Young children, non-coercion and the interplay of reason

From the archives: Posted on 9th December, 1994

[2022 note: I still agree with the thrust of my criticism in this post, but despite saying “you are regarding ‘reason’ wrongly,” I can’t help noticing that I myself was, in this post, making several errors, including not quite fully taking into account the implications of the fact that human beings are fallible. (For my current thinking about reason, see some more recent posts.]

A poster wrote:

“Non-coercion requires the interplay of reason. I think that fairly young children (under six) do not find reason very persuasive.”

This shows that you are regarding ‘reason’ wrongly (or to be less rude а that you and I mean different things by ‘reason’). If you have the assumption that a child is not rational, you do not need the anecdotal evidence. If you are using the fact that you and your child fail to reach agreement as evidence for the statement that a child does not have reason, then a sceptic such as I might point out that that is equally evidence that you are not behaving rationally.

You seem to be thinking of reason as a way of persuading someone of a prearranged thing, which (in Popperian terms) it is not. As I tried to explain in my recent postings, reason involves truth-seeking and openness to criticism, the avoidance of dogma, and the assumption that one may be wrong in anything one says, the assumption that the truth is not obvious but is hard to come by but that it can be approached. For instance, if you are measuring the ability of a tactic to persuade a person of a given thing, then you are not measuring its reasonableness, because in that process, the thing you are persuading the person of is fixed. My own anecdotal experience is that overwhelmingly children are more rational than adults, including myself. This is a big effect, not a small effect. The only exceptions to that are when a child has a really extreme hang-up, but even children who have been horribly messed around, very quickly become reasonable when they are not messed around.

In case there is any remaining doubt about the difference in the way I am using the term, let me translate your sentence, using my definition of ‘reason’: ‘I think that fairly young children (under six) do not find my being willing to change my point of view, etc. very helpful.’ I agree that a dog would not find that very helpful, but it is just silly to suggest that of a child. If it were true, that would be a sign that children do not have reason.

If you are not open to criticism, as most parents are not, then if you ever were wrong, you would never know. In the overwhelming majority of disputes between you and your child, I happen to think your child is right and you wrong. That does not prove that the child is right and you wrong, but it does prove that it is not obvious that you are right in any given disagreement.

“As I’ve watched my children develop, I think I’ve observed them grow from a basically pre-rational stage (not IRrational, but certainly differently rational) to acquire different components of conventional reason.”

You are not using the reason in the sense I explained above. You are using it to mean ‘reasoning ability’ as in making formal deductions or whatever, rather than openness to criticism, etc., which is what is relevant to the acquisition of knowledge. Overt reasoning is only a tiny part of the acquisition of knowledge. It is a mechanical process. Reasoning in your sense only comes into the growth of knowledge at the final stage when one has discovered the knowledge but is then working out mechanically which of the alternatives is the best, but it has nothing to do with discovering. You do not need that. Reasoning in that sense is just a form of knowledge which it is better to have more of than less, and which people do learn when they want to. Later, one might go on to learn maths or physics or epistemology or something.

All these things improve one’s ability to create knowledge, but what is relevant to the issue of whether someone’s mental state justifies using force against them is whether you can consider the entity of that person and yourself as a rational system, and that does not depend upon the knowledge, because after all, any rational system has virtually no knowledge compared with what is possible. The whole point of rationality is what to do in the face of ignorance. It is not what to do when one already knows everything.

So you are construing my argument in a way which it often is а of trying to ask who deserves (or who has passed some kind of test for getting) some kind of boon from society or parents, whereas my argument is not that. It is that disputes are disputes between theories; and we think we know under what conditions knowledge can grow; and the only reason for enquiring whether the child is ‘rational’ or not is to ask whether the joint system of yourself and the child can be considered a knowledge-acquiring system, or whether it is just you, and not the child. If it is you and a stone, or you and a dog, then you can say that for instance the dog’s theory is not open to criticism, because all dogs, under certain circumstances, behave the same, whereas with humans, that is not true. One finds human beings under similar circumstances doing completely different things, creating completely new options.

