that you think might be distressing for them? For example, what if they want to spend the weekend with their very coercive grandparents, or play with a neighbourhood child who is rather violent, or go to boarding school, or play Truth or Dare?

The answer is that TCS parents:

  1. try to ensure that their children know the risks, dangers, options, and so on (giving them as much information as they want to hear),
  2. think ahead to what might go wrong, and make contingency plans,
  3. ensure that the children have an escape from the situation in the event that they want that,
  4. thoroughly support their children in their choice to take this risk,
  5. if the children change their minds later, TCS parents then support them in that, helping them effect a rapid escape.

If Jane wants to go back-packing in the wilderness, for example, her parents will ensure that she understands the risks and make it possible for her to get out in the event that she wants to escape. They will equip her with a phone or radio, etc.

But what if the thing that the child wants to risk is specifically a matter of not being able to easily get out of the situation? What if Jane wants to go pack-packing in the wilderness without a phone or radio?

Obligations And Helping One Another

David Deutsch

A TCS List poster asked:

When we choose to bring a child into the world, we have a certain responsibility to feed and clothe and otherwise nurture the child for some period. What is that period?

At the point when, and to the extent that, they consider it best.

If it is no longer my preference to provide, say, financial assistance, for my adult child, is it okay for me to step back?

To understand TCS (and indeed, close autonomy-respecting relationships generally),

Requiring Children To Do Chores

Posted by David Deutsch on the TCS List on Fri, 1 Aug, 1997, at 03:46:39 +0100

A poster wrote, in defence of requiring children to do chores:

I'm not willing to go to work everyday to earn the money needed to pay for the computers, toys, food, etc that everyone else buys if I must live in a messy house because the person who made the mess didn't feel like cleaning it up today and decided to wait until next week!

This unwillingness of yours, stressed by your outraged exclamation mark, means that you cannot be happy unless someone else does certain chores that you want done. On the other hand, ‘requiring’ others to do these chores (which is a euphemism for hurting them when they refuse or fail to perform to your satisfaction) makes you unhappy too. It follows that you are destined to be unhappy.

Or does it?

You see, there's another way of looking at all this, and that's what TCS is all about. But from the way you are analysing this problem, I guess that your main obstacle in understanding what TCS is all about will be a moral one: you believe that a parent's financial support and other services for his children morally obliges the children to provide certain services in return. But there is no justification for that belief. It is just a rationalisation of the traditional status quo between parent and child. The truth is that there is a moral asymmetry between parent and child: in the event of an intractable dispute between them, the parent chose to place the child in the situation that caused the dispute; the child did not choose to place the parent there.

Hence the fact that you “not willing to go to work every day” etc., without receiving services from your children in return is (morally) your problem, and not theirs. The fact that your children would be unhappy without those services, and are also unhappy to provide you with the services you demand, is also (morally) your problem. You chose the latter problem for yourself; you were saddled with the former by your own parents.

Taking A Wrong Turn

Alice Bachini

Pat made an illuminating comment recently, when he said; “I always like the comparison of a failure to find a common preference to the failure of taking the correct turn while driving somewhere. It is just that, a failure to figure out the ideal choice at the time.”

TCS Parenting Is Self-Improving

Alice Bachini

TCS parenting is what TCS parents aspire to and manage to pull off sometimes. In practice, TCS parenting is nothing more or less than good parenting. We are trying to do the best we can for our kids. We happen to think that doing the best we can does, potentially at least, happen not to involve coercing them, but other than that, we have few specific ideas about what's involved. And many of those we disagree about.

Practical TCS

Annette Abma

Though many parents may be convinced of TCS in theory, they often want practical advice on how to resolve real problems; yet, as TCS parents come to learn, there is no one solution to any given problem just as there is no one kind of child or parent. Unlike most approaches to parenting, TCS does not and cannot offer formulas or methods for dealing with specific problems. This is because finding common preferences involves discovering what is most preferred by the very unique individuals involved.

Is Hiding Medicine In Your Child's Food Wrong?

It depends. If Suzy has an ear infection, giving her some of Uncle Derek's Viagra would of course be wrong, however you administer it.

If Suzy doesn't want to take her medicine because she has read that this particular medicine is now thought to cause cancer and is about to be withdrawn, it would be wrong to cause her to take it without her knowledge.

Taking Toys Seriously (Yes, Really)

Suzanna Slack

I once offered help to a teenager who had a huge room and lots of things in it. Her parents didn't like her throwing stuff out – there was always a sentimental value attached to something or other, or it could be fixed, blah blah blah. She was held back, literally, by all the junk that had accumulated in her room. This isn't going to be a pseudo feng-shui commentary, by the way.

Curious Young Children Taking Things Apart

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

Young children often love taking things apart, but when what they are taking apart are brand new and expensive toys, and you are worrying about how to pay the gas bill, you might want to find cheaper toys, or old toys for the purpose, or perhaps think laterally and find things other than toys for them to take apart. For those who can't afford hugely expensive toys, TCS folks have suggested the following ideas:

Parenting By The Book

This article, by Francine Lucidon, was first published in Taking Children Seriously, the paper journal, in TCS 28. (N.B. The books linked are absolutely not recommended, and only readers with strong stomachs should click on the links.)

Taking Children Seriously

How Would You Like It?

This guest column, by homeschooler, Marti Gardner, was first published in Taking Children Seriously, the paper journal (TCS 20).

