“What if…?” questions revisited

In 1995, I wrote an internet post and an article for Taking Children Seriously, the paper journal (issue number 20), on the subject of the incoming “what if…?” questions parents had been asking me. That ancient article is still available here, but as with much of my old stuff, I find it problematic both in its rather exasperated, harsh tone and in its content.

Someone requested that I add a critical commentary to the article rather than deleting it, so here are my current criticisms of it:

Puzzled parents often ask me questions of the form, “What if a child does [insert some absolutely awful thing, X, here]? Then what would a non-coercive parent do?” This question may seem meaningful, but is pointless and misdirected.

Readers can be forgiven for thinking that I was saying: “How bad and wrong you are for even entertaining such a pointless and misdirected question! You should be ashamed of yourself. What kind of imbecile are you for asking such an obviously stupid question? You should know better!”

That dismissive, accusatory you should know better tone now suggests infallibilism to me: it is as if I was implicitly asserting that the truth of the matter is obvious and that the questioner infallibly knows the truth and is wilfully evading it, so must be wicked. But as Karl Popper wrote:

“The theory that truth is manifest—that it is there for everyone to see, if only he wants to see it—this theory is the basis of almost every kind of fanaticism. For only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the manifest truth”

– Karl Popper, 1962, Conjectures and Refutations, Introduction, p. 8

The truth is not manifest, and being puzzled or disagreeing does not imply wickedness or a refusal to see the manifest truth. We are all fallible and we all lack knowledge, and what seems obvious to one person is not at all obvious to someone else. And it feeling obviously true to me does not mean that it is true. Things often seem obviously true while in fact being false.

Moreover, taking such an infallibilist-sounding, harsh stance is potentially shaming. How does shaming people help? It doesn’t. It is coercive. It makes people feel unsafe to ask the questions they would otherwise want to ask. Just like when we do this to children, it suppresses not just the questions and criticisms people voice, but the questions and criticisms in their minds. It throws a spanner in the works of what might otherwise have been fruitful creative problem-solving thought processes.

No question is wicked. All questions and criticisms are welcome here. They are welcome from children, and they are also welcome from parents. And they are welcome in our own mind too. Suppressing, inhibiting or shutting down questions and criticisms in our own mind is self-coercive. Ouch! Instead, embrace and enjoy and engage with all the questions, conjectures and criticisms that occur to you in any part of your mind. The difference between the unfreedom of shut down areas of thought versus the freedom of free-flowing thinking is massive, not only in terms of how it feels, but in terms of the knowledge creation going on, and the potential for knowledge creation.

My suggestion that these questions are “pointless and misdirected” was a mistake. It was in effect saying “don’t start from where you are, solving the problem you have noticed here.” To suggest that someone’s problem situation (the current questions, concerns, interests, problems in the person’s own mind) should be different from how it is may even be falling into the mistake Karl Popper called the bucket theory of the mind, in which knowledge is viewed as being like a fluid that you can pour into a mind, and the mind is viewed as being like a bucket passively receiving the knowledge being poured in. Actually, the mind is always active, not passive, and knowledge cannot be poured in from outside, it is created through the mind’s own active critical rational creative thought. Saying “don’t start from here” is in effect saying, change your problem situation by an act of will (pouring the correct problem situation in), as opposed to through the creative critical process of what Karl Popper called “conjectures and refutations” in your own mind.

It assumes that children are inherently irrational, foolhardy or wicked, and asks how non-coercive parents handle these ghastly problems.

It is not obvious to most people that such questions assume those things about children. Pointing out the logical implications and premises of people’s questions (and especially doing so in a scathing, superior, infallibilist-sounding way) without first (or ever) meeting them where they are, does not necessarily help. It left quite a few readers confused. And it is not necessarily that they are wilfully, wickedly ignoring the allegedly manifestly true criticism I am ‘helpfully’ offering, it is more likely to be that my ‘help’ is not connecting – not addressing their problem situation – because I am not seeing them, not hearing them, not even noticing, let alone acknowledging, their love and huge commitment to their children. I am, in other words, maligning them and their intentions, and then I am blaming them for their human reaction of being upset and reacting defensively instead of receiving (like a bucket?) the criticism I am (in effect saying they should be) pouring in.

