The shared inexplicit knowledge of adults

From the archives: Posted on 7th July, 1995

Poster 1:

“Abusive to treat children as miniature adults? Please explain.”

Poster 2:

“Abusive by expecting them to shoulder all the responsibility for themselves, some would say. Pushing them to have to make decisions.”

I agree that making a child make decisions is unwise, in the same way it is unwise to make a child do other things, but are you (Poster 2) suggesting that a child may well choose to violate her preferences – choose to be coerced? Or are you (as I hope) merely pointing out that children may well often be quite happy to go along with suggestions from their parents? And perhaps that we have to consider their lack of knowledge and experience, and not just expect them to make difficult decisions in a vacuum?

Poster 1:

“Under what conditions do children not want to make decisions that affect themselves?”

Poster 3:

“When they are not aware that there is a decision that can be made!”

True. But if they are not aware, we can tell them about it, can’t we?

Poster 3:

“Another example of the special consideration warranted children. It is a parental obligation to inform a child of the circumstances, how the child might be affected (e.g., will it be fun or not?), and what the child’s options are: then it is the child’s prerogative to make an informed decision on their own behalf once they understand the choices and their probable consequences.”

Exactly.

Poster 3:

“And then there are infants (but I guess you would say infants can do anything we can do if they have the desire? Couldn’t resist that one.)”

I think [Poster 1] asked for that.

Poster 3:

“Yes, children are not miniature adults.”

I think there is a bit of equivocation in the discussion here. [Poster 1] is saying that children are miniature adults. Others say they are not. If the issue is about whether children should be regarded as worthy of the rights society bestows upon other individuals (most adults, in other words) then in that sense the phrase “miniature adults” is merely a shorthand way of saying that indeed, children are worthy of the same legal rights as adults. But if the issue is about whether we should be raising children in an arm’s length, “we owe them nothing, irrespective of their views on the matter, and they must raise themselves without our help,” or something, then in that sense, they are not miniature adults. Wish I had time to go into this now.

Poster 1:

“I would give more credit to an ‘ordinary parent’ than I would give to an entire library of books written by the ‘top scholars’ on child development. …A parent, under the right conditions (not badly conditioned, themselves) is in a better position to see the truth.”

Yes, and those who believe that G-d wants them to beat the sin out of their children (who have been raised properly, to understand Original Sin, and the relationship between parent and child, G-d and man) are clearly (being more aware of our sinful nature) in a better position to see the truth (and G-d reveals it to them, don’t forget).

Poster 3:

“I can pick up any child-rearing or child-development book and within seconds discover whether it contains “poisonous pedagogy” (Alice Miller’s term) – the ones that appear largely free from this are the ones I take home to read and think about – and take issue with in many cases.”

I tend to pick up the poisonous ones, myself. 😉

Poster 3:

“The principal benefit is a deeper understanding of how similar my child is to me emotionally and psychologically, and a confirmation of my instinct (which, BTW, can be changed through personal growth – we’re not stuck with the inborn or those mal-conditioned by our early formative experiences) that the less I interfere with my child’s development through manipulation and coercion, the healthier, happier, and more responsible and self-sufficient adult she will become.”

I too disagree with [Poster 1] that the wisdom of “your average parent” is worth more than that of other sources. I’d never suggest that we should defer to experts – absolutely not – and I am always urging expert-worshippers to start thinking a bit more critically – but I agree with [Poster 3] that it is worth considering the ideas of those who have been interested enough to spend time thinking about these things. “Considering” does not imply “adopting without criticism” or even “adopting” at all. I think of it as exposing myself and my ideas to criticism. Taking the view that I, an ordinary parent, can keep my head in the sand and not listen to any criticism – from whatever source – is not going to improve things, is it? Improving things requires the creation of new knowledge.

Poster 3:

“child, but I am also more conscientious about how I’m coming across with her – I try to talk in a more friendly-, patient-, and cheerful-sounding voice, which I wouldn’t worry so much about when talking to adults.”

Poster 1:

“So, in other words, you are lying to her?”

Not necessarily. It might be that [Poster 3] is taking account of the fact that her child has less knowledge of all the inexplicit ideas about the nature of conversational interactions, etc., and that were she to just simply talk to the child in the same way she might talk to me in a friendly argument about child-raising, say, her child might not understand the friendly nature of her words, and might be very upset. Some adults have trouble with this, after all. Just think about the inexplicit cues one can get in face-to-face settings, and how those same cues are absent in email, hence the many misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Anyway, all those cues can be regarded as information, which a young child might not have yet.

Poster 3:

“Now, listen here. There’s no need to continue on this futile path of trying to explain that one speaks with a different voice/language/tone etc. depending on with whom one is speaking because you already know it. But I’ll just end it by pointing out that adults have developed more or less shared understandings of the meaning of different intonations/facial expressions/tones of voice which children, by virtue of their shorter time on this earth, haven’t absorbed yet.”

Exactly. And more succinct than I put it.

