Children should never, really never, be forced to do something against their will. That’s the starting point of a curious movement of parents who think that every form of coercion is damaging. Dawn Friedman describes a controversial view on parenting.
Dawn Friedman| February 2003 issue
Four years ago, I subscribed to an e-mail list for attachment-style parents. With my new baby son warming my lap, I devoured discussions about gentle discipline, sleeping with the baby, choosing a sling, and breastfeeding past a year. The list was united in its belief that there existed a clearly superior way to raise children and that by examining other cultures we could throw off the shackles of our own Western thinking to discover it. We also believed that our children had an intrinsic wisdom and that as parents we must be protectors of their inalienable human rights.
One day a mom posted a message saying that she was having trouble getting her toddler son to take his medicine every day. The medication was life saving and the parents had no choice, they felt, but to hold him down, force the spoon into his mouth, and hold his mouth shut until he swallowed. She was looking for ideas to make this more workable and less traumatic for her son.
Most of the suggestions were what one might expect: try hiding the medicine in food or try bribing the baby with promises of candy if he takes the medicine nicely. Then one woman posted something entirely different. This woman, Sarah Lawrence, accused the mother of abusing her child by holding him down and forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do. She said that she found the description hateful and terrifying. “If you were my mother,” she finished, “I would kick you with a hobnailed boot!”
The list exploded into what Internet regulars call a flame war. Though at first the uproar centered around the tone of Lawrence’s post, the argument eventually centered on whether or not children should have to do whatever they are told to do. Might it be more desirable to raise children without any coercion whatsoever? Might it be possible that using coercion in any form-no matter how lovingly presented-is damaging to children?
Several of the posters said, quite vehemently, that doing anything to a child against his will is abusive. There was even some talk of brain damage, a suggestion that a child’s neuron pathways were being electrified incorrectly when a parent asserts her will. The only way children can ever learn about the world around them is if they are allowed to discover truth for themselves, without being told what to do or think. In practice, this means that parents are morally obliged to help children get whatever they want, whether it’s to learn everything there is to know about dragonflies, or, more controversially, to eat nothing but licorice all day. Children, as rational human beings, must be treated with trust and respect and never, ever coerced to do anything they don’t want to do.
As it turned out, these posters, along with Sarah Lawrence, weren’t merely like-minded individuals who happened to find themselves in the same chat room. They were, in fact, proponents of a radical parenting movement known as Taking Children Seriously (TCS). Founded in England by Lawrence, a writer, lecturer, and former editor of a home schooling magazine, TCS is Lawrence’s attempt to extend her libertarian political philosophy into the realm of childrearing. Just as the basis of libertarianism is the idea that the state is morally obligated not to interfere with the freedom of its citizens (except to protect the rights of others), so TCS believes that parents are similarly obliged not to curtail the freedom of their children.
Lawrence defines TCS this way: “Its most distinctive feature is the idea that it is possible and desirable to bring up children entirely without doing things to them against their will, or making them do things against their will, and that they are entitled to the same rights, respect and control over their lives as adults.”
Along with her two co-founders, David Deutsch, a physicist at Oxford University, and author Kolya Wolf, Lawrence is follower of Karl Popper, a twentieth-century philosopher who argued that scientific truths cannot be proved but can only be refuted. So we can never really know we are right, only that we have not been proven wrong yet. By extension, the three argue, parenting by relying on our own supposed truths to dictate the actions of our children is wrong at best and dangerous at worst. Only by allowing our children to verify their own truths will they be free to learn.
According to the TCS website, Popper’s theories play out this way: ‘We believe that all knowledge in a human mind is generated by that mind’s internal criticism of existing knowledge (whether inborn, cultural or from whatever source), rather than by the transmission of existing knowledge either by instruction or otherwise. This leads to some far-reaching conclusions about the style and practice of education. What, for instance, is the analogue, in the nursery, of the academic freedom that is a precondition for science to create new knowledge? What is the analogue of intellectual integrity? The analogues are freedom from coercion, and autonomous learning. In short, we have concluded that it is possible and desirable to bring up children in such a way that their learning is motivated entirely by the problem situations within their own minds, and not by externally imposed incentives or penalties.
