What Taking Children Seriously is, and what it is not

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

From the archives: The original post was posted on 31st December, 2001

A poster wrote:

I too agree that children should be treated as adults

That is not quite my position. Our children are not adults, but they are people – psychologically autonomous, knowledge-creating entities – and as such, it would be irrational discount their theories. They have the same rights as adults, but their parents have obligations towards them of a kind that adults rarely have towards other adults.

(to learn valuable adult lessons), 

That is not why I think children’s wishes matter, and it sounds rather a manipulative, pedagogical aim, which is likely to be both anti-rational and immoral. What if I were to speak of treating you in such-and-such a way to get you to learn “valuable adult lessons”? Assuming you are a decent, law-abiding citizen of good faith, you might not think very highly of me, might you? You might, at the very least, find that a trifle patronising or a bit of a cheek. You might bristle at being “treated like a child” in this way. At any rate, I myself should not feel altogether well-disposed to someone taking it upon himself to do that to me.

but the adults I know generally select the better of two options or choices.

Do they?

When I look at adults and children of my acquaintance, it certainly doesn’t look as though it is the adults who are most likely to “select the better of two options or choices”, as you put it. I think there is a double standard operating, such that adults’ mistakes are glossed over whilst children’s are held up as a justification for removing from them the right to choose.

The answer is not to remove anyone’s right to control their own life; the answer is to share one’s theories in a rational knowledge-creating decision-making process. As William Godwin said over 200 years ago, “If a thing be really good, it can be shown to be such. If you cannot demonstrate its excellence, it may well be suspected that you are no proper judge of it.” If what you want to persuade your child – or whomever – of is true, why not have the confidence to argue the case instead of imposing your will?

Should children be given free choice? Or should they be led to the appropriate choice?

The choice which parents know in advance is ‘appropriate’? Or the right choice, which can only be discovered by reason and creativity?

Unless “led” implies pressured or coerced or manipulated (i.e., coerced), free choice and “being led” are not mutually exclusive. However, in parent-child relationships it generally does imply coercive manipulation, as in the parent having an agenda for the child that is independent of the child’s own wishes, and ‘leading’ them accordingly.

Like adults, children should have free choice, and just as you would want as an adult, they should be given the benefit of our wisdom to the extent they want to hear it: we should share our theories with our children, just as we would with an adult we care about. What we should not do – assuming we don’t want to ruin a perfectly good relationship – is to take the decision out of the other person’s hands. If my bank manager were to take it upon herself to remove my control over my money, even if she could convince the entire world that she knows best and that it would be for my own good, and even if she was right that I’ll make a mess of things, she would get the sack at the very least, and you would think her actions wrong. And you would be right. She can tell me her opinion (to the extent that I want to hear it) but morally, she cannot make the decision for me against my will.

But I am an adult, and children are children, I hear you say. You still need a substantive argument to justify taking the decisions out of their hands… and I’m afraid no amount of arguing from authority will hack it. 🙂

Just think where we would be if throughout history, everyone had taken the view that existing ‘expert opinion’ must be true by definition. Nothing would ever improve, would it? Every new idea (of which Taking Children Seriously is one) would immediately be rejected because it contradicts the prevailing expert wisdom. Any new idea is, by definition, a criticism of the prevailing wisdom. It does not follow that it is false. It is no good trying to judge Taking Children Seriously by whether eminent psychologists or other ‘experts’ have researched it and given it their blessing, you have to use your own mind, your own critical faculties, your own thinking, to judge it.

While I am certainly free to play videos (which I personally consider destructive of children),

What are your arguments against the Taking Children Seriously articles on the web site in this connection? Why destructive? Why destructive of children but not adults? Does the logic of the growth of knowledge magically change on their 18th birthday or what?

I have much to learn admittedly about Taking Children Seriously, but at first blush it suggests extreme permissiveness by parents, and there is a vast literature dating back at least to the work of Robert Sears and his associates in the 40s and 50s indicating that over permissiveness breeds demanding children and tyrannical teens. I look forward to exploring Taking Children Seriously with the group.

