From the archives: The original post was posted on 17 May, 2000.
In discussions about Taking Children Seriously, people sometimes leap to the conclusion that Taking Children Seriously involves children being left to run riot in other people’s houses, destroying family heirlooms and generally distressing everyone they come into contact with. Of course that is not Taking Children Seriously but permissive, uninvolved parenting. But for those who are unfamiliar with Taking Children Seriously, perhaps it is worth saying something about this again.
In such discussions, someone usually asserts that children must be forced to obey the rules of the house they are visiting.
When I go to other people’s houses, I try to abide by their wishes in respect of their property and so on. I try to make my visit add to their lives rather than detract from them. I try to be sensitive and (to the extent that I think they will want this) helpful in a non-intrusive way. I avoid violating their privacy, and I try not to ‘outstay my welcome’. I do all this not because of any rules as such – people I visit do not usually give me rules to follow, but perhaps I move in less militaristic circles than you? – but because I think that it is right and I want to do what is right. I think we all do. Including children.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that my theories above are true – that it is indeed right to respect other people’s property and other rights in the way I do.
Of course children are not born with the knowledge of how to be sensitive to other people’s wishes in this level of detail and subtlety. Nor are they born with the knowledge of consent-building human institutions like property rights. So one of the things parents should be doing is helping their children to create these forms of knowledge. I’d guess we are all in agreement so far. ?
The question this raises, is how? How do children learn? They will undoubtedly want to learn these things, because they will want to do the right thing and they will not want to wrong people. They won’t want to upset people whose houses they visit. Also, they will want their friendships to flourish, not flounder. So what can we do to help?
When you yourself do not have some deep and important knowledge you want, what helps you? For me, being thought ill-intentioned, being frowned at, having someone angry with me, and the other things some people opposed to Taking Children Seriously appear to consider helpful, just aren’t. Those things can sometimes distress me and make me unable to think. It is only through thinking that knowledge can be created, and while parents have successfully instilled particular behaviours through the same forms of behaviourist conditioning used to get animals to jump through hoops, that is not the same as creating the knowledge. So one of the things parents taking their children seriously are always mindful of is the importance of remaining in a good state of mind, a state of mind in which one can think. This applies equally to parents and children. The family members are all trying to help one another to stay in a good state of mind and solve problems. So what no one is doing is using coercion to impose his or her own will on anyone else. That is likely to be distressing and to sabotage the thinking going on.
What we do then, to help our children learn the things they will want to know to live in our society, is to talk to them – have nice conversations with them – give them the benefit of our greater knowledge and experience not through exuding disapproval, much less hurting or confining them, but through conversation. These conversations contain moral content, to be sure, but the expression of the moral content is not through punitive interactions, but pleasant ones. The child wants to know what is right and what is wrong. The parents assume that the child lacks knowledge rather than that the child is fundamentally evil and wanting to do wrong. This enables the child to think about the issues in question and to truly change – to drop old and mistaken theories and to create through her own free will, whole-heartedly new and better theories upon which to act.
If you think it is right to empathise with other people and to be sensitive to their feelings, the most counterproductive thing you can do is to lose empathy for your children. Think how it feels to you to be thought to be ill-intentioned by someone you love. It doesn’t help, it tends to make you feel bad, and then you can’t think. If your loved one thinks that you have made a mistake, even a moral one, then if they talk to you about it without exuding disapproval or being angry, but instead assuming that you were not ill-intentioned and will want to do the right thing, that makes all the difference in taking on board your loved one’s criticisms, doesn’t it?
And then of course, there is the issue of fallibility. We may well be able to all agree in broad terms about how to be sensitive to other people’s feelings, respect property rights, and so on, but we are not infallible. Sometimes, in the details, we shall be mistaken. Sometimes we shall have misinterpreted a child’s behaviour. Sometimes we’ll just be plain mistaken and the child will have been right. Other times we’ll both be wrong.
Being fallible means that we shall be mistaken sometimes and that there is no way of distinguishing between the occasions when we are right and the occasions when we aren’t. All we can do is be alert for errors, be open to criticism, and take seriously any disagreement we may have with our children or other loved ones. It is partly because we might just be mistaken ourselves that it is so important not to dump anger on our loved ones. If you approach the person with a warm heart and an open mind, you are much more likely to be able to help if you are right, and not to wrong the person (by causing distress) if you are mistaken.
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2000, ‘Respecting other people’s wishes’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/respecting-other-peoples-wishes/