Annette Abma lives with her husband and their two children near Toronto. She has participated on the main TCS discussion list for over five years and runs two online discussion lists about non-coercive parenting: Common Preference Parenting and TCS for Babies and Toddlers. She has written several articles about non-coercive parenting that have been published in Gentle Spirit Magazine and Taking Children Seriously. She is currently writing a book with the working title of No Matter How Small: Nurturing Children’s Creative Freedom Through Non-Coercive Parenting.
“When we talk about the harmful effects of coercing children,” she explained, “we are at heart talking about the harmful effects of coercing human beings. TCS theory is based in critical rationalism, which posits that human beings learn and grow knowledge according to the process of conjecture and refutation. Coercion interferes with this process of conflict resolution because it imposes a resolution on the child. And an imposed resolution is not really a resolution for the one being imposed upon. When a child is in a state of coercion, she is no longer rational because she is enacting one theory while a conflicting theory is still active in her mind. She is, in essence, contradicting herself. Because of our innate rationality, however, we find this state of mind extremely uncomfortable and will strive to right the wrong by making sense of it.”
Some TCS parents cite the work of Alice Miller, a Swiss psychoanalyst, researcher, and children’s rights activist. She is author of many books about children and violence, including For Your Own Good: The Roots of Violence in Child-Rearing (1983). Miller posits that when harm is done to a child by a loved one, the child will try to make sense of this harm by making it right in her own mind. If the child believes, “My father hit me for my own good,” then she herself may grow up and hit her own children for their “own good.” Thus the cycle of child abuse continues across generations.
TCS advocates extend Miller’s thesis to most mainstream parenting techniques, which they see as rooted in coercion. They believe that those of us who were coerced as children will naturally now coerce our own children, believing that the thwarting of natural desires and inclinations is a necessary part of being a good human being. Taking children seriously means breaking this cycle by insisting on absolutely no coercion no matter what the circumstances. This means that parents cannot step in and make children do things. They can, however, share their “theories” about the consequences of a child’s action. And because TCSers also claim to be “fallibilists” (i.e., they don’t believe that anyone is infallible), they insist that a parent’s theories are not necessarily more right than the child’s theories.
For example, consider a child using her dollhouse as a stepping stool. She is about to stand up on the roof, which is fragile. The parent tells her that if she stands on it, it will break. This could well be true and the child may or may not know it. However, even hearing that the dollhouse might break does not dissuade the child from her desire to stand on the dollhouse. The parent is assuming that the child does not want the dollhouse to break (“I don’t want to listen to you cry about it later; don’t say I didn’t warn you!”) but in fact the child may not care. Or she may not care enough to stop. The theory at issue is not whether or not the dollhouse will break (the parent is fallible on this point) but whether or not, from the child’s point of view, it is desirable to break the dollhouse.
This way of thinking doesn’t come naturally for most of us. It takes a seasoned TCS parent to explain it well. Abma uses the example of a four-year-old girl named Jane who doesn’t want to brush her teeth. Jane finds brushing her teeth painful. But Jane’s mother believes that if Jane does not brush her teeth, Jane will get cavities. Even though Jane’s mother explains this to her, Jane does not yet have the knowledge or experience to understand the validity of this theory, Abma says. So Jane, being a rational human being, will strive to make sense of this conflict (the pain of brushing versus her mother’s insistence that she do so) in an attempt to get out of the coercive state of mind.
As a result, Jane may come to one of many untrue or undesirable conclusions, Abma says. “She may decide that tooth brushing is supposed to hurt in order to work. She may decide that her own feelings don’t really matter in the long run. She may decide that she should always listen to someone older than herself when it comes to bodily integrity and therefore not trust her own physical limits. She may decide that tooth brushing is something she has to do when her mother is around but will not do when she’s alone. She may decide that her mother is not trustworthy. In other words, she may develop an irrational theory with respect to tooth brushing.”
