How is the parent-child situation more complicated than the adult-adult one?

“When people become parents, they lack the knowledge needed for parenthood. There is a very steep learning curve that for many is unexpected, challenging and unnerving.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


“I am pregnant for the first time and my partner and I plan on taking our kid seriously. We have a great relationship together but you said that taking kids seriously is harder than taking adults seriously? Could you spell out how? We want to be prepared.”

Congratulations! Here are some specifics of what can make the parent-child situation seem more complicated than the adult-adult one:

Parents are legally responsible for their children. They are not legally responsible for other adults. They are not just legally responsible for protecting and educating their children, they are legally responsible for crimes their children commit.

Parents are morally responsible for their children. They have obligations to their children that they do not have to any other adults. When you have a child, you do so knowing that children are born completely dependent on you for a long time. If you prefer not to be responsible for fulfilling a child’s needs, you can choose not to have a child. If instead you do have a child, and not to put your baby up for adoption at birth, through that freely-chosen action you thereby raise moral obligations to that baby—to provide the support, protection, education, etc., that that child depends on you for—until that child is an independent adult.

Children have only inborn knowledge at birth. There is sooooo much they don’t know, that adults do know. Some of their lack of knowledge is dangerous—makes them unsafe without adult protection.

Babies start with no explicit language in which parents can explain things to them. Until children are fluent explicit language communicators, it can be inherently difficult to converse effectively with them—such as about dangers, moral issues, others’ concerns, etc.

Babies and young children behave very differently from adults. They tend to be loud and messy and have unexpected, inconvenient and what from an adult perspective can seem to be disturbing or unreasonable wants. They are not born knowing how to take others’ wishes and concerns into account.

When people become parents, they lack the knowledge needed for parenthood. There is a very steep learning curve that for many is unexpected, challenging and unnerving. Until they become parents, most people have no experience of being 100% responsible for the well-being of another person, let alone one who initially seems so unlike adults and who is so difficult to communicate with. Very few people are not surprised or challenged by many of the problems they encounter when they become parents.

Because of their lack of knowledge, babies and children make mistakes that another adult would not make. Even if another adult does make a terrible mistake, we are not responsible for that adult. 

It is inherently complicated to be 100% responsible for meeting the needs of someone completely dependent on you who lacks vital knowledge, and who has strong wishes and concerns of their own, that they can’t explain to you. Now add to that, doing it all without coercion….

Coercive education. You are responsible for ensuring that your children do not come to harm, and that they learn what they need to know to function independently. Most parents have never had such a responsibility before, and lack knowledge of how to do this for another human being. Children need so much knowledge they don’t know they need, and if their lack of knowledge results in them coming to harm it is your fault. Most people have grown up under the behaviourist conditioning (rewards and consequences) idea of education, and tend therefore to replicate that coercive education with their children, coercively correcting their children in a way that many adults do not do with adults. Replacing what you have grown up with, and the coercive educational ideas of the culture, with non-coercive education requires the creation of new knowledge. It is by no means obvious how to convey the knowledge children need in a way that they will like.

Coercive interference in your own mind. Trying to learn how to convey knowledge children need in a way that they will like is difficult enough. Now add to that, that you are attempting to create that knowledge while under the potentially coercive external pressure of your legal responsibilities and other outside pressure interfering with your ability to solve problems and learn.

Building a knowledge-creating relationship is a non-trivial task that can’t be done by an act of will. Building and nurturing a delightful, knowledge-creating relationship with another human being is not something that can be done instantly no matter how much you might want to will such a relationship into existence. It takes time and a lot of mistakes and experimenting. Adults tend to lack knowledge of how to interact and relate with one another non-coercively. How much more of a challenge it is to interact and relate non-coercively with babies and children who seem so different from adults and for whom you are legally and morally responsible.

