Unhappy with natural consequences

From the archives: The original post was posted on 29th May, 1997

I haven’t gotten any bites on this one. I’m wondering if it’s because it’s generally accepted that if the child doesn’t like the natural consequence, then they will do something about it? I’ll try to be a little more specific, maybe that will ring a response:

A pre-adolescent doesn’t like to do action:A, when he doesn’t do A, then natural consequence: B results. B makes him unhappy. Parents try to help him find ways to avoid having to do A, or making A easier to do, so that he won’t be distressed by B. Parents could be physically capable of doing A on occasion, and sometimes do, but honestly don’t have the time or desire to do A on the schedule that would be required for child to avoid B. Child is thus far unable to come up with solution, parents have provided lots of support & helped child change circumstances to help with situation, but child would basically have to take some action resembling A to avoid B. Is child being coerced by parents not performing A for him on a regular basis? (They don’t like performing A, either) Would parents be coerced if they performed A for him?

I hope this makes sense to someone. It’s a serious question and I’m still stumped.

Actually I did “bite” on this one when you first posed it. It’s just that you (quite rightly) put the question in the most general way you could, and I gave the completely general answer. Now that you have become slightly more specific, I can give a slightly more specific answer.

First of all, B, as you describe it, is not really a natural consequence. As Sarah recently remarked, it doesn’t make sense to call something that makes the child unhappy a “natural” consequence unless it happens despite the parents’ best (non-coercive) efforts. As you describe it, you are free to choose whether B, and the associated unhappiness, happens or not, and in the event you usually choose to let it happen when the child fails to do what you want him to (namely A). Thus (unless there are further relevant factors that you haven’t mentioned) B is a punishment, pure and simple. Terminology is of course unimportant in itself, but your calling B a “natural” consequence rather than a consequence of your own choices may indicate that you are unwilling to accept responsibility for the unhappiness that is being caused by B. Accepting this responsibility may be a necessary step to solving this whole tangle of problems.

Secondly, the as-yet unsuccessful problem-solving process you describe, though it is broadly speaking the sort of thing that should work well, has several attributes that suggest that there may be hidden coercion/irrationality involved. These attributes are:

  1. the child hasn’t been promised that, pending a genuine solution, he will never be forced or pressured into doing A;
  2. all the suggested solutions seem to have come from the parents, and they all resemble the child doing A;
  3. the logic of the situation (A being necessary to avoid B) is presented as a fait accompli, rather than as a problem which very likely will not look like that after it is solved.
  4. Your statement of the problem and all but one of your proposed solutions seem to be addressing the problem “how can we non-coercively get him to do A?”, but prima facie, this is the wrong way round. Since clearly the child prefers B to A (though he dislikes both), the parents should in the first instance be directing their thoughts to his simply not doing A, and then to his somehow coming to terms with, or ameliorating, or indeed avoiding, B.

Of course, if the problem is complex, as it no doubt is, the real solution will probably involve some C of whose very existence you are currently unaware, or it may indeed involve him doing A after all. What I am saying is that your starting with a stream of ideas for getting him to do A, which is currently his less preferred option, suggests the presence of some irrationality.

Now, to answer your questions about what is coercive:

Is child being coerced by parents not performing A for him on a regular basis?

Under the circumstances described, yes.

(They don’t like performing A, either)

Given the asymmetrical responsibilities for each other’s happiness, this is in the first instance the parents’ problem, not the child’s.

Would parents be coerced if they performed A for him?

That depends on them. However, even if they are, they should in general still do it. Reasons for this have been discussed from time to time on the List, but let me just mention two of them.

  1. Consider the broader issue, not just of whether you should do A for the child even if this is coercive for you, but of what a parent’s general policy for such situations (of failing to find solutions) should be. Consider also that, regardless of the merits of the A/B issue, there are some areas in which the parents have irrationalities and hang-ups which prevent them even from noticing that they are not thinking straight about that issue. These hang-ups have in all probability been passed on from their own parents. ANY policy other than the one we advocate has the property that these hang-ups will be passed on to the children – and so on down the generations for ever, until someone has the wisdom and courage to call a halt, by renouncing all coercion of their children.
  2. There is a solution that satisfies everyone. Creativity is required to find it. When the parents’ creativity is impaired, the child’s should easily take over – unless it is impaired by coercion – which is why it is especially important for the child not to be coerced in areas where solutions seem hard to find.

David Deutsch, 1997, ‘Unhappy with natural consequences’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/unhappy-with-natural-consequences/