Both coercion and “doing nothing” are mistakes

“When parties are fighting, most of their creativity is focused upon how to defend their position and win the fight. What is called for is something that helps the children to stop thinking about winning the fight and start applying creativity to the problem. We should help whenever we can, unless they don’t want us to.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge

From the archives: The original post was posted on 16th June, 1996

“Thank you Sarah for your helpful response to my post of several weeks ago!
           I’ve been trying to piece together why this list [the Taking Children Seriously forum] has hit such a positive chord with me. I feel like I have been given permission to do what feels most natural and right to me. Too bad I need ‘permission’ though! I was raised fairly non-coercively (in comparison by most parents of the sixties) by parents who had a lot of respect for their children. My decision to homeschool my own children was 100% educated gut feeling. My decision to unschool (per John Holt) was 100% educated gut feeling. Both of these decisions were in response to questions like ‘if I were a child, what would I prefer?’ (My children have always had the option to go to ‘school’ or use a pre-planned curriculum if they choose.)
           Recently I was becoming increasingly aware of playing ‘cop’ in some areas of my children’s lives. I didn’t like it at all but had yet to come up with an alternative. My children always asked me permission before turning on the television. I often said ‘no’ and they would, of course, be angry and frustrated. They almost always asked permission before taking something to eat (especially things that aren’t ‘good’ for you). Well, the list goes on. Academically we were very much on target for non-coercive education. Other areas were not going so well. My children had enough freedom in their lives that they were willing to express their extreme displeasure at being controlled. It’s not much fun being the mother of chronically angry and frustrated children!
           The interview of David Deutsch by Sarah was particularly enlightening to me. The prevalent belief that ‘if children enjoy it, it must not be good for them’ really hit home for me”

I am glad you liked that point. After that interview was published in the journal (Taking Children Seriously 4, in 1992), I received several angry letters from parents, and David was convinced the interview could do no good at all, so thank you for saying this, and David, take note!

“Academically speaking, I have always thought one of the greatest benefits of unschooling is that they can spend the most time at what they are good at and little (or no) time at those things they don’t like and aren’t good at. Why couldn’t I make this ‘leap’ in other areas of our lives? I preach the benefit of not separating learning from life and then I turn around and say ‘you can’t watch that TV program’ or ‘you can’t eat the junk food.’”

This is a very important insight, and one to which, sadly, many unschoolers are altogether blind.

“Well, you’ll be glad to know that we are making lots of changes! Again the decision is educated-gut-feeling. The theories are OK and I am interested, but the truth is that totally non-coercive parenting feels right at an intuitive level. We have freed the TV, freed the kitchen and are working hard at consensus decision making! The children seem a bit in awe of the situation (‘Wow, you’re even buying us Trix cereal?’)!”

You mentioned in another of your posts that it is the practical examples rather than the philosophical posts that you find most helpful, but I think you’ll agree (?) that where a parent is genuinely concerned that something is actually bad for children (for instance, you mention television and junk food) it may not be sufficient, but it is at least necessary to dispel those fears, and that in the case of television, dispelling the fears requires an epistemological argument, not a practical example? For if a parent holds the theory that television puts bad ideas into children’s minds, no number of counter examples is going to convince him otherwise. An epistemological argument could help him understand that in fact children learn through conjectures and refutations rather than by having bad ideas poured into them like water into a bucket.

OTOH, if the whole thing does not feel right to him in the first place, both the practical examples and the philosophical arguments are rather futile. Neither practical examples nor brilliant philosophical arguments will convince the person unless they address his problem situation. The interview with David seems to have addressed your problem situation, but it apparently did not address the problem situations of the parents who wrote me angry letters after it was published.

“I have two areas of concern at this point. The first seems ironic—I want to force my children to find consensual solutions (‘you can’t watch a movie until both of you agree on which one’). Since my opinion is irrelevant in these situations, I’m trying hard to suggest that they work to find a mutually agreeable solution rather than insist! Over time they will likely see the benefit of this consensual style of decision making.”

As you clearly realise, coercing children into finding consensual solutions might lead to grudging resentful pseudo-agreements (performing for the parent), but is not likely to help them find real solutions. We want children to do the right thing, but coercion is not the answer. Indeed, as I have argued many times, in interfering with reason, coercion interferes with reaching truth.

One mistake I think some unschoolers (and others) make is to think that the alternative to coercion is to do nothing. They take the view that since the dispute is between their children, they should “not interfere.” This non-intervention may well be a step in the right direction (if the parent was previously punishing the children for fighting, for example). But (to take an extreme case) if one child is being physically hurt by another and asks you for protection, you must give it. This can be done without punishing or telling off the other child, of course!

Even in purely verbal disputes, what “non-intervention” amounts to is denying the children the benefit of one’s own theories and one’s own creativity and help in resolving the dispute. As I have said many times, non-coercion does not mean not telling the children our own opinion. The growth of knowledge—solving problems—is about finding truer, better theories, and to the extent that we can help—by telling the children what we think is right, for example—we should. There is a big difference between telling children our opinions, and pressurising them to accept our view of a situation.

Nor am I suggesting merely making a pronouncement for the children’s consideration and then “leaving them to it.”

When there is a dispute like this, there is a lack of creativity. Fighting and coercion are inimical to creativity, inimical to problem-solving, so adding more of that really won’t help. When parties are fighting, most of their creativity is focused upon how to defend their position and win the fight. In other words, they are acting irrationally: they are not trying to solve the problem consensually.

