Coercion punishes children for reasoning

From the archives: Posted on 28th November, 1994

A poster wrote:

“Well, I have to admit that my wife and I have a somewhat different view. We feel that children, by definition, have neither the experience nor the ability to comprehend the ramifications of their decisions.”

I’m not sure what you mean, “by definition”. Do you mean that knowing someone’s age makes it possible to completely exclude from consideration any evidence or argument to the effect that they could make rational decisions?

“Explaining to the child that (s)he will need to pay for future dental work because (s)he did not practice adequate hygiene means nothing to a four year old who can have but a limited grasp of finances.”

Then that is not a very good explanation to give a four-year-old. (I wouldn’t advocate that approach anyway; it seems to me to be a threat to leave the child suffering a toothache.) Can I make my own contribution to the ongoing dentomania? My teeth are not badly decayed, but they are very badly worn indeed from grinding – which I attribute to the lasting effects of coercion. 🙂 

“We love our children too much to allow them to harm themselves. Yes, we coerce our children and, in reality, we’re proud of it. But it’s not arbitrary. We take special care to explain to them the reasons behind our actions. As their reasoning powers and view of the world grow, they realize that what we’ve been saying does (mostly ;^) make sense and that the task they didn’t want to perform really was the right thing to do. (By then the task is usually a habit anyway, so it’s no big burden to continue to perform it).”

The problem is that when coercion is used, it really doesn’t matter whether your reasons make sense, or whether the task is the right thing to do. They have to do it regardless. It’s as easy to make a habit of wrong things as right things. Coercion doesn’t call for children to reason; indeed it calls for them not to reason, or risk punishment for reasoning to a different conclusion than the adult. We can’t say that the child’s conclusion is necessarily wrong and the adult’s necessarily right – no one is infallible. (Many adults, if being honest, would admit that there are certain spheres in which they find themselves consistently unable to think or act rationally, despite their best intentions.)

It doesn’t matter that the adult may in fact generally be right, or that the child’s reasoning may well lead them to an incorrect conclusion – children are human and fallible too – because coercion excludes challenge whether or not the adult is right. When coerced, the child is essentially punished for reaching a reasoned (to the best of the child’s abilities) conclusion. One common result is that the child ends up consistently unable to think or act rationally in certain spheres.

See also:

Kevin Schoedel, 1994, ‘Coercion punishes children for reasoning’,