Had I been Jane’s mother, I might have cut her some slack and tripped out to buy some new fancy-schmancy electric toothbrush with an appealing cartoon character on the end of it, but I would still have insisted on nightly tooth brushing. They may be Jane’s teeth but they’re my dental bills. And if I were to be totally honest, I would admit that I get embarrassed when my child goes to preschool with fuzzy teeth and smelly breath. Exactly, say the TCSers, I’m making it about me, not about my son. A parent’s duty, they say, is to help children achieve their own desires, not the parents’.
So what is Jane’s mother to do if she wants to parent through the tooth-brushing dilemma without coercion? Listen to Jane, for a start. “If Jane’s mother took Jane seriously and looked into why she doesn’t want to brush her teeth or sought alternative ways of preventing cavities, then Jane’s rational process of conjecture and refutation could continue unimpeded,” Abma says. “Jane’s confidence in her own innate rationality would be supported and encouraged by something as simple as getting a softer toothbrush.”
But what if the softer toothbrush doesn’t help? What if Jane still doesn’t want to brush her teeth? Assuming that Jane is a rational person with the right to refuse to brush her teeth, Jane’s mother should look to other ways for Jane to get her teeth cleaned. TCS parents argue that a “common preference” can always be found that will allow both parties to be happy.
This idea of common preferences is integral to TCS parenting. Common preferences are not the same as compromises, which demand sacrifice on the part of both parties; they are a solution that is better than the original plan. Common preferences guarantee the happiness of all involved. Getting to them takes patience, creativity, and basic trust. It also demands that parents give up their “entrenched theories.” Those theories that are so firmly part of our psyches-such as that junk food and television are evil-are an obstacle to finding a common preference. In the case of Jane and the tooth brushing, a common preference might be that Jane chew special teeth-cleaning gum, or gargle with mouthwash, or gnaw on the kind of roots people use to clean their teeth in cultures where there aren’t toothbrushes.
As I skimmed through articles and posts explaining and espousing TCS theory, my admonitions to do things “because I said so” or “because I’m the mommy” started to sound more sinister. Sure, I go out of my way to explain my thinking to my son, but eventually I get tired of his relentless arguments and I put my foot down. By doing so, say the TCSers, I am crushing my son’s inherent rationality.
Parenting philosophies evolve, much as cultures do. Aristotle believed that children are basically like animals; they need to be trained before they can see the point of certain activities or behaviors that are, in fact, good for them. And it’s largely up to parents to train them. In early America, Puritans regarded children as inherently sinful. Being a good parent back then meant doing your best to break a child’s will in order to create a person who would be humble before God. In eighteenth-century France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau broke with the traditional Christian view of children as morally corrupt by advocating education that grants freedom to the child, even freedom from obedience. Children learn best in a “natural” state, he believed, when they follow their own natural interests and abilities.
In a way, TCS is little more than libertarian and Rousseauean ideas taken to their logical extreme. Children are not only inherently good, they are inherently rational. In place of the “I’m the mommy, that’s why” school of parenting, most modern enlightened parents believe that, whenever possible, a child should be helped to understand the reasons behind the rules. In this way, a child learns to internalize the rules by thinking about them. TCS takes this one step further; you may explain to your child the theory behind your view of how the world works, but you must trust his or her own rational capacity to make a choice of how to behave.
In discussion, TCSers often come back to this: “Would you treat a fellow adult that way?” If it’s damaging and disrespectful to a grown human being, they argue, it’s perhaps even more damaging, disrespectful, and immoral to treat a child in that way because he is totally dependent upon you. Children have no refuge from their parents’ whims. Unlike an adult who can walk away, children depend on us for everything-food, clothing, and respect. But isn’t it this very dependence that makes TCS thinking so dangerous? If no one is in charge, then how can we make sure that children stay safe?
A common example that crops up on TCS boards is the hypothetical child who wants to jump off the roof of the house. A permissive parent might say, “Go ahead, let me know if you need an ambulance.” A coercive parent might say, “Hell, no.” A TCS parent, it’s argued, will find a way for the child to meet his need to jump off the roof. The mark of a TCS parent’s approach to conflict is this kind of boundless creativity.