Admittedly, sometimes I feel such utter revulsion when people seem to be advocating coercion, that I lose sight of the fact that, from their own point of view, such people are well-intentioned, and I react badly. That reacting part of me that so badly wants a world free of coercion, that feels the agony, pain and suffering of all the children on the sharp end of adult coercion, and that feels such urgency to free them from that hell, that part of me that is so aghast at the staggering destruction of and impairment of knowledge-creating processes wrought by coercion, and that is anguished by the untold, undreamt-of dearth of growth of knowledge that could be making such a gargantuan difference in the world and for every individual in the world – that part of me means well too. It just lacks psychological and epistemological knowledge.

Seeing even coercionists as consciously meaning well and very much loving their children and doing the very best they can with the knowledge they have, is important. Whilst one or two people might, when interacting with that reacting part of me, create valuable knowledge, most are more likely to react defensively. When we feel defensive, that makes it much harder to think creatively. So, well-meaning though that part of my mind is, it can be quite unhelpful (and indeed coercive!).

But such problems arise out of the relationships between coercive parents and their children. They are caused by coercion.

Whilst that may be a true explanation, it is quite unhelpful as an answer to the what-if questions naturally arising in parents’ minds. The way people hear that statement is: “anyone who has such problems is wicked” – as if “truth is manifest” rather than “I conjecture that such problems are caused by coercion, and if I am right about that, and if you lack that knowledge, you will want to know, because you mean well and try to correct your errors just like everyone else does.”

Moving on to the following rather exasperated-sounding complaint:

“So, first, people accuse me of evading the question, then, when I give a straight answer to the question of what I personally would do, I have my answer thrown back in my face dozens of times as being no good for other people! Well, fine, but if my questioners wanted to know what they should do, why are they so keen to ask me what I would do? When parents ask me a question about what I’d do if X happened, or about what a non-coercive parent would do, they should expect me to give an answer to that, not about what a coercive parent should do.”

Clearly I do not think very well when feeling defensive or exasperated. It would have been better had I been able to see that the question in parents’ minds is totally understandable: they are asking how taking children seriously can work in real life, and how taking their precious children would not lead to disaster including perhaps even the death of the children. That is a perfectly natural question!

“If there are specific considerations to be taken into account, I can hardly be expected to create an answer without knowing those considerations, can I?”

Oh dear. Reading all this defensiveness is making me want to give my earlier self a hug.

“I can’t predict future knowledge: I am not an oracle. But that is what I am being asked to do.”

Well ok, I did explain that statement, but again, these what-if questions are totally natural, and whilst some of my answer did explain why whatever answer I give might not feel like an answer to the parent asking the question, the defensive tone of much of what I said was unfortunate.

“One important thing we need to do here, is to separate how to get from the default of coercion to that of consent from what happens in families operating with consent as the default? These are two very different questions.

[…]

When I say that X is inconceivable, as I tend to, I am often accused of not answering the question, but that accusation is false. It rests upon the assumption that things like X happen in all families, irrespective of whether there is coercion or not. They don’t.”

I cringe when I read such statements from my past writings, because they suggest that I myself and others favouring taking children seriously are on a hallowed plane of truth and goodness far above other people. We are the enlightened ones, it seems to say, and everyone else is evil, unenlightened, inferior, far below us. It mistakenly suggests that some of us have reached The Truth, whereas everyone else is to be looked down on.

What that does, amongst other things, is to give the mistaken impression that I do not agree with Karl Popper that we are “all alike in our boundless ignorance”, all fallible human beings who lack knowledge. Some of us, the enlightened ones, have reached a special place of knowledge and goodness that the rest of you far below us godlike beings need to look up to and revere. And in every moment you fail to join us in this hallowed place of enlightenment far above you people down there in the stinking mud, you need to be punishing yourself as a despicable piece of scum, and you deserve to feel guilt and shame and anguish. As if knowledge can be created by fiat.

Such statements of mine seem to have made a lot of wonderful people feel awful and give up. They also made people feel terribly guilty and ashamed whenever they failed to create a real (non-coercive) solution in their family. People even wondered if they are evil.

It made people feel too ashamed to seek suggestions from others. It made people feel compelled to present a false, inauthentic front to others in order to be part of the community of the enlightened. It created a hideous us-and-them insiders-vs-outsiders atmosphere in which people were feeling compelled to scrutinise themselves, objectifying themselves as parents, and comparing themselves to others (whether unfavourably or favourably).

What does all that do? It inhibits problem-solving and impairs people’s ability to solve problems.