Learning how to create good relationships with children while still learning how to do that with an adult. Many people becoming parents have not yet developed the knowledge of how to build and nurture a good relationship with another adult, let alone a child. So many parents are not only on a steep learning curve with their babies and children, they are also on a steep learning curve in their relationship with their adult partner. And it is all happening at the same time. And with insufficient time alone as a couple to facilitate the creation of that knowledge. That resulting lack of knowledge between the parents often adversely affects their children even if they stay together and muddle through (let alone if they split up).

Sleep deprivation. When they have babies and young children, most parents are completely unprepared for the extreme sleep deprivation they experience, often for a long time without relief. Extreme sleep deprivation with little or no relief is torture. When people are extremely sleep deprived without relief, they lose their usual ability to solve problems. They lose their sense of perspective. They feel physically and psychologically awful. Until you experience it, you might not really be able to imagine how bad it can feel and how non-functional you might be. Doctors have told me that even having been thrown in the deep end during their training, with patients’ lives in their hands, with what felt like insufficient practical medical knowledge to keep their patients alive, and with extreme sleep deprivation from the insane hours they had to work, did not prepare them for the sleep deprivation and responsibility of new parenthood.

Many adults are still dealing with unresolved issues in their own minds (whether from their own childhoods or otherwise), many of which only become apparent when they become parents. So they are dealing with all that while dealing with the new responsibility they have to their babies and children, and while trying to maintain or build a good relationship with their spouse.

Few people in our culture have grown up in a multigenerational home, with the soothing loving presence of wise old people who are at peace with themselves and the world and other people and who have lots of time and love for their whole family. So they have not had that positive example from which to learn, and they have not had the advantage of having adults in their lives who are not stressed and under a constant time crunch. So almost everyone grows up having to recreate the wheel in many respects.

Different individuals react differently to having children, so even if you think you have a great relationship with your partner before you have children, having a child can destabilise the relationship between you, creating added stress.

Antirational memes. According to David Deutsch, memes can be rational or antirational. Memes are ideas that cause behaviour that causes others to adopt the meme. Rational memes thrive in a creative rational critical environment and are adopted rationally. They contain truth and solve a problem. Antirational memes propagate from person to person and down through the generations anti-rationally, by suppressing our ability to criticise them in effect making us feel compelled to behave in ways that in effect make other people (especially our children) feel compelled into adopting them. Anti-rational memes are not only passed from parents to children, they exist more widely in our culture. One of the ways anti-rational memes maintain their power is by making the society endorse the meme and penalise deviations from it. This is why when you are in a supermarket with your child, a disapproving frown from a complete stranger can have you feeling rebuked, ashamed, upset, and defensive. The anti-rational meme in your mind was triggered by the stranger’s frown. You and your spouse/partner may be affected differently by antirational memes, and those effects may be completely unexpected and not be apparent until you actually have children. Most people are not even aware that there are antirational memes operating in their minds, and even those who are aware that everyone has antirational memes have no reliable way of telling where/what those antirational memes are.

Totally unexpected disagreements arise. People can think, before having children, that they are very much in accord with each other about how they would like life to be when they have children together—but then when it actually happens, one or both may completely change their mind about very significant issues, and completely unexpected issues arise upon which the parents find themselves unexpectedly at odds with one another. And especially when those issues relate specifically to their children, each parent rightly feels responsible for that child, so when there is disagreement between the parents, to each of them, the other’s position violates their responsibility to the child, causing anguish and stress between them, destabilising their relationship. When the disagreement relates to a matter of parental responsibility, if both parents care deeply about that issue it is not something they can just ‘agree to differ’ about, or relax about, and it is often difficult to resolve these disagreements because antirational memes are involved.

Authority figures who might take your children away if they disapprove. Authority figures in society themselves have antirational memes, and many of them have the legal power to coercively force your children into the coercively controlling (and often outright abusive) ‘care’ of the state. No matter how conventional parents may be, many have the odd brush with authority and sometimes fear their children being taken away. Those who are intentionally and significantly violating the conventional coercive norms (such as parents taking children seriously!) have every reason to consider this a significant risk. This creates more stress for parents. More interfering coercion in their own mind. Living with a siege mentality is terrible for everyone concerned.

