Surely criticism is always good?

“Surely criticism is always good? If not, how can we know when it’s not good, and under what circumstances is it good or not good to criticise the child’s theory? If they want to do something dangerous surely we need to criticise their theory and explain why what they want to do is a bad idea?”

“As a critical rationalist Popperian, I value criticism highly like I thought you do too, Sarah. I believe it is vital to counter the irrational anti-criticism memes rampant among coercive parents. I recall you saying ‘criticism is a gift through which we learn’, so it’s disappointing that you are watering that down. Depriving kids and other people of our criticism is not taking them seriously! If we don’t share our criticisms how is that going to help coercive parents change their minds?”

For more about the second question above, see: If criticism is valuable why not be more critical?

Suppose what sparked the first question above was a situation such as a child saying that she wants to drive.

See also: What if your child wants to drive?

Launching straight in with criticisms, explaining why what the child wants is a bad idea, may seem perfectly reasonable to some critical rationalists: surely it is just offering criticism of the child’s theory, and criticism is good, right? Not necessarily, no. Not if it is unwanted in that moment, not if it does not actually address the child’s problem situation which is unique to that moment, not if it is nipping a potentially productive idea or creative rational problem-solving thinking process in the bud, not if it deprives the child of valuable ignorance, not if it forces the child to divert her own thinking to address your criticism, not if it is actually a way of saying “no”.

Launching straight in with criticisms, explaining why what the child wants is a bad idea, is not only not putting the child’s implicit argument in its strongest form before criticising it, as Karl Popper urged us to do, it is not even wondering what her implicit argument might be. It is not meeting the child where she is. It is not even trying to find out where she is. It is resisting, putting up a barrier, casually disregarding her wish as unimportant, potentially sabotaging her knowledge-creating process. It is throwing cold water over her wish. It is in effect saying “no” in a lot of words. And it is doing all that without consent, i.e., coercively, so it is not taking her seriously.

What is the difference between foisting unwanted criticism on your child in the name of (what you think is) the growth of knowledge, versus a coercive teacher foisting unwanted information on a child in school? There is no difference. It is the same thing. It is not just like coercive education, it is coercive education. Coercion is inimical to the growth of knowledge, whether it is intentional or unintentional. Calling the information you want to share “criticism” does not give it special status as “non-coercive”.

So there you are, having launched straight in with your criticisms, throwing cold water over your child’s heart’s desire, without even checking with her that criticism is wanted then. Imagine how crestfallen the child might be feeling. And if her heart’s desire is unimportant to you, as it seems, is she herself unimportant to you too? Is this kind of thing why so many grow up feeling that they are not enough, that their wishes don’t matter, that they don’t matter?

How might you feel if you were all excited about something you want to do, and someone threw cold water over your idea, only seeming interested in telling you why it is a bad idea? If it is a very dear loved one offering the criticism, we might well see the loving intention to be helpful, and if it were someone whose opinion does not matter to us, it might be water off a duck’s back, but in other cases might we not feel a bit deflated? There you are, having shared your heart’s desire with shining eyes, and the other person throws cold water over the idea. Doesn’t even notice how much it means to you. Has no interest in finding out.

I still remember such an incident in my own life from decades ago. I felt totally crushed and stupid for having had the wish I had had. I dropped the idea immediately, it felt so bad. Now I wish I had not just given up the idea the moment the person said what he said, but I did. And I was an adult, not a child.

Criticism from outside is great if it is wanted by the child at the time, but if we haven’t checked that the child wants criticism at that moment, how do we know it is wanted? Ploughing straight in, uninvited, with criticism and explanations of why such-and-such is a bad idea, oblivious to whether or not the child wants to continue hearing what we are saying, as we parents sometimes do, may be giving what Karl Popper so rightly called “unwanted answers to unasked questions.”

The criticism that is relevant and good here is that which is the child is creating in her own mind – the criticism that seems relevant to her. It depends on her specific, unique problem situation in that moment – on her own unique background knowledge, problems, concerns, interests, misconceptions, connections between ideas, and by what ideas are in conflict in her own mind in this very moment. None of that is in any way obvious. It is not even obvious to the individual herself, let alone to other people.

Our criticism only makes a positive difference if it is wanted, and if it actually addresses the child’s unique problem situation in this moment – if it is relevant from the child’s point of view. It is not at all obvious whether or not whatever criticism we want to offer will address the child’s problem situation.

Sometimes there can be a tendency to imagine that because, from our point of view, our view of the situation seems self-evidently true, and our criticism seems obviously relevant, we are right about the situation and about our criticism being relevant, and that if the other person does not seem to agree, then she is ‘being irrational’ or ‘not open to criticism’ or a (manifest) ‘truth evader’.

Taking such a view grossly underestimates the complexity of the structure of the ideas in the other person’s mind. Even if part of our criticism is true, it does not follow that it addresses the child’s problem situation. It may address a bit of it but not address most of it. It may be flat out wrong as a criticism in most respects even if there is a grain of truth in it in one respect. And once we get into calling the child names like ‘irrational’, we are now objectifying the child and engaging in ad hominem meta attacks. Even if we only think such things rather than voicing them, that is still going to be affecting how we interact with our child. That is not going to facilitate the growth of knowledge, it is going to be throwing a great big spanner in the works of it.

When we take the position that our child is irrational unless she welcomes all of our criticism, that is the standard position of coercive education. Just as coercive school teachers coercively subject children to unwanted lessons in the name of error correction and the growth of knowledge, so some who think of themselves as critical rationalists believe in coercively subjecting children to unwanted criticism in the name of error correction and the growth of knowledge. It is as if such coercive pedagogues have forgotten that human beings are fallible and can be mistaken. Something can seem obviously relevant to us, yet be entirely irrelevant. Our judgements about our child (or anyone else) can seem manifestly true and yet be utterly false.

In taking our children and others seriously, what we do not want to be doing is sabotaging potentially fruitful thinking and impeding the growth of knowledge. The idea that ‘criticism’ of others is always good is as mistaken and inimical to the growth of knowledge as the idea that any other lessons a pedagogue thinks vital are always good. And the idea that that coercive stance is a ‘Taking Children Seriously’ is a significant mistake. Coercive education is not and never has been Taking Children Seriously.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘Surely criticism is always good?’,

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