“What I’d give to have the knowledge of when and how I am coercing my children, so that I could start trying to cut it out! But knowledge is hard to come by, and identifying coercion is itself a creative task. This applies just as much in the case of the child recognising the coercion as it does for the adult trying to seek out and eliminate coercive ways of interacting, and sometimes more so.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
From the archives: The original post was posted on 25th January 1999
“I think that as a general rule, very young children (as I have) are very good at recognizing when they are being coerced and they express their displeasure freely and clearly… I also agree that there is some [coercion] there that none of us recognize, but I think it is probably somewhat minimal at this stage. I could be wrong.”
I think you are.
I think it is a serious mistake to think that the children of parents who favour Taking Children Seriously—any such children—are in general good at recognising when they are being coerced. At best this may be true of relatively overt coercion, but unfortunately, the vast majority of coercion, especially of children whose parents believe in Taking Children Seriously, is not overt enough for this to be the case. And yet still, it is of course damaging.
Children whose parents are trying to take them seriously are generally more aware of the ideas—they may, for example, have explicit theories about the sorts of sneaky coercion adults typically engage in. Taking Children Seriously children may be more likely than other children to know when a stranger is attempting to coerce them. But the reason they are more likely to know is because the stranger’s coercion is less likely to be effective at coercing them in the first place.
Why? First, because there is no relationship between the child and the stranger; secondly, because the child being taken seriously is more likely to know that her parent will protect him or her; and thirdly, because the child probably has developed relatively good explicit theories about such incidents through conversations with her parent.
But to say that children whose parents favour Taking Children Seriously “recognise” when they are being coerced by so-and-so, especially where that coercion is subtle and on-going, is a very different thing, and simply not true.
What I’d give to have the knowledge of when and how I am coercing my children, so that I could start trying to cut it out! But knowledge is hard to come by, and identifying coercion is itself a creative task. This applies just as much in the case of the child recognising the coercion as it does for the adult trying to seek out and eliminate coercive ways of interacting, and sometimes more so. The idea that our children know when they are being coerced fails to take this into account—it fails to take into account the fact that even the youngest children are fallible, and that even the most perceptive children have no privileged source of knowledge.
I can understand why a parent might want this to be true. It might be comforting to think that although I coerce my children, at least I am not too bad a parent, because anyone can see that the moment a child expresses distress I try to put things right. Comforting, it may be, but if so, it is a bit like the comfort an ostrich might get when it puts its head in the sand to avoid seeing danger. I fear that it may be an understandable but gravely misguided attempt at self-exculpation.
Moreover, this idea points only to overt distress whereas in fact most coercion is much more subtle. There are problems associated with taking this blinkered view.
For example, you may be systematically failing to look for coercion that does not result in overt distress. If you are not looking for such coercion then how will you find it?
Not all coercion is of the form that it is direct, overt and momentary, and results in an explosion of loudly-expressed distress. There are forms of subtle and perhaps on-going coercion which produce problems, syndromes, and distress which are not so easy to identify and correct. There are forms of subtle coercion that produce distress that appears unreasonable and unrelated to anything the parent has done. This applies just as much in the case of young children as it does in the case of older children. The sources of this coercion may be very difficult to identify; where would a child get that knowledge from so easily?
For example, recently, a parent asked why I had said that self-sacrifice is not just self-coercive, but in itself directly coercive of the child too. Self-sacrifice is just as coercive and distressing in the case of young children as it is in the case of older children, but it is often subtle. It just isn’t that easy for the child to untangle the complex web of events and recognise that although she has ostensibly got what she said she wanted, and although her parent has no conscious intention to thwart her, the parent is nevertheless doing so. To recognise that form of coercion requires, among other things, an explicit theory about the coerciveness of self-sacrifice. I should have thought that such a theory must, if anything, be less likely to be found in a young child. And even with a deep explicit theory, it is still difficult to recognise!
If one thinks that one’s children can always tell when they are being coerced, one runs the risk of failing to seek out the less overt, deeper coercion that is there, and risks giving one’s children the impression that there is only the overt coercion. This is risking blindfolding them to the truth, that one is inadvertently devoting creativity to harming them, and that most of this is not easy to identify and even less easy to do anything about. Admittedly, it is a painful truth to face. But surely it is better to face the painful truth and to try to do something about it than to stick one’s head in the sand?
For more about this subject, see: Identifying coercion is itself a creative task
- Children fending for themselves like adults?!
- Clarifying Karl Popper’s epistemology
- Why did my mother’s coercive words fly out of my mouth?!