Parental rules mess up children’s thinking

Katherine W.

From the archives: The original post was posted on 1st October, 1998

Poster 1 had written:

“If I have a theory that a certain plant will feel fluffy, and reach out to touch it and get a handful of fine spines, that’s a criticism”

Poster 2:

“Do you realize that Taking Children Seriously (as I see it) proposes a better way to learn about puffball cacti. Specifically you can tell the child “Those fluffy looking plants are really full of nasty prickles.””

Poster 1 replied:

“Yes, however, telling a child something doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll listen or agree. But it’s very difficult to ignore or dispute a sharp pain.”

Poster 1 had written:

“It depends on what the alternative is. You admit it’s worth coercing your child to yank them out of the way of a bus, even though the child really wanted to play kickball in the street. Psychological harm from coercion is rather a moot point when the child’s head is split open like a melon and their brain is splattered on the pavement.”

Poster 2:

“Let’s agree on the fact that we should keep children from being run over by trucks. What is the best way. If two ways are equally effective would you agree that the one that involves less coercion of the child is better?”

Poster 1 replied:

“The problem is, the two ways are not equally effective. Verbal criticism simply doesn’t carry the same weight as natural criticism.”

Agreed. But there’s another way this scenario goes. A Taking Children Seriously child who trusts her parents (say a 3 yo) reaches out to grab this cactus. I squawk from across the room and she pauses to see what’s up. I would certainly tell her that it’s prickly, but I will also suggest “natural criticism.” Probably a close look at the plant will reveal its true nature. Perhaps there is a part we can gently touch to test the sharpness but that won’t actually hurt. The child can learn and experience with minimal pain. This child also learns that I care about her safety but also that I try to help her do the things she wants to do. And she is learning to judge for herself how to treat different plants in different situations. Just as I believe that we (everybody) treat different streets differently. I have a friend who lives on a dead end and all of the kids play in the street, ride bikes etc. I hope that if my daughter were visiting and wanted to play in the street with all of the other kids, her mind would be unclouded by arbitrary “Street” rules and she would be able to judge for herself the safety of this particular street.

But what if I had a hard-and-fast rule, Never go in the street? Maybe my adult friend who is sort of supervising these kids (since after all, her street is quite safe) would convince my child that “It’s okay this time, this street is safe, Go ahead and play with the kids, your parent won’t be mad.” So she does. Well, I could come walking up, see her in the street, and swiftly punish her for her disobedience, for the sake of consistency. But this seems to me to be just so messed up! I hope for my child that she learns to judge these things for herself, and in this case she also consulted another adult who agreed to the safety of the situation, which seems quite good and responsible.

Another consequence seems much more likely, and yet has much more far-reaching consequences. I come walking up, I see her in the street, yet I know the street is safe so I then do not punish her, though she is probably worried that I will. She then learns that my rule is not so absolute, after all. It can be bent under certain conditions without punishment. But her thinking is already messed up; now she is thinking, How, or under what circumstances, can I go in the street and avoid punishment? Perhaps the next day her ball rolls into the street, and she thinks that maybe this is one of those situations in which the rule doesn’t apply, so she won’t get punished for fetching her ball. I may see her and punish, I may not see her but she may get scared by a car, or, perhaps nothing will happen at all. She may then conclude that this had been another “safe” time since no punishment befell her. Things get messed up in her head about why she does the things she does, to avoid punishment, because they really are unsafe, when should she ask an adult for help? what if she has already done something against the rule and will then be punished if she asks for help with it?

Life is not black and white, but rules are. Punishments try to make the world fit into the categories of black and white but kids judge that there are greys anyway. I would rather help my child learn about those greys than just ignore them they way many parents do. I believe it leads to safer kids, as many threads have illustrated (trampoline etc.), and, I must admit I find it very appealing, a more honest and real relationship with my children.   I’d like to look at this paragraph again:

Poster 1:

“It depends on what the alternative is. You admit it’s worth coercing your child to yank them out of the way of a bus, even though the child really wanted to play kickball in the street. Psychological harm from coercion is rather a moot point when the child’s head is split open like a melon and their brain is splattered on the pavement.”

There are many assumptions embedded in this statement. I even question whether it can really be called “coercion” to save someone’s life when you know they like living. I would bet that the child at some point in this split second senses the bus coming, and wishes she were safe. Perhaps the parent has already grabbed her, or is about to, but there is no time for the child to experience any distress from the parent’s actions (they probably will be distressed by the bus’s actions, though!). And then, why are you playing kickball on the bus route anyway? Perhaps the next block over is better, or at least the parent should be on the lookout for the bus coming, and should tell the child of the possibility. Taking Children Seriously parents are actively involved in helping kids get what they want and in keeping them safe, which do not at all have to be incompatible. If little kids do not understand how to evaluate the safety of a street, they should be supervised and helped. If bigger kids do not quite feel safe playing kickball in the street and watching for buses, they should be helped.

This sounds like a lot of work, but effective coercion is a lot of work too. It takes a lot of time and trauma, and you never know when you can really trust them to obey you. Probably by the time they’re teenagers you figure you’ve done your job well, but now they’re old enough and resourceful enough to just lie to you. But they’re still messed up in their thinking in many areas, even though they’re so smart and resourceful.

I would rather spend my energy helping my child learn and living together in a Taking Children Seriously way.

Katherine W., 1998, ‘Parental rules mess up children’s thinking’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/parental-rules-mess-up-childrens-thinking/