I can assure you that Taking Children Seriously has not been the subject of any ‘research’ and certainly was not studied in the 1940s. Apart from anything else, it did not exist then. But also, Taking Children Seriously is not permissive parenting. What the research commonly refers to as permissive parenting is parenting that is primarily uninvolved, leave-them-to-rot parenting by self-absorbed, chaotic, neglectful parents. Other brands of permissive parenting include the archetypal progressive hippie parenting in which the parents are so busy tripping that they aren’t there for their children, and who tend to fall into the error of moral and cultural relativism and thus share frighteningly poor or inconsistent theories with their children, if any – or perhaps they just take the children as cabbages view I mentioned in my recent post on this.

But really, what has been called “permissive parenting” is a ghastly mixture of neglect, self-sacrifice, and “not saying no”, punctuated by bouts of explosive coercion caused by the stress and resentment that inevitably results from all that self-sacrifice.

As I have said before, about 3,502,304,983 times at the last count 🙂 :

Taking Children Seriously is not permissive parenting.

Taking Children Seriously is not leaving children to rot.

Taking Children Seriously is not leaving children to grow ‘naturally’, like cabbages, without ‘adult interference’.

Taking Children Seriously is not neglecting children.

Taking Children Seriously is not uninvolved parenting.

Taking Children Seriously is not avoiding expressing one’s theories.

Taking Children Seriously is not never giving children advice – or criticism.

Taking Children Seriously is certainly not avoiding expressing one’s wishes!

Taking Children Seriously is certainly not avoiding expressing one’s wishes for fear of influencing the child!

Taking Children Seriously is not merely the absence of coercion.

Taking Children Seriously is not the commandment ‘never coerce’.

Taking Children Seriously is not children ruling the roost.

Taking Children Seriously is not parents giving in to their children.

Taking Children Seriously is not consistent with game-theoretic conflict-of-interest analyses of decision-making.

Taking Children Seriously is not “children are always right”.

Taking Children Seriously is not “adults are always wrong”.

Taking Children Seriously is not “children know best”.

Taking Children Seriously is not “adults never know best”.

Taking Children Seriously is not “children have all the answers”.

Taking Children Seriously is not “adults have all/none of the answers”.

Taking Children Seriously is not anti-intellectual.

Taking Children Seriously is not the absence of judgement.

Taking Children Seriously is not the absence of morality.

Taking Children Seriously is not the absence of disagreement.

Taking Children Seriously is not the absence of argument.

Taking Children Seriously is not the absence of criticism.

Taking Children Seriously is not consistent with tolerating intolerance.

Taking Children Seriously is not consistent with moral relativism.

Taking Children Seriously is not consistent with cultural relativism.

Taking Children Seriously is not consistent with ethical subjectivism.

Taking Children Seriously is not leaving children to suffer the natural (or unnatural) consequences of their (or our) actions.

Taking Children Seriously is not a theory of ‘rights’ (children’s or parents’).

Taking Children Seriously is not “democratic parenting”.

Taking Children Seriously is not “giving children choices”.

Taking Children Seriously is not “making children independent”.

Taking Children Seriously is not pedagogical/manipulative.

Taking Children Seriously is not consistent with having an agenda for a child which is independent of his own wishes.

All right, so what is Taking Children Seriously?!

Taking Children Seriously is a philosophy in the tradition of the Enlightenment.

Taking Children Seriously is a new style of family life.

Taking Children Seriously is a new view of children.

Taking Children Seriously is a whole new worldview – a fallibilist one.

Taking Children Seriously families are actually more involved, connected, and engaging with one another than conventional parenting.

Taking Children Seriously is rational.

Taking Children Seriously is the only way of interacting that doesn’t involve devoting one’s ingenuity to hurting and thwarting one’s loved ones.

