The relationship-building power of explanations

Parents sometimes fear that there are some situations in which coercion is necessary. Take the sunscreen issue, for example.

If we were going to be going on a trip in the bright sun we would obviously want to get sunscreen on our children before we leave.

What might parents taking their children seriously do if, when we approach a child with the sunscreen, he holds out his hand and says firmly, “No!”?

In moments like this, the mind can reflexively slide into justifying authoritarianism. “I can’t let him get a sunburn. This is for his own good – he doesn’t realize it now, but he might have debilitating pain tomorrow. And since sun exposure might increase the chance of cancer, his older self would probably want me to force this.”

It is well worth bucking this convention and finding a win-win solution, where both child and adult get what they want. The magic of an explanation, of knowledge discovery, is that it is just such a win-win solution, and a nearly effortless one at that.

I once saw a parent handling just this situation effortlessly. A young child is applying bug spray, and as the parent approaches with the sunscreen, the child holds out his hand and says, “No!” and I am expecting the parent to react and force the issue. Instead, she asks the child mildly, “Why are you putting on bug spray?” The child replies that it prevents him from getting bug bites, and the bites itch. (I was surprised that such a young child knew this!) And without any of the intensity it is so easy to fall into when we are wanting to protect our child, the parent says, “Do you know what sunscreen is for?” The child shakes his head, and looks interested and curious rather than defensive. “The sun can burn our skin,” says the parent, “and sunscreen stops that just like bug spray stops bites.” Without a word, that young child simply took the container from his parent’s hand and began applying it himself. Amazing!

It’s worth dwelling on just how incredible this is. Instead of the parent restraining the child, kicking and screaming, while spraying the cold substance on the child’s skin, the child instead voluntarily applied the spray himself with zero urging. No cajoling, no games, no trickery, and certainly no brute force or threats thereof. In fact, with that brief exchange, that parent may have circumvented years of battles over sunscreen. Not another minute of their lives will be wasted fighting over a can of goo. And the same goes for every other win-win that truly solves the relevant problem – it can be used over and over again, potentially eliminating that source of suffering for a lifetime. The definition of progress!

But this is just the tip of the explanation iceberg. To see the real power of an explanation, we need to consider the counterfactual in which we yield to convention and force the sunscreen on an unwilling child. First, our child is denied the opportunity to learn what the sunscreen is for. He only knows that it is a source of some kind of suffering. And second, he sees the parent as an enforcer of rules, an adversary who will impose cold substances on his skin at a moment’s notice. Since he doesn’t understand the situation, these impositions may appear arbitrary and therefore particularly heartless. In this way, the coercion over sunscreen can bleed into other experiences. Any time that parent enters their child’s presence, they bring along some attendant anxiety that the parent might suddenly impose some unpleasantness.

A counterargument I hear is that children are too young for explanations and understanding. But this sells children short, as well as adults’ ability to craft explanations that children can understand. Trying to explain only takes a moment or two, and with practice, we get better and better at formulating ideas in ways children can understand. We will often fail, but even when we do, we are at least practicing and keeping the door to success open. However, if we dismiss understanding as impossible, we won’t even make the attempt, thereby ensuring some degree of shared suffering.

The real cost of enforcement is our relationship. When I genuinely persuade my child, I become a trusted consultant and even a defender of his interests. When I force him, I become an adversary who needs to be avoided, deceived or otherwise circumvented. My child needs to put his guard up when I’m around.

I remember my parents telling me as a teenager that I could talk to them about anything, anything in the world. They desperately wanted me to seek them out for counsel, and I hear the disappointment parents express when their children leave them out of the loop, even as adults. I feel that same urge today – I want my children to bring any concern they have to me, not to some idiot friend or block-headed adult. But if I position myself as an adversary, surely my children will hold back from me to some degree. On the contrary, if they trust me fully, then I can relax when they’re watching edgy TV or hanging out with an unsavory friend, because they’ll be open to my thoughts on what is indecent or unsafe.

It is hard for me to think of something I value more than being my children’s go-to source for guidance and support. That’s not to say I wouldn’t encourage them to explore other sources as well – only that I hope that they will hold my opinion in particularly high esteem.

How much is even a tiny injury to that kind of relationship worth? Would I sacrifice that for something as trivial as a sunburn? Not a chance.

See also: The Taking Children Seriously survey

Aaron Stupple, 2022, ‘The relationship-building power of explanations’,

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