Surely we should communicate our disapproval to our children?

“Does the parent not have a right to disapprove of her child’s actions and to communicate her disapproval? We consider it an obligation to communicate our disapproval of our friend’s destructive actions to him and to encourage better behavior. Why should it be any different with children?”

I don’t think it’s true that we have an obligation to heap disapproval on our friends: we have a right or an obligation to disagree with our friends. To disapprove means, generally speaking, trying to hurt them.

We have a right and an obligation to stop them using coercion if necessary if they are about to murder someone, but in the ordinary course of life, most people are not terrorists and murderers, and disapproval and coercion are a mistake. We shouldn’t be going around disapproving of each other, we should be disagreeing with each other including sharing our disagreements about matters of morality to the extent others want to hear what we think.

Disagreeing with each other is something we find valuable. I can say I really liked the foie gras dish I had in Paris. And my friend can share his theory about why he considers eating foie gras to be immoral, telling me how the geese are mistreated. And perhaps I will be persuaded, or he will by what I say, but even if we do not end up agreeing with each other, each of us can learn from the disagreement.

Suppose I have a disagreement with a friend who is planning to do something that seems seriously morally wrong, that will be violating someone else’s rights. Of course I will make the case to my friend that what he is doing is morally wrong, and that it is not something he will want to do once he sees the reality of what he is doing. In this situation, if I want to persuade my friend not to do that thing, it is not going to help persuade him if I punish him by exuding disapproval.

Disapproval says: “You are a bad person who wants to do wrong. You know that what you are doing is evil, and yet you are doing it anyway.”

“The idea that truth is manifest—that it is there for everyone to see, if only he wants to see it—this theory is the basis of almost every kind of fanaticism. For only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the manifest truth”, as Karl Popper says.

Disapproval judges you guilty of choosing evil rather than giving you the benefit of the doubt. Disagreeing morally allows for the possibility that perhaps you do not know that it is wrong; perhaps you are making a mistake, and you will want to correct it the moment you hear our criticism.

Disapproval is adding punishment to disagreement. Disapproval is adding coercive shaming to disagreement, which only detracts from disagreeing. It doesn’t add anything good. People don’t learn by being punished, coerced and shamed, and when you exude disapproval, you make the other person an adversary, and then we are each defending our corners and the chance of a rational, knowledge-creating conversation is small.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘Surely we should communicate our disapproval to our children?’,

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