Poster 3:

“Sarah, for example, calls “making sad faces at children” “emotional blackmail”. One adult couldn’t blackmail another adult this way unless there is a certain degree of emotional dependency.”

Just to be clear, for anyone who is unaware of the context, when I said that making sad faces at a child is coercive, I meant that – making sad faces. I did not mean that expressing honest feelings in a non-coercive spirit, for example, is coercive. BTW, I think it is entirely wrong to think that adults are immune from this sort of manipulation. Have you never done something because another person manipulated you into it by this sort of emotional blackmail? Have you never felt yourself to be in conflict as a result of the fact that someone else wanted you to do something but you did not want to, but you felt bad about “letting him down”? If not, very good, but it is rare.

Poster 3:

“A responsible parent does not cover up feelings but takes care that the child doesn’t interpret the parent’s meaning as inadequacy/worthlessness/unlovableness, etc., on the part of the child.”

Quite.

Now, about [Poster 1’s] “Question for You”:

“I have been curious as to why you are subscribed to the Taking Children Seriously list. The reason that I ask is based on the less than completely positive posts from you concerning the Taking Children Seriously concepts.”

It is called criticism, and instead of suggesting that [Poster 3] should leave the list (okay, okay, I exaggerate 🙂 ) you should thank her for it or at least address her arguments.

Poster 1:

“As I have said, in the past, the people who don’t completely agree with non-coercive parenting are helpful to those of us who do agree with the concept, in that the problems that the dissenters bring up tend to help the rest of us clarify our own thoughts on the issues.”

Gosh! I had no idea we were all such a homogeneous bunch.

Poster 1:

“I was curious to discover, on the other hand, what you hope to gain from subscribing to the list.”

Poster 3:

“(1) What are the Taking Children Seriously concepts?”

There is no Taking Children Seriously dogma/doctrine, if that is what you are asking. Finding better ways of relating to others is an evolutionary process, to which entrenched ideas are inimical.

Poster 3:

“(2) What is your definition of noncoercive parenting?”

The editorial you got when you subscribed was an answer to this. It did not give reasons, though (but since you don’t seem too keen on the philosophy, presumably, it is not the reasons you want? 🙂 )

Poster 3:

“(3) Does a Taking Children Seriously “manual” exist? Who started Taking Children Seriously?”

No. I did.

Poster 3:

“I subscribed to this list because I find that I am the only parent I know with the goal of raising my children based on the following beliefs: (a) that children are people every bit as much as adults are and deserve to be accorded the same respect and consideration (more so since they are particularly vulnerable vis-a-vis the imbalance of power inherent in adult/child relationships) as anyone else; that they react the same way inside to being scolded/bribed/retaliated against/bossed around/laughed at that any of us do – they just haven’t developed the ability to articulate their feelings and assert their rights to adults.”

(I agree, of course.) The question is, why, given that children lack knowledge and begin rather less able to communicate than most adults, and don’t always behave like rational beings (it seems), should we accord them the same respect as adults?

Poster 3:

“(b) that any use of externally imposed sanctions which would not be applied if dealing rationally and civilly with a fellow adult interferes with the development of self-discipline, self-sufficiency, and self-respect and, even the conscience so should therefore be avoided strenuously.”

Why does it? Could you (or someone else) give an argument for this contention?

Why is all this true? What is it about children that, despite their lack of knowledge, and so on, makes them worthy of full consideration? Why should we listen to them? What do they know? It is the answers to these sort of questions which are what Taking Children Seriously is all about.

Poster 3:

“What would you think about starting a list of what Taking Children Seriously is and what it is not, for the education of those of us who aren’t really sure yet and to help clarify this for yourself. Also how would you feel about talking about real life more (as in how you handle a difficult situation like the boy who wanted to stay at his friend’s house with no parents), as opposed to all the philosophical/hypothetical stuff that winds up being a lot of nitpicking?”

Did you see my posting on this subject? Subjectline: “Common misapprehensions about Taking Children Seriously”; 6.05 pm, 27th May 1995.

I am all for talking about real life, but how one lives one’s life is dependent upon one’s underlying ideas, and that is why discussions do sometimes take a philosophical turn. Philosophy matters, whether one thinks it does or not. When someone asks a question about a child staying at a friend’s house with no parents, presumably, she wants to think about how that situation might be handled. Does she want to be told “Do this.” or “You should have done that.”? No. She wants not only to know how she might have handled it, but why that way, and why not the conventional way. Those whys are philosophy – ideas. If it all seems a bit abstract and universal sometimes, that is because Popperian epistemology is very deep and broad, and has profound implications for every area of life. And once one understands that, one does not need all these ad hoc ideas and old wives tales and whatnot. So although it seems initially more difficult to understand the philosophy, once one has internalised that, one won’t need to ask so many questions about particular situations – in other words, everything becomes much easier in practice, at the sharp end. But yes, I think it would be helpful to make it more obvious how the philosophy stuff relates directly to the practical stuff.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘The shared inexplicit knowledge of adults’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/the-shared-inexplicit-knowledge-of-adults/