We are all alike in our boundless ignorance. Your mind is every bit as good as mine. Your heart is every bit as well-intentioned as mine. You have just as much wisdom and ability and creativity as I do. No one has ‘arrived’ anywhere. We are all on our own journey, with our own problems and concerns, all doing the best we can with the knowledge we have in any given moment. The only thing each of us can ever do, is solve the problem in front of us and move forward from there. There is no way of jumping to omniscience.

“Similarly, in the case of coercion and parenting,”

Oops. I used not to see the paternalism inherent in the word “parenting” (and “child-rearing” , “child raising”, “educating”, etc.). See: How is the word “parenting” not taking children seriously?

“Sometimes I am in a bad mood, tired, stressed, etc., and then am coercive. This causes problems for my children, occasionally serious problems and distress. But I apologise and try my best to solve the resulting problems, with their help.”

Wow! That statement made it seem so simple and easy to identify coercion (and that I had reached the aforementioned state of enlightenment the rest of you can only dream of!), whereas in fact only the crudest, most obvious forms are easy to see. And the more subtle kind that we are blind to is every bit as problematic and harmful. And by “we are”, I mean including me myself. Over the decades, including recently, I have noticed respects in which I was being coercive and had not realised.

One glaring example is that I have had a tendency to give unsolicited advice to those I love. I was always puzzled when my family members seemed to find it annoying rather than helpful. I was trying to be helpful, and I was offering it as just a tentative suggestion, with zero expectation of hope that it would be taken, yet somehow, it was nevertheless often unwelcome. Only in the last few years did I finally notice that my unsolicited advice was giving potentially coercive “unwanted answers to unasked questions,” as Karl Popper put it. And that is just one example of countless! We are all in the same boat. No one has ‘arrived’!

“It does not always run as smoothly as that, but these wild and scary eventualities parents talk about are inconceivable.”

It is true that I have often been shocked to hear the kinds of things coercionists expect and experience with their children. However, to the extent that I seemed to be implying that it was a piece of cake in my state of enlightenment within touching distance of The Truth, from my perspective now, that looks delusional! There were so many ways in which I was coercive in the past and had not yet noticed. And I have no doubt that I will likewise one day look back on my thinking now and notice yet more glaring mistakes. And all such coercion, whether one is aware of it or not, is going to be causing trouble. It takes creativity and growth of knowledge to discover this stuff. And no matter how many mistakes we correct, there are still always more to discover and correct. That is the human condition.

I agree with my analysis of the coercive stuff in the long section between the above section and this bit:

“Discussions of what-if questions often degenerate into arguments such as this, ‘I’ve used the swat-the-bottom technique several times over the years. Guess what? It works! I’ve even had my child come back to me later and thank me for getting her out of that state.’”

But what strikes me about the above bit is that my criticism of that kind of pragmatic argument was woefully lacking. There is so much more I should have said. For some of my criticisms of these kinds of pragmatic arguments from what “works”, what is “effective”, watch my Oxford Karl Popper Society talk: Taking Children Seriously: a new view of children. (I also criticise pragmatic arguments in my Tips for tyrants speech, which you can find a transcript of on my website.)

One last thing I should have mentioned in that article:

If you are new to Taking Children Seriously, such what-if questions might well give you pause, making you wonder if perhaps such questions do in fact demonstrate that there is a severe likelihood of dire consequences if you take your children seriously. It may seem to you as though taking children seriously potentially conflicts with really important things like your financial security, your family having a roof over their head, and even your child’s or other people’s lives. You may imagine that the scenarios presented in these kinds of what-if questions must be the most difficult situations to deal with in practice for those taking their children seriously. You may think that they refute the idea of taking children seriously altogether.

But from my perspective it is the opposite! Suppose your partner proposes a hare-brained course of action. Surely, the more mad, dangerous, extreme or obviously wrong the proposed course of action is, the easier it is to persuade your partner that the proposed course of action is a mistake, wrong, or that it would be an unmitigated disaster?! The same is true whether the person is an adult or a child. When something is genuinely an egregiously bad idea, it is much easier for all concerned to see that it is, or to be persuaded that it is. It is when it is less obviously a bad idea that it might be more difficult to persuade the person that it might have unintended adverse consequences.

Everyone gets this when we are just thinking about adults. So why is it that when hearing about Taking Children Seriously, parents lose sight of this?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, ‘“What if…?” questions revisited’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/what-if-questions-revisited/

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