In such frames of mind, the parties are highly unlikely ever to find a real solution. So what is called for is something that helps the children to stop thinking about winning the fight and start applying creativity to the problem. It is their thinking that is likely to be most important, but that does not mean that you should not chip in to the best of your ability.

You can think about ways of making them feel safe in the short run, and then you can try to provide a stream of suggestions for solutions. It does not matter where the solution comes from—it does not matter who thought of it! We are not in school now! There is no requirement to “work alone”! There is nothing to be gained by finding the answer with no help. What matters is finding a real solution, by any means available. We should help whenever we can, unless they don’t want us to. After all, why should they have been fighting in the first place but for the fact that we had not brought them up with consensual decision-making institutions?

So when they are arguing about which film to watch or whatever, instead of “leaving them to sort it out on their own”, try to focus on the problem, and think up potential solutions (for the short and long run) for their consideration. They may not like any of your proposed solutions but your ideas may well spark an idea they do all agree upon.

Furthermore, if instead of adding more coercion to the situation, you start giving them ideas about how to resolve the dispute, that may be just what is needed to help them out of their destructive defensive positions and into frames of mind in which creativity flows and the problem can be solved. And if you have a moral opinion about the situation, tell them your opinion; don’t deprive them of your theories.

“The second concern has to do with property rights. Traditionally, if someone “owns” something, he or she has the right to say how it’s used (or not used). This seems non-negotiable and can be used coercively (‘it’s mine and I don’t have to share it with you’). It would also be coercive to say ‘you have to share.’ This impulse to ‘own’ things seems very strong and seems to act as a wall in problem solving. I wonder if it the impulse is caused by coercion. Having two (or more) of everything is a possible, although not practical, solution. Perhaps more positive experiences with consensus-style problem solving will solve the problem naturally.”

First, whether there is an in-built “impulse to own” things or not, it will not help problem-solving to take that into account. For when one takes the view that there is an entrenched idea or a “fact of nature” that one can’t get around, that significantly affects problem-solving interactions, one is unlikely to think in terms of solving the problem.

Any way of looking at disputes and problems that involves attributing causes of behaviour to “facts of nature,” genes, in-built unchangeable impulses and the like, is likely to prevent the creative rational thinking necessary to solve them. When one attributes a child’s behaviour to in-built, unchangeable instincts or whatever, one tends to discount or not even consider the child’s own view of the situation. This is inimical to problem-solving. Every time I hear an “expert” say “What’s happening now is not irrelevant exactly, but it is nothing like as important a determinant of behaviour as the legacy of our evolutionary heritage” (as one Human Sociobiologist said on national television this morning) alarm bells sound in my mind. It is worth striving to become aware of these unhelpful ideas in one’s own thinking and to subject them to the strongest possible criticism.

That said, let me address your question more directly. As I said, one should tell the children one’s opinion morally of what they are doing. I would not wish to give the impression that property is irrelevant. It would be a mistake to assume that since we are all going to consent anyway in the end, it does not matter whose property it was to begin with.

The reason it is a mistake is that whose property it was to begin with strongly affects what right-thinking people want. It may not determine what they want, as some Libertarians think, but it is something children will want to take into account because they want to behave rightly. They will want to know whose property it was, because they’d want a different kind of reason for, say, destroying it or using it up, if it were someone else’s property.

Suppose Little Sally takes Little Charlie’s Power Ranger without his consent. In helping the children find a solution, I think one should tell Sally one’s moral opinion, for instance: “I don’t think that is right to take it against his will. Of course, you must do what you think is right, not what I think is right, but nevertheless, prima facie, I think what you are doing is not right.” And you should give reasons: “One reason why we have private property is that we like to feel safe about making plans. For instance if you wanted to make a large building with your Lego that took three days to make, you’d feel bad about even starting if you thought Charlie might take it apart after two days against your will. On the other hand if Charlie wanted to use your Lego and you didn’t have much use for it for three days, you might well agree to let him have it. But you’d feel safer if he asked first, wouldn’t you?.”

I also think that it is important to give children one’s moral opinions, and moral arguments and explanations, all the time, not just when there are conflicts, just as it is important to give children access to one’s other theories (because, and to the extent that, they want to hear them).

There is no in-built property rights theory, and even if there were, we’d want to override it as I said. But although it isn’t an in-built thing, there is such a thing as right and wrong, which one should want to help children learn to respect. This must not become an excuse for coercion. Telling Sally that her action is wrong is not a prelude to or a justification for coercion. This moral judgment is an opinion, and that one should make sure that she receives it as an opinion and not as any kind of pressure. She might disagree with it. She might be right. But it is an opinion which she will in general want to take notice of, because she will want to do right.

If Sally finds that doing right somehow violates a need she thinks she has, then that is an issue which would have to be addressed, and which one would have to think about and talk about and so on. We don’t want children growing up thinking that doing right is unpleasant. So they should not do right despite their wish to the contrary; they should do right because doing right is something they want to do. Forcing them to do right against their wishes is thus horribly risky, because it might cause them to drop a theory that doing right is a good idea.

Perhaps one of the reasons some parents feel reluctant to intervene in these disputes is that having decided to go for zero coercion, they think they are forbidden from making moral judgments and that everything the children do is right by definition. But that is no more likely than that the children would guess the true theory of physics the first time. Of course that they don’t get it right the first time is no more justification for hurting them or coercing them than if they don’t guess the true theory of physics the first time. Moral ideas are just as subject to conjectures and refutations as ideas about physics. Children have to do what they think is right, with no pressure whatsoever—that’s what non-coercion amounts to—but they also have a right to be told morality as best we see it.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1996, ‘Both coercion and “doing nothing” are mistakes’,