Surely it is cruel to force people to live with the consequences of the ideas and preferences they had when they were children?

“Surely it is cruel to force people to live with the consequences of the ideas and preferences they had when they were children? I’m glad I learned more than I would have had I chosen to when I was 5.”

If someone had told you that when you were five, would you have believed them or not? And what would make you think that they were lying to you?

As William Godwin wrote in his 1797 book, The Enquirer:

“If a thing be really good, it can be shown to be such. If you cannot demonstrate its excellence, it may well be suspected that you are no proper judge of it.”

(William Godwin, 1797, The Enquirer, Part I, Essay IX: Of the communication of knowledge, p. 69)

Also, you have no way of knowing what would have happened had what happened not happened.

Of course many of us remember our childhoods fondly and feel grateful to our parents for whatever they did for us. Whether or not what they did was perfect or even an unmitigated disaster, we know that they did the best they could with the knowledge they had. Almost all parents do their utmost to give their children a better life than they themselves had. Most work incredibly hard to give their children what they themselves lacked as children, and they also strive not to coerce their children in ways that they themselves suffered as children and found objectionable. We all try our best, and we all make mistakes.

The trouble with the idea that we parents should be coercing our children and imposing on them what we ourselves think they should be learning, is that doing that is anti-rational: it systematically impedes error correction and the growth of knowledge.

If every parent treated their children the way parents treated their children in the distant past, and their children grow up to raise their own children the way they themselves were raised, and so on down through the generations, we would still be whipping children and locking them in dark cupboards. We want our children to be able to correct our errors, not be saddled with them.

So if there is something you think is vital for your child to know or learn about, simply tell them about it and explain why they might want to learn about it. Either they will be persuaded and welcome your assistance in learning whatever it is, or they will not be persuaded, in which case they remain unpersuaded despite knowing why you think it a good idea. If they remain unpersuaded, then perhaps you have not made a good enough argument, or it might be that they are making a mistake, or perhaps you are mistaken in thinking that it is vital. In any of those cases, forcing the issue is a very bad idea.

Coercion impedes the growth of knowledge. Coercing your children throws a spanner in the works of their creativity, their ability to learn, to solve problems, to create new knowledge. It actively interferes with and impairs knowledge-creating processes. It assumes a mistaken theory of knowledge – the bucket theory of the mind. The mind is active, not passive like a bucket. And knowledge cannot be poured in. Knowledge is created through an active process of creative conjectures and criticism in and by that mind.

Coercing your children also has the unintended consequence of turning you into a hostile adversary in a war. When you turn something into a war, people behave accordingly. The enemy is definitely not trustworthy. The enemy needs to be held at bay, and anything that the enemy might use against the person must be hidden from the enemy. What parents tend to get when they coerce their children is subterfuge, dissembling, faking, fighting, resistance, undermining, the mere semblance of cooperation, no trust, no connection and (often veiled) hatred. Is that a good basis for a warm, loving relationship in which you are your child’s trusted consultant?

When you are coercing your children, you are teaching them many unfortunate things. You are teaching them that consent is unimportant and coercion is fine. You are teaching them that might makes right. You are teaching them that it is fine for someone bigger and stronger or more powerful to use their advantage against weaker, less powerful, or dependent people. You are teaching them pessimism – that problems are not soluble. You are teaching them that education is something to endure and survive rather than something wonderful. You are teaching them that life is a dog-eat-dog zero-sum game in which for them to win, someone else has to lose, and vice versa, so be sure to crush the enemy. You are teaching them that other people are their enemies, so be guarded and paranoid and think twice about trusting anyone, because chances are, they will crush you unless you crush them first. You are teaching them that good relationships and happy marriages are impossible. You are turning them into victims or perpetrators or both.

What could possibly go wrong?

See also:
Surely coercion is ok when the parent is right and the child is wrong?
Does taking children seriously mean not influencing them?
Is coercion always wrong?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘Surely it is cruel to force people to live with the consequences of the ideas and preferences they had when they were children?’,

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