Unnatural consequences revisited

As I wrote in my article 25 years ago, so-called ‘natural consequences’ are a strategy for coercively controlling children while pretending not to be responsible for and intentionally imposing the coercion. Interestingly, books aimed at parents have moved away from explicitly advocating so-called ‘natural consequences’. The paternalistic justifications for parental control of children have shifted: now it is all ‘science’ and ‘neurobiology’, and the methods advocated are ever more covert (but no less coercive). But this article is not about any of that. It is actually about how viewing other people as wilful perpetrators embodies the mistaken theory that problems are not soluble, and thus can interfere with problem-solving and result in our beloved children being distressed.

Why revisit the ‘Unnatural consequences’ article then? Because some of what I said in that article is making the mistake I want to highlight here. Take a look at what I said about the hypothetical waiter, for example:

“Suppose that Mum and Billy are being eyed disapprovingly by a rather snotty waiter, who is clearly of the opinion that children should never be permitted to enter ‘his’ establishment, let alone to have a bit of fun with a few sugar lumps.

[…]

If the waiter seems to be behaving unreasonably, Mum might, for example, whisper something to Billy about what an idiot the waiter is, and they might make quiet little jokes about the waiter – in order to assure Billy that the waiter’s completely unreasonable disapproval does not matter a jot, and should not be distressing.

In any event, Mum will be thinking about how to help Billy interpret the waiter’s disapproval in a non-distressing, non-coerced way. Unlike mainstream parents, she will not be buying in to the waiter’s view of the situation. That is what would cause distress for the child.”

Reading that makes me wish I could give my younger self and my children a hug. I clearly felt significant anxiety about protecting my precious children from the disapproval of strangers. The way I was thinking about that kind of situation was unnecessarily defensive and altogether too pessimistic.

First, my evident fear and belief that a child would be distressed by a disapproving waiter is quite unwarranted. I did go on to say that the waiter’s own attempts to intimidate the child are much less likely to harm the child, because the child is not in a relationship with the waiter, which is true, but there is much more to say than that.

I made it sound as though in that situation I would be fearing a coercive confrontation that would distress the child, but actually, the child is far more likely to have become distressed as a result of my own fearful, defensive, anxious, hypervigilant state of mind, and by my view of the waiter and of the situation.

When we as parents fear the worst happening, or fear that when something untoward happens, that will automatically cause distress for our child, that way of being is conveying to our child loud and clear the mistakenly pessimistic message that this is a very dangerous, bad situation, and this person we are dealing with is evil and wilfully intends harm, and that we need to be vigilant and guarded to avert disaster, and that we probably are not going to be able to avert disaster without extreme efforts on my part, which is super stressful and difficult, and you, the child, are in severe danger of being distressed if not scarred for life.

If every fibre of our being is conveying to our child “You are going to find this very distressing”, our child is likely to believe us and then because he has that expectation that we ourselves have suggested to him through the way we are being, he is then distressed.

What I said about the waiter was a bit infallibilist-seeming – judging him as being wilfully wicked instead of psychologically innocent, when there could be any number of understandable reasons for his suboptimal way of handling his concern about the sugar lumps.

Maybe he is having a bad day. Maybe the waiter is not his usual self because he has a migraine and he feels he has no option but to continue working, because his electricity is about to be cut off if he does not pay the bill very soon. Maybe his beloved wife has terminal cancer and he is having trouble holding it together while at work, and everything is looking awful to him. Maybe the restaurant has insufficient sugar lumps because he dropped the remaining stock of them on the floor and it is his job to ensure that each table have the requisite number of sugar lumps. Maybe there was another family in earlier and those parents ended up disturbing the other diners by shouting at their child for playing with the sugar lumps, and the waiter fears the same thing happening in this case. Maybe the waiter is under threat of losing his job following a recent incident when a different child had been playing with sugar lumps, and he had loved seeing the child enjoying himself and so had given that child more of them to play with, and that child’s parent had behaved in such a way that the child had reacted badly and thrown one of the sugar lumps hard at the parent, and the sugar lump had missed the parent and hit another diner in the eye, leading to the diner threatening a lawsuit.

In such circumstances now, rather than suggesting to my child that the waiter is an idiot or wilfully wicked, I would be more likely to be coming up with possible positive or forgivable explanations for the waiter’s behaviour that inspire a fallibilist spirit of compassion and generous-heartedness.

People can behave badly, and even behave in a way that is objectively evil, while not consciously intending to do harm. We can judge the behaviour to be bad, without jumping to the conclusion that the person is consciously intending to do the wrong thing. Human beings are fallible and not omniscient, and we do not have direct access to our unconscious and inexplicit mind.

When we view other people as monsters who know the (manifest) truth and are wilfully choosing to be evil (yikes!), and we convey that view of other people’s bad behaviour to our children, we are in effect teaching our children to be fearful, distressed, paranoid, pessimistic, fragile victims with no hope of ever being OK until everyone magically becomes perfectly omniscient and infallible and never ever makes any mistake or behaves badly. Such a stance is a mistake. It is more likely to result in our children being distressed, not less.

