Don’t children prefer strict rules so they know where they stand?

From the archives: The original post was posted on 14th April, 1995

A poster had asked:

“What about the argument that, not only children, but everyone, likes to know where they stand even more than they want respect? Hence, they may deeply appreciate an authoritarian parent and strict rules.”

This does contain a grain of truth, which makes it harder to dismiss merely by analysing the argument. Nevertheless the argument is based on a straightforward fallacy of equivocation between two meanings of the word “strict”, namely (1) harsh, coercive, and (2) well-defined, precise.

The truth is that people like to know the rules under which they are living, i.e. they want strict(2) rules. But they do not like getting hurt, so they do not want strict(1) rules.

It is perfectly possible for a non-coercive parent to be “strict(2)” with his child, for instance, by saying things like: “No matter what you do, I will never hit you, or shout at you”, etc. And it is possible for a strict(1) parent not to be strict(2), for instance, if he lays down very demanding, intrusive (strict(1)) rules but does not make clear to the child what they are, or only enforces them sporadically.

The grain of truth is this: if a parent is coercive, it may (one can’t generalise, but it may) be better for him to apply his coercion according to a strict(2) rule rather than whimsically. A similar grain of truth holds in non-coercive education: an imperfectly non-coercive parent (and there are no perfect ones of course) should be on the lookout for ways to make his slightly coercive regime more strict(2), for instance, by warning the child of what is likely to upset him (the parent). Otherwise the parent is in danger of misleading the child about the exact nature of the regime he lives under. But this can be overstated. People cannot by an act of will make themselves start to behave perfectly consistently, for they do not have direct access to their inexplicit conflicting theories. And in the army, which might be considered an example of strict(1) and strict(2), they say “You’re always in the shit; it is just the depth that varies.”

Furthermore, I might point out that since in general rules tend to prevent full and open theory-testing (for instance: the young entrepreneur may have a major problem because he cannot legally make contracts; the small child not allowed to climb anything doesn’t have the freedom to develop better and better inexplicit theories about climbing, etc.), people’s desire for strictness(2) is not usually an absolutely overriding consideration. It is one important thing among many. It can, however, become an obsession for people brought up under a highly coercive but whimsical regime (very strict(1) but not at all strict(2)).

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Don’t children prefer strict rules so they know where they stand?’,