Children’s rationality and coping strategies in the face of coercion

“Most children are performing constant defensive actions to maintain some kind of equilibrium in the face of constant coercion, and when they get tired, their coping strategies begin to go wrong. Tired adults also sometimes behave badly too.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: The original post was posted on 1st January 1995

“Children are less willing to undergo brief sacrifice for long-term gain. Often, they simply do not understand the tradeoff (as in the infant protesting diaper changes or the toddler dodging a vaccination). But I have also seen it many times in situations where they do understand the whole issue but don’t want to accept it. (My recent personal experiences are with cold—my 5yo son will not unwrap a semi-warm but wet towel in order to put on truly warm and dry pajamas, even though he knows in the abstract that it is necessary.)”

I agree with Grace’s comments on this, but the most important point here is that the child was right, and that your taking the towel off him by force was an absolute outrage. Justifying that by some kind of a highfalutin theory of rationality is laughable. You are saying that the child is obviously wrong, and that the reason your theory is obviously right is that you are an adult. I am saying that I too am an adult, yet I disagree with you, and so is Grace, and so does she. I think the child was right. So now where is your justification for forcibly removing the towel?

“Children tend to be more susceptible than adults to behaving irrationally when short on food or rest. They are also generally less aware of these effects, and sometimes demand things when overtired that they would never ask in their normal state.”

In most children’s lives, they are performing constant defensive actions to maintain some kind of equilibrium in the face of constant coercion, and when they get tired, their coping strategies begin to go wrong. It is (as I know only too well…) very true of adults that when they get tired, they start to behave much worse, but then adults are permanently in a state of not being able to cope, because their creativity is almost gone. It is when I am tired that I treat my children badly, for example. When children are tired, they sometimes go past the edge of being able to humour the adults in their lives—to accommodate the various irrationalities around them.

“I liked the description ‘pre-rational’ for a young child grasping to understand the world but as yet unaware of causality and logic. I know that Sarah wants to call this exploration ‘rational,’ but it seems to me that using the word rational to mean anything other than ‘having or exercising the ability to reason’ (American Heritage Dictionary) is broadening the concept beyond its usefulness.”

My Oxford Dictionary has a number of different definitions, none of which is that of your American Heritage Dictionary, but most of which are perfectly relevant to my usage. I think children are “endowed with reason, sensible, sane,” and “not extreme or foolish,” etc. I don’t think I am broadening the term; I think you yourself are using it is a very narrow sense that is not common in everyday usage, if by “ability to reason” you take that to mean “capable of formal reasoning”, as you seem to. But let us not argue about words: if you don’t like this word to describe the conditions under which knowledge grows, as expounded in a recent posting or two, then choose another word. I don’t care what you call it—what matters is the ideas we are discussing, and it would be more useful to argue about those than whether a particular word is being used “correctly” or not. What I am saying does not depend upon the word, but the idea. Since I have explained very clearly what I mean by “rational”, what is the problem? Call the idea whatever you like!

As for the rest of this post, I have nothing to say other than that it is all blank assertion with no argument, and I totally disagree with all of it, for the reasons I have given before, but I remain open to argument, should you feel inclined to engage in it. Oh, and have a joyful new year, Eric!

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Children’s rationality and coping strategies in the face of coercion’,

Leave a comment