Taking Children Seriously

Our homeschooling support group meeting was last night and we had a lovely couple there who have home schooled all four of their children, three of whom have gone on to college, the other of whom is in high school. We broke into smaller groups of five to six people, in which we discussed our different methods and ideas, then our group spokesperson shared the general ones with the whole group.

It was great until we reached two areas. Before I touch on those, I'd like to ask a few questions that are related.

Suppose that your household chores are to make your bed (spouse is up before you so it's your job),

clean the house, do laundry and dishes, feed the kids breakfast and lunch – whatever your list looks like. Now, suppose come dinner time, the laundry isn't done yet. Maybe you got a call from your sister/neighbour/friend and you got side-tracked, or just flat out didn't feel like it. Now, suppose you were told that because you didn't finish your chores for the day, you don't get dinner. Your spouse says, “Forget it, you get to eat when it's done.” Excuse me, but mine better start running and ducking cause this girl eats dinner despite her chores being incomplete. What about you? Do you have to go without your meal because of this?

What about the other things maybe the other spouse is responsible for, like mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, working on the car, weeding the flower bed, going to work? Now suppose for a minute the yard is only half mowed at dinner time and the trash is still sitting by the door to go out. Okay, do we tell them they can't eat dinner until it's done (who cares if it's dinner time and they are hungry)? Mine would probably tell me that if I really thought I could keep him from his plate to go ahead and stand there in front of the stove and watch him reach around me or pick me up and move me.

Introduction to Taking Children Seriously (TCS)

TCS doesn't mean attempting to create a problem-free state, it means simply actually starting to solve problems rather than being stuck. Happiness is not being without problems, it is being in the process of solving your problems. Being TCS doesn't mean miraculously developing perfect knowledge and rationality and becoming perfectly non-coercive and a godlike paragon of every virtue known to man overnight; it means starting from where you are and making improvements and correcting mistakes as best you can, as you go along. That, after all, is all one can do.

Natural Consequences

First published in the paper journal, Taking Children Seriously, way back in TCS 22, the purpose of this article was to show that what parenting experts call “natural consequences” are no such thing, and that what these experts are really advocating is punishing children and denying resonsibility for the resulting distress that their children feel. Whether TCS or not, many parents find the idea of such dishonesty alarming. For those who are interested, I then go on to explain what a TCS parent would consider a real natural consequence.

TCS and Karl Popper

Karl Popper's general idea of how a human being acquires knowledge – by creating it afresh through criticism and the elimination of error – applies equally to non-scientific types of knowledge such as moral knowledge, and to unconscious and inexplicit forms of knowledge. Thus we see ourselves as trying to extend Popperian epistemology into areas where, by its inner logic, it applies, but where Popper himself resolutely refused to apply it.


Is the rejection of authority necessary?

The rejection of authority about any given issue is a precondition to solving problems related to that issue. So if a problem arises in any area in which we do not reject authority, we can never solve it. We remain chronically baulked.

But if we were to reject all forms of authority, we would have to reject the authority of our personal experience. Once we reject that, we have literally no place from which to speak authoritatively.

There But For An Internet Post Go I...

Laura Smith suggested that there should be a column in Taking Children Seriously for personal stories of what brought people to TCS, what they were doing before, how TCS has changed their lives and relationships, what was hard for them, and so on. Given that TCS folks are keen to avoid writing things that might embarrass their children when they later become Prime Minister or the President, Laura suggested that this column should be anonymous to allow people to say slightly personal things without violating anyone's privacy.

The TCS Survey (1997)

Some years ago, TCS conducted a fascinating survey and reported the results in the paper journal, Taking Children Seriously (TCS 23). We asked: “Which of the following things are so important that children must do them even if they cannot be persuaded to, and are distressed at being forced to?” The results are both fascinating and useful for those of us striving to take our real children seriously in our real lives. Noticing and understanding the phenomenon that the survey highlights can dissolve fears and help us question our unchallenged false assumptions. Several readers have asked for this to be made available on the TCS web site, so here it is.


This is a parody of Allen Ginsberg's Howl, by Annette Abma. If you would find it fun to read the two side by side, Howl here.

For All who Follow Them

I see the new minds of each generation destroyed by parents, coerced apologetical misled,

drugging themselves on Sesame Streets, withdrawn, looking at an angry face;

(Not) Doling Out Looks and Latitude

Here is a TCS List post by Robert Donjacour in which he highlights the fact that a certain sort of look can be just as coercive psychologically as overt coercion. He then goes on to advocate giving children infinite latitude and talks about what happened when he and his wife gave up being “the food czars”. (Posted on Wed, 30 Jul., 1997, at 17:39:52 -0800.)

Waste Not, Want Not

Eponymous Anonymous

My granny always said, “Waste not, want not, Epanon” (that was her nickname for me; cute, huh?) Well, I took her advice to heart, generally, and though at the time I rebelled against many of her non-wasting measures (like, washing out and reusing all plastic bags until they got holes – why, I resorted to poking holes in them deliberately, when she wasn't looking! just to get out of washing them!),

once I was keeping house for myself, I found that granny was right about lots of things, including that “waste not, want not” idea.

TCS Theory and Practice

To argue that there can never be such a thing as parenting and people so good that they don't ever resort actively to hurting their own immediate family(!) is rank pessimism. Wherever we are on the scale of moral evolution today, we can always go up a rung tomorrow. Unless we prefer to turn away from growth and start claiming there are no more rungs, of course.


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