“We’re all familiar with Piaget’s experiment with the eggs and egg-cups (the four-year old will answer the question, ‘Which is more?’ differently from the six-year old). Piaget felt that this implied that children didn’t grasp conservation of number, another interpretation is that children interpret the term ‘more’ differently.”

(I could say quite a bit about Piaget’s work, and how even when I was at college reading Psychology, it was regarded with great scepticism because of his methodology (if one can call it that) but…) This is looking at purely factual knowledge that the children may or may not have. The meaning of the word ‘more’ is factual, and has no bearing whatsoever upon whether the child is open to criticism, seeking truth, willing to change its ideas, etc.

“Whatever the cause, children’s vocabulary is different from ours in fundamental ways.”

Hardly ‘fundamental’, or parents would not be able to threaten their children with things if they did not go up to bed straight away. 😉

“What is most important, children’s vocabulary is most different concerning abstractions. Communication across this gulf is sometimes problematic.

At least at some point this argument is valid: very young children aren’t subject to reason because they lack language, let alone mental structures capable of reflecting on the consequences of their own behavior.”

This is a non sequitur. It is like saying that unless I grasp conservation of angular momentum, I will not heed your warnings about radioactivity. But actually, I can have a theory that you know about these things, and I can have that theory perfectly well without myself knowing about all that, and I can take all that into account when acting. We are talking about the difference between rationality and raw knowledge. It would be like a scientist appearing on television, arguing for some government measure а say to ban polarising sunglasses, and then when the government does not, he says that this just shows that scientists ought to be running the country because the government just does not understand polarised light. It is a non sequitur. The government does not have to understand polarised light to make this decision, and it would certainly be a very bad idea if people made this decision on the basis of how much they knew about it. Suppose this scientist came out of a meeting with a government minister, saying that he had given the minister full reasons for banning polarising sunglasses, but that the minister was refusing, and that therefore, the minister is not open to reason, and the reason he is not open to reason is that he does not understand whatever it is. The minister, meanwhile, will be telling a civil servant that he has just had a twit come to lobby him, who is totally not open to reason…. All you are saying is that children do not have particular factual knowledge, not that they are not rational.

“My 18 month old has never liked getting his diaper changed (after all, it’s a transition from warm to cold), but it is a matter of his health and well-being that the diaper get changed.”

You have a fixed theory about nappies, and about babies not liking having them changed. One view might be that they are perfectly right not to like the cold or whatever, and that it is up to you to remove the cause of their distress (change them in front of a warm air heater, perhaps?) and that then they will enjoy having their nappies changed. Or maybe they do not want to wear nappies at all. If you start with this irrational attitude that you know it is the truth because it is medical or that the idea is justified by some source, then by that posture, you do blind yourself to any growth of knowledge that there might otherwise be. So once you are saying that a child must have his nappy changed because Health Requires It (silent addendum – regardless of how much he hates it) then you are saying that his suffering in this case is already dealt with, justified. If the proposition ‘it is necessary for health’ is justified regardless of his opposition to the idea, then what you mean by that is that his suffering in this case does not count towards the argument, and you therefore blind yourself to any creative solution to the problem.

On the other hand, if you take the view that so long as he is objecting, there is something wrong, and that if he is objecting a lot, then there is something badly wrong, then you will be looking for the answer, and that answer may be quite easy to find. Even if the answer was not found easily, at least one would be engaged in trying to solve it, experimenting, or one would be considering alternatives to nappies, or one would be respecting the child’s wishes about when to change his nappies, or trying different kinds of nappies, or whatever. Whether children are rational as babies or not, it seems grossly out of proportion to use issues such as nappies to set at risk their future rationality by this coercion you advocate. Rationality is disabled by certain things that happen to one а including by coercion.

See also: Young children, reason and creativity

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1994, ‘Young children, non-coercion and the interplay of reason’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/young-children-non-coercion-and-the-interplay-of-reason/