The intense need to protect our children. Many are surprised by the intensity of the protective ‘instincts’ they experience when they have a baby. Whether there is a biological element involved or not, many find it unexpectedly intense, and whilst it does have parents selflessly bending over backwards to give their babies and children the best possible start in life, it can also reduce their effective functionality (rationality, creativity) in the face of threats to their children from authority figures, possible dangers and the like.

The blind spot of paternalism with respect to children. Society has not yet dropped the theory of paternalism when it comes to children. Children are viewed differently from adults. The prevailing view is that children need to be (benevolently) coercively controlled for their own good. Taking Children Seriously is a new view of children—a non-paternalistic view. But even those with an intellectual understanding of this new view have paternalistic blind spots. That paternalistic view adversely affects interactions and massively interferes with building a knowledge-creating relationship. Nowadays no one any longer has a paternalistic blind spot about women, only children.

Attempting to create a good relationship with someone you feel compelled to coercively control is much more difficult than creating a good relationship with someone you do not have an urge to control! Irrespective of age, people tend to really hate being controlled against their will, and they tend to react badly and try to undermine your control. Your coercive control of them makes you an adversary, setting you up for an endless war for control. This war has many unintended consequences. Although a very small number of adults also have the urge to control other adults, few are afflicted by quite the same level of compulsion to control as parents commonly experience with their children, and very few adults attempt to inflict such extreme control on other adults.

The weight of tradition (or the background knowledge in our culture) about how to interact with children. Even though potential parents taking children seriously may well have thought a lot about parenthood and childhood and how to interact non-coercively with children, nevertheless, the traditions of our culture involve so much everyday coercion of children, that the chance that we arrive at parenthood having criticised and dropped all those traditional ideas is slim. 

The prevailing traditional view in society that parents have no option but to expect their children to accommodate their adult work schedules and other such matters of ‘necessity’. Given our cultural norms, traditions, unquestioned background knowledge and assumptions, it is completely alien for people becoming parents to think of planning their lives with a view to what their child might want. It is completely taken for granted that the child will be expected to fit in with the parents’ careers etc. It is simply not even a question in most people’s minds that there is anything immoral about coercing children out of ‘necessity’, such as to accommodate the parents’ work schedules. So because it honestly feels essential and necessary and right to parents, they do not question whether or not they are right about the ‘necessity’, they focus instead on how to help their children cope with the ‘necessary’ coercion of going to daycare or nursery school or whatever. The tradition has it that it is not unreasonable to expect children to suffer for our work schedules. And for many, it is true that their work is important, and that it could be threatened by having to accommodate a young child’s wishes. And many parents both need to work to stay afloat financially, and they do not have the knowledge of how to change their lifestyle so that they can better accommodate their children’s wishes too.

“Don’t plan your life around your children’s wishes. Pandering to children’s whims does them no favours.” Not only do most people think it reasonable to treat children’s wishes as less important than adults’, they think it absurd and bad for the child too to ‘pander to’ the child’s ‘whims’ (as they disparagingly characterise it). 

Most people currently choosing to have a child do so without any idea that there could be any problem with expecting their child to be ok with fitting in with the parents’ work schedules, going to school, etc. That is simply not a question most people think about when having a child. In our society, children are expected to fit in with adults. In a future society, it will seem right and good to plan to interact consensually with a child just as it now does to interact with your spouse consensually. And it will be obvious that it is a moral mistake not to. But for now, most people in our culture have no idea that this is even something to think about, let alone take into account in their life plans. So it is not currently the case that those choosing to have a child do so knowing that their child might not be ok with fitting in around the parents’ schedules, going to school, etc. 

And so on!

In what other ways is the parent-child situation more complicated than the adult-adult one? Comment below.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2024, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘How is the parent-child situation more complicated than the adult-adult one?’,

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