“The coercion which schools are normally able to exert depend to a large degree on parental collusion with the coercive system. A child who knows that she can end the relationship with school at any time and who knows she will be supported over issues such as not doing homework will have a totally different experience of school than the child who has not entered the environment on her own volition safe in the knowledge that there is no pressure to remain there if she should change her mind.”
– Jan Fortune
From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 31, 2000
A fundamentalist Sunday School class teaching creationism; a classroom controlled by mechanical rules; a rule-bound sports training session; a uniformed organisation with the motto ‘Seek, Serve and Follow’. These are not environments that would most readily spring to mind in connection with young people from Taking Children Seriously homes. They are all places where they are likely to encounter attempts at coercion and where the theories that they hear at home are likely to be strongly criticised. In many cases children will choose to avoid such environments as being fraught with difficulties, but in other cases a child will choose such an environment despite its coercive ethos for good reasons of his or her own. When this happens non-coercive parents can sometimes be worried that their children will suffer damage from the coercion inherent in the chosen environment, or that their child will adopt theories which they themselves find inferior. Neither of these worries need be entertained if the home itself is truly non-coercive.
Consider the example of the Sunday school. A relatively young child decides that this is a good place to hear stories and meet with other children. All goes well for a while until the teacher begins to expound his ideas about creationism. The child objects with theories he has discussed at home and accepted as true. The child’s arguments naturally cut no ice as the teacher’s views are not open to criticism. Instead the child is informed that it is wicked not to accept the theory (or rather dogma) of creationism and is left with the impression that he must accept that dogma if he is to maintain the approval of the teacher. If the child comes from a home where coercion is normal then it is likely that a high degree of damage will occur. The child will be used to seeking approval not simply as a right, but as something which must be earned. If his parents disagree with the Sunday school teacher and are keen for him to share their understanding of evolution then he could lose their approval by switching allegiance to his teacher’s views and vice versa. The child will not make a rational decision about best theories or his own interests, but a coerced one in which internal loyalties conflict.
On the other hand a child from a Taking Children Seriously home will not be faced with this appalling dilemma. A child taken seriously will have the secure knowledge that he is acceptable for himself and does not have to jump through any hoops to retain this acceptability at home. If he is pressured to conform in another environment he knows that he can rely on his parents’ advocacy and that any lack of acceptance on his teacher’s part is the teacher’s problem and not his. The child being taken seriously will choose a theory on its own merits as he sees them and with a rational appraisal, knowing that he does not risk parental disapproval and that his wellbeing is not dependent on his teacher’s approval.
Or take the example of the school classroom. Many children used to being taken seriously would avoid this environment as one unlikely to contribute to their own growth of knowledge and access to fun. However a child might very well have her own reasons for choosing to take part in a school environment. The coercion which schools are normally able to exert depend to a large degree on parental collusion with the coercive system. A child who knows that she can end the relationship with school at any time and who knows she will be supported over issues such as not doing homework will have a totally different experience of school than the child who has not entered the environment on her own volition safe in the knowledge that there is no pressure to remain there if she should change her mind.
In short it is not any particular environment in itself which can inflict harm, even when coercion is an overt feature of the environment. Rather it is a question of information and expectation. A child being taken seriously has access to a great deal of information. She is used to best theories being shared and to being able to assess information rationally on its own merits. Her parents may have lots of good reasons for disliking fundamentalist Sunday schools or schools in general or certain children’s clubs, but the child will be able to trust that the information that she is given about such places is honest, reasonable and not given with the intention of scare-mongering and manipulating her into making a given and pre-ordained choice. Information will be freely shared and criticism freely offered without there being a corresponding expectation that the child must therefore reach the same conclusion as her parents. Conflicting information, when it is offered without pressure, will create no conflicts; at the point that expectation enters into the equation, coercion will come with it.
Such expectation can be extremely damaging not only in its most overt forms, but also when it is employed with more subtlety. A parent may not directly express disappointment in a child’s decision to make use of a potentially coercive environment, but there are many ways of expressing the disappointment through looks, sighs, negative asides, that can put the child into a state of conflict.
I recently had a conversation with a mother who believes that certain TV programmes ‘coerce’ her children into holding certain opinions which she finds distasteful. She said that as she believes in not being coercive towards her children she nonetheless allows her children to watch these programmes, but they only ‘choose’ to do so when she is out of the house, knowing as they do how offended she is by such ‘rubbish’. It seems to me that what is going on in this case is that information is being communicated in an expectation-laden manner. The mother shares her best theory, but more than that, she shares it repeatedly and is unwilling to consider the possibility that her theory may be wrong. She then adds expectation into this situation. Although she overtly tells her children that they ‘may’ watch whatever they please she uses subtle communication to make them have to choose between their own theory and her approval. They can do whatever they want, but must not expect to still be approved of or to be able to watch without feeling uncomfortable.
Of course parents taking their children seriously have their own best theories and a wealth of experience and information that it is only right that they should fully share with their children. However there have to be expectation-free ways of communicating that information if we want to avoid coercion. It is quite natural for children to want to please their parents and for them to desire parental approval. Such approval should be a given and not a condition of adopting certain theories or using only certain pre-approved environments. It is equally natural that parents should want to protect their children and might be anxious about the potential coercion that certain situations may attempt to exert over their children. They would be remiss if they did not warn their children about this and discuss ways of avoiding the coercion, but they will only become part of that coercion if they attempt in any way to ensure that there can be only one outcome, their own desired outcome, to information sharing. Information, shared fully and frankly, is a vital part of the parent-child interaction. Expectation introduces a desire to manipulate someone else’s mind and has no part in consensual relationships.
Jan Fortune, 2000, ‘Don’t force children to avoid coercive situations’, Taking Children Seriously 31, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 14-16, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/dont-force-children-to-avoid-coercive-situations