Taking Children Seriously is truth-seeking, knowledge-creating parenting – parenting in the light of the prevailing epistemological theory: it takes into account the logic by which knowledge grows, problems are solved, improvements are effected. Instead of anti-rationally discounting children’s theories on the basis of their source, Taking Children Seriously families strive to admit all the available competing theories to the discussion, judging them by their content, not their source. They take the view that if there is a disagreement among people of good will, such as in their family, prima facie, there is a problem to solve, and that a real solution will be one everyone involved prefers to all other candidate solutions they can think of.

Taking Children Seriously is expressing one’s theories, wishes, preferences, criticisms.

Taking Children Seriously takes seriously the fact that all of us, parents and children alike, are fallible.

Taking Children Seriously takes seriously the fact that all of us, parents and children alike, lack knowledge: we are not omniscient.

Taking Children Seriously parents tend to be freedom lovers, libertarians, fallibilists, critical rationalists.

Taking Children Seriously minimises the destruction of knowledge-creating processes.

Taking Children Seriously aims to create the conditions under which knowledge can be created, problems solved, and improvements effected.

Taking Children Seriously answers rationally the question of what to do in the face of conflicting theories.

Taking Children Seriously is also about how to think more generally, how to interact whether or not there is a problem to solve, how to live. It is about taking everyone seriously, not just children.

Taking Children Seriously parents are kind to their children.

Taking Children Seriously children are kind to their parents.

Taking Children Seriously is individualistic.

Taking Children Seriously is also very much about working together to solve problems jointly. The logic of the growth of knowledge applies just as much to a whole culture as it does to an individual mind.

Taking Children Seriously parents are trusted consultants to their children.

Taking Children Seriously people are pro-progress, pro-reason, pro-science, pro-technology, pro-joy, pro-fun, truth-seeking, positive people who understand the importance of taking a generally optimistic (as opposed to pessimistic) approach to life and its problems.

Taking Children Seriously involves assuming that problems are solvable.

Taking Children Seriously involves striving to solve problems.

Taking Children Seriously is consent-based parenting.

Taking Children Seriously is no one ruling anyone.

Taking Children Seriously is no one deferring to or giving in to anyone.

Taking Children Seriously is everyone getting what they want.

Taking Children Seriously is the replacement of problematic situations (where there is disagreement) with problem-free situations (where there is no longer any disagreement).

Taking Children Seriously is solving problems by finding solutions all parties prefer.

Taking Children Seriously families create a virtuous circle in which the more problems they solve this way, the more they CAN solve.

Taking Children Seriously is solving problems and making improvements all the time, striving to improve even prima facie non-problematic situations.

Taking Children Seriously people like criticism (in the sense of philosophical argument as opposed to belittling), because it helps weed out poor candidate solutions.

Taking Children Seriously is a devastating critique of coercive relationships. (Coercion is sometimes the only moral course, such as if it is necessary for self-defence or defence of another, but with our loved ones such instances should be extremely rare if they happen at all.)

Taking Children Seriously parents take the view that there is objective truth in all spheres, including morality, etc., as well as in physics, etc. That is not to say that we know what that truth is. We do not. We have no way of reliably telling. We are fallible. Nevertheless, prima facie, we may be inching blindly closer to the truth when we go from a state in which we disagree to one in which we wholeheartedly agree. Knowledge is conjectural.

Taking Children Seriously is about no one suffering, no distress, no boredom; it is about everyone in the family pursuing their own dreams, their own interests, their own concerns, having their own adventures, and being the individual they want to be, growing and changing and improving by their own lights, and each supporting the others in their own lives.

Taking Children Seriously recognises not only that children are people, but that their parents are too, and that we must all do what we think is right in our own lives, for we are all moral agents in our own right. Taking Children Seriously frees adults from the crippling self-sacrifice that blights many parents’ lives. It helps not just children to live their lives the best way they can, but their parents too.

…and a lot more besides, but one has to stop somewhere, and I want to go to bed now. 🙂

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2001, ‘What Taking Children Seriously is, and what it is not’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/what-taking-children-seriously-is-and-what-it-is-not/