It is also bucket theory of the mind territory: it is suggesting that the mind is passively receiving distress poured in directly from outside, as though there is no way of avoiding distress when some waiter behaves badly. That is mad! There are all sorts of ways of thinking about this kind of situation that involve zero distress. There is nothing automatic about this kind of thing. The mind is active, not passive, and how we parents ourselves view the situation is far more significant than how the waiter behaves. If we are conveying that there is no hope, and that parent and child are powerless victims at the mercy of the evil waiter’s evil eye, however is the child not going to see herself as a powerless victim and be distressed?!

If on the other hand we view others more compassionately, giving them and their conscious intentions the benefit of the doubt, generously (and I think more accurately) seeing them as flawed but psychologically innocent fallible human beings who are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have in that moment, then even if what they are doing is really not good, we are viewing that bad behaviour in a wide enough context not to feel distressed by it. It is harmful to give our children the mistakenly pessimistic message that life is an absolute minefield of coercion waiting to happen, and that they are powerless victims doomed to be distressed by the wilful wickedness everywhere.

If instead we convey a more generous, compassionate, fallibilist view of other people, and a more positive (and I’d argue realistic!) view of our children’s creativity and resilience and what is possible, they are far less likely to be distressed by such situations.

Imagine that you are with your child in the situation described, and instead of feeling defensive and anxious and seeing wilful evil in the intentions of the waiter, you feel completely relaxed and confident that there is nothing to fear and that your child is not actually in danger of being distressed by the waiter. Imagine that instead of fearing the waiter’s disapproval and potential insistence that the child stop playing with the sugar lumps, you feel human warmth towards both your beloved child – and also towards the waiter.

In such a situation, the moment I notice that the waiter seems concerned about the sugar lumps, I am going to go over to him and gently and warmly ask him about his concern, and really listen to what he has to say, so that as one human being to another I hear how it is for him, what his experience is, his problem situation, meeting him where he is, from where we can resolve the problem together. It is actually not hard at all!

In the article, I wrote about having a quiet word with the waiter to disarm him. The way I worded that suggested having a manipulative hidden agenda and trying to channel the waiter into my agenda. I evidently thought that the waiter was being wilfully awful so anything the parent could do to trick him into backing off would be justified. And then, because the parent would be trying to manipulate the waiter instead of actually solving the problem with him, the waiter would probably sense the manipulative agenda and become even more annoyed; and then I, the parent, would be viewing his subsequent bad behaviour as ‘evidence’ that my view of him as being wilfully wicked was fully justified. What a tragedy!

Had I instead been viewing the waiter more generously, as a fellow fallible human being, not wilfully evil, and approached him honestly and optimistically, knowing that problems really are soluble and that we can solve them, he and I would have solved the problem and everything would have been fine.

Here is another statement I made that makes unwarranted assumptions about the waiter and assumes that problems are not actually soluble.

“The child need have no particular wish not to displease him if he is being unreasonable.”

That sounds like saying, “If the waiter is being unreasonable, screw him.” Or actually, “The waiter is being unreasonable! Screw him!” So now we are relating to our conjecture about the waiter being unreasonable as if it were the manifest truth, as if it were the inerrant Word of God, not just our quite possibly mistaken conjecture. So now we feel fully justified in ignoring the waiter’s concerns and acting as if problems are not soluble. Screw him!

How likely is it that the problem will be resolved if we have that hostile attitude to the waiter, with that damning judgement of him?

To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that the child should be wishing to please the waiter. Nor am I suggesting in any way that the child be encouraged to sacrifice her own wishes. What I am saying is that problems are soluble, and that one of the things that massively interferes with problems being solved is when we are viewing the other person as being wilfully wicked and as not being open to solving the problem. In effect, if we are viewing other people that way, we ourselves are pessimistically thinking that problems are not actually soluble. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, and we then view the resulting bad outcome as corroborating our damning view of the other person, and we then mistakenly blame the other person for the problem not having been solved.

And then our children grow up likely having the same infallibilist, pessimistic, harsh view of other human beings, mistakenly seeing problems as not really being soluble except in the exceptional circumstances in which all parties are shining paragons of all known virtue rather than normal flawed human beings doing the not-very-good best they can in the moment. So fewer problems are solved than could be, and there is a lot more distress than need be. What a tragedy!

There are situations in which it is more likely that someone will directly coerce our child. For example, when visiting a grandparent or neighbour. So it is worth talking with our children about such possibilities in advance, so that they are less likely to be shocked and distressed when granny says something untoward. If instead of demonising coercers as being wilfully wicked, we and our children see them as thinking that their coercion is right, or as not knowing how to interact non-coercively, or as making a mistake, that in itself can make it possible not to get stuck in distress.

I am a lot more confident now than I was 25 years ago, that I or we could find a creative way to solve any such problem. Problems are soluble, including ‘bad’ ones, as I have discovered more and more over the years. We human beings have amazingly creative minds capable of so much more than we think. Let’s not saddle our children with the counsel of despair pessimistic theory that there is a direct and automatic relationship between how (badly) other people behave, and our own (our child’s) state of mind. Human minds are actively creative, not mere passive receptacles for stuff being poured in from outside.

For more on this, see: How do you handle the issue of other people coercing your child?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, ‘Unnatural consequences revisited’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/unnatural-consequences-revisited/

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