First, the parent must understand what need the child is trying to meet by jumping off the roof. Perhaps the child is interested in gravity. Then the parent might go up on the roof with the child and let him drop something, say a melon, off so he can see what happens to things that fall from a great distance. Or the parent might help the child jump off a stump, then the fence, then the roof of the porch to see if he might be satisfied without heading out onto the roof. Finally, the parent might beg or borrow a trampoline or drag a mattress out into the yard to cushion the child’s fall.
Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it requires a lot of thought and energy. But if the child is told only “No” or even “No, and here’s why” and the child’s curiosity is not satisfied, perhaps the child will wait until the coast is clear and leap off the roof anyway.
By finding a solution-a common preference-to the roof-jumping dilemma, parents hope to give their child the autonomy to learn about gravity in a way that suits them while satisfying their own need to keep the child safe. Lessons learned in this way, argue the TCSers, are more likely to stick. More importantly, they will not compromise the child’s sense of self.
But what about the impulsive child? The child who heads out into the street without looking both ways? First of all, coercion is permissible if it ultimately meets the child’s need to stay alive. It is considered entirely appropriate to grab a child heading into the street (if the truck is indeed heading towards her) or to push her out of the way of a speeding car. But if we buy the assumption that children are inherently rational, then there are other solutions to helping the impulsive child stay safe around city streets. The parent would, of course, share his theory that cars in motion are dangerous. He might demonstrate this by running over a melon and showing the child what happens to the melon. He might take his child down the street to look at road kill. But what if the child still doesn’t get it?
In response to these sort of “What if … ” questions, Sarah Lawrence writes that the idea that children are headed for disaster if they are not carefully coerced is “hogwash.” Non-coerced children do not have tantrums; they do not discount the wishes of their parents; they do not steal, lie, commit suicide, intentionally destroy other people’s property, go out alone at 3 a.m. to play in the park, or drink bleach. They do not coerce their parents. Despite my many imperfections, I have not had any of these problems with my children, nor, indeed, have I had the usual problems with any of the teenagers who have stayed with me for extended periods. So it is no good saying to me, “Children do do X. What do you do about it?” That just isn’t so.
When arguments from outsiders come up in TCS discussion, they are always about these extremes. What if my child never stops playing video games? What if he wants to gorge himself on chocolate? What if she wants to go hitchhiking or do drugs or have sex indiscriminately?
The problem, say TCSers, is that these questions inevitably start from the assumption that children are not also rational. Children are not inherently self-destructive, they argue, and only by giving them the opportunity to monitor their inner controls can they ever be safe in the world. It is our coercive parenting, they say, that ironically creates children who cannot handle freedom.
For parents used to policing food and television, the idea that children can be trusted to make their own decisions around these things can either be threatening or freeing. When I asked my son if he would watch television and eat marshmallows forever, he said, “I would probably get a tummy ache.” He’s right, he probably would. But my fear is that when his tummy ache subsided, he would go right back to stuffing himself full of marshmallows.
I try to imagine what it would be like if he did. I picture him turning pale and bloated from bad food and lack of exercise. This concern drives me to send him outside to play and call him back in for a balanced lunch. As his parent, I see myself as someone who must protect him even from himself.
TCS followers paint a picture of children (and families) who are truly free to be themselves, children who are able to create their own happiness unhindered by the expectations and demands of others. Such children, they say, are compassionate and respectful of the rights of others because their own autonomy has never been questioned.
When I force my son to go to bed, TCS parents equate that with rape or beating. That’s too farfetched for me. But by reading their common preference-finding, I discovered how I can support my son better sometimes. While I reject their belief that no coercion is best, I will acknowledge that less coercion is better. By exploring their philosophy and questioning my own firm beliefs about my parenting role, I have discovered opportunities where before I saw problems and for this I am grateful.
The problem for those of us outside TCS theory is that it is only a theory, as the adherents freely admit; there is no proof that TCS works. As one TCS parent wrote on the online message board: “It’s not about turning out a product at some time in the future. It’s about how to relate, between children and parents, right here right now.”
Even if the idea of using human beings to prove a parenting hypothesis was workable, there are no adults raised on TCS philosophy to which we can look. The first TCS children, I am told, raised from infancy without coercion are just now heading into their teens. It will be interesting, one day, to hear their thoughts about their upbringing.