Protect the victim

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

From the archives: The original post was posted on 8th June, 2000

A poster asked:

Why is it always unacceptable to coerce?

I don’t believe that it always is. Coercion is harmful. But whether it is immoral or not depends on the situation and in particular on the obligations that the parties have towards each other.

There are circumstances when coercion is right. Sometimes – in the sort of Force 10 emergencies the poster is referring to (see below) – the least harmful option will involve coercion in defence of the victim. That is to say, coercion in the sense I mean – in that defending the victim may place the aggressor in a state of distressing conflict. It does not follow from that that protecting the victim should involve intentionally punishing the aggressor, either physically or by even frowning at the aggressor.

Nevertheless, sometimes, protecting the victim does mean physically separating the parties, by removing the aggressor, for example. The point is, though, that that sort of situation is all about damage limitation – trying to preserve any knowledge-creating the victim was engaged in, and the knowledge-creating institutions of the family. But the aggressor is unlikely to be helped by the (justified) coercion.

For example, when a child wants to hurt someone, wouldn’t the person’s rights outweigh the child’s right/need to be uncoerced?

Taking Children Seriously is not about rights. What we are trying to do is to facilitate (or not impede!) the growth of knowledge, reason.

That does not mean do not intervene. It does not mean “If one child is beating up another, do nothing.”

To reiterate –

When Little Leanne is hitting Little Scott, she must be separated from him. That is a force 10 emergency. The victim must be protected. For instance, Scott’s parents, or someone acting on behalf of his parents, should step in and get in the way so that they get hit rather than him. Then they should tell Leanne that this hurts, and that they don’t like it, and they think it’s wrong. They should ask her what she wants, and find better ways for her to get it.

Children should indeed be able to expect not to be intentionally hurt, not to have their rights violated. Where there is an act of violence between two children, you should protect both of them from being hurt, but if you can tell who the aggressor was, and you can find no way of protecting the victim other than removing the aggressor, then that is what you must do. It is rarely a good idea to remove the victim (unless the situation is a one-off or you can’t tell who was the aggressor) because if there is a recurring irrational syndrome, in which one child is specifically trying to stop the other having fun, then to remove the victim is simply to become part of the syndrome yourself.

What we are trying to do is to preserve any knowledge-creating going on, and if one child is happily engaged in creating new knowledge and another comes along and launches an attack on the other child, the least damaging option (the option that least impairs the rebuilding of the family’s consent- and knowledge-building mechanisms) would be to remove the aggressor, thus at least allowing the other child to continue having fun and creating new knowledge.

You must tell Leanne that hitting innocent people isn’t right. That is the basis of everything else you can say to her about it. But it must be said in a way that can have no possible threat behind it. Assume that she will want to know this; make sure she knows that you assume this.

Some people tend to err on the side of ignoring the moral dimension, because they fear that that might be coercive. But that is not true. The moral dimension is part of the means for the children to find solutions. They need to know. Of course they need to make their own decisions, but they need to know the best available theories about right and wrong; and not just in the form of a platitude, but in the form of practical advice.

But telling the aggressor moral theories and protecting the victim etc., etc., are not going to work unless you also address the reason that Leanne is doing this.

Telling Leanne the general moral theory is not a crisis management technique, and it need only happen once or twice. Talking about morality ought to be a thing that parents do with their children from time to time; and when Leanne is angry and has just violated one of these moral imperatives is probably the worst possible time to talk to her about this. But you could do it while watching TV, say. When a relevant situation comes up, you could discuss it, including talking about the morality of that situation, and say what the aggressor on the programme should have done and why.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2000, ‘Protect the victim’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/protect-the-victim/