There but for an internet post go I…


From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 29, 1999

Just having gotten a computer I was looking around for something to use it for. We had two children under 16 months old and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do in terms of parenting. I was watching parenting shows on TV a few times a week. Dr Brazelton and Dr What’s-her-name and a few Dr Whomevers. They sounded as though they knew more than I did so I paid careful attention and tried to learn as much as I could about parenting from them.

Among many other things, I discovered from one of them that I should teach my children to sleep by putting them to bed at a regular time and mostly ignoring their cries (checking back in occasionally to let them now I was still around somewhere). Supposedly, they would cry a lot at first, but if I just got through this bad period they would cry less and less and then sleep through the night on a regular basis. Having been raised with a fair amount of this sort of treatment, and being incredibly tired through lack of sleep, I figured it sounded like reasonable advice. My wife agreed, so that’s what we did. I don’t remember how old the eldest was when we decided to do this with her, but perhaps she was 12 months old. The younger baby was too young for this, the experts said.

I didn’t want to be ignorant about what was going on so I tried to watch closely to see how my child reacted to this treatment. I was quite taken aback by the expression on her face as she cried. If I were to see an adult looking that way I would think they were badly afraid of something and extremely hurt and unhappy. It was too painful even to watch for long. Somehow, though, I allowed myself to accept the conventional idea that children’s feelings don’t mean the same thing as adults’ feelings. But it didn’t feel right. What if they really were as afraid and hurt as they appeared?, I wondered.

So anyway, there I was with the new computer on the internet looking at sites on the World-Wide-Web and reading newsgroups. For anyone still in the bad old pre-internet world, newsgroups are virtual message boards on particular topics where people meet, chat, discuss, inform, entertain, and criticize one another freely. On the newsgroup (which is for discussion of issues in connection with raising children) I saw a discussion about a child at a supermarket whose parent was complaining that her child wanted to stay at the drinking fountain instead of doing as she was told and following the parent to the car. “How can a parent allow their children to do this?” the parent was saying.

One of the replies was pretty strange. It talked about how fascinating water fountains were and how nice it would be if children were allowed to play with water fountains if they wanted to. It questioned whether leaving the supermarket couldn’t wait a few minutes for an entranced young child to finish her exploration of the water fountain. It said that life does not have to be about winning or losing and that there is a solution possible to such conflicts that both parent and child would prefer, if only the parent was willing to give up controlling her child. At the bottom of this message there were instructions for how to subscribe to an internet discussion list called “Taking Children Seriously.”

I remember how odd it felt reading that reply. It brought back something from my childhood, I wasn’t sure what. I think I imagined how nice it would have been to be treated that way when I was a child. I wanted to know more about it so I subscribed to the Taking Children Seriously list.

It was a topsy-turvy few months at first. Most of the spinning was in my head as I tried to figure out Taking Children Seriously. Some of it sounded wrong, but I wasn’t sure if that was because it was wrong or because I didn’t understand it, so I decided to keep trying until I figured it all out. I questioned everything. I challenged everything Taking Children Seriously advocates said that sounded wrong to me. I played devil’s advocate. After thinking about it with a spinning head for a few weeks I starting to talk to my wife about it. Amazingly, she seemed to understand it easily and to agree with it in a fraction of the time I was taking. I still don’t understand how that worked.

Since then I have gradually learned about Taking Children Seriously. Early on I decided to try to take my children seriously and I have been ever since.

One of the most interesting parts of Taking Children Seriously to me is trying to understand how children get twisted into bad, self-defeating patterns of thinking and dealing with the world. Perhaps the main thing that drew me to Taking Children Seriously was the thought that it might be possible not to so twist my own children.

Recently there was a conversation on the internet about children who are labeled with one of those ‘neurological conditions’, such as Asperger’s Syndrome, ADD, ADHD, and numerous other pseudo-medical diagnoses. A parent was explaining what life is like for and with his child, who has been diagnosed. It was heartbreaking. The parent talked about structuring the child’s environment and drug therapy. He clearly sees himself as a kind, loving parent who is helping his child to live with her difficult condition. But he sees her through the glasses of his theory that she has a problem, and so, of course, she does.

When I read such stories, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude that our family found Taking Children Seriously. There but for the grace of something or other go I… But for Sarah [Fitz-Claridge’s] post on, it might be me saying these things about my children! But for Taking Children Seriously, my own children might now be living with one of those ‘neurological condition’ labels. But for Taking Children Seriously, we might have inadvertently coerced our children into such a syndrome. Have you ever just missed a head-on collision in your car? Or just missed falling from a dangerous height? You remember the rush of feeling you get immediately afterward? I feel like that.

It is a cold fear followed by a warm rush without losing all the cold fear thinking about what might have happened. If my wife and I had tried to direct, coerce, or correct our children in the conventional way, they might have been unable to solve their problems. They might be stuck staring at walls all day or be stuck horribly confused about important things in some other way. Instead they are steadily, remarkably, amazingly figuring out how to solve their problems because we all consider such coercion wrong and try to avoid it like the plague. It is the coercive control that makes them stuck, not the starting point of their problem.

I guess I don’t really have much else to say other than to say thank you, Taking Children Seriously, from the bottom of my heart for helping me and my family so much.

See also:

‘Freddie’, 1999, ‘There but for an internet post go I…’, Taking Children Seriously 29, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 9-10,