“Does a person with more knowledge have the right to control those with less knowledge? Not with adults of course: I don’t want a nutritionist to control what I eat or a film critic to control what I watch, or the government to control what I say. So why is it right to do this with children?”
– Roshan Ali
“My wife likes structure. She may not know it and sometimes she behaves as if she doesn’t like it—but she likes it. Which is why I make her go to sleep at 9 p.m. even if she’s not sleepy. She must wake up at 6 a.m. sharp. Breakfast is at 7 a.m.: 2 idlis, orange juice, and a boiled egg. Sometimes I ask her what she wants—obviously, she can’t have anything she wants and has to choose from a set of preapproved choices. A balanced diet is very important.
Reading hour is from 9 to 10—I choose the books she can read, obviously. One hour of screen time from 10 to 11. After that it’s lunch: two pieces of chicken, two types of veggies, and brown rice. No dessert obviously—sugar is poison. Perhaps I should mention her dining chair, equipped with straps, to ensure she stays put during meals and finishes every bite on her plate. If she resists eating something, I offer her two alternatives. And she has to have either one. What happens if she doesn’t do as I ask her to? Well, obviously I’m not a monster! I don’t hit her. Instead, I send her to her room and lock it so she can’t go anywhere, or I tell her to stand in the corner facing the wall, or I get really angry and threaten to take away her books and screen, or I just give her the silent treatment, or I call her a bad woman.
Evening is bath time: I try making it fun for her by singing songs, but she has to have a bath. This is non-negotiable. Can’t have a dirty woman running around in our society—what will people think? The horror.
All this may seem harsh, and it may actually seem like she doesn’t like this structure but she doesn’t know what’s good for her—I know more than she does about biology, psychology, physics, hygiene, nutrition, politics, technology, how the eyes work, how the mind works, the inner workings of stars. All this knowledge gives me the right to command her—after all, it’s for her own good! I truly love her and want to see her happy and independent and capable of solving any problem that she encounters and even solve the world’s problems but for now, she knows very little about anything so I’ll tell her what to do and she has to do it. Eventually, when she can reason well enough to understand and agree with my reasons, she can do as she likes—but for now, she must listen.
Can she question me? Of course, and she does it all the time. But some things are non-negotiable, and I cannot take no for an answer, and she can question me all she likes and I’ll keep giving her reasons why she has to do it and she may not agree with me, but as I said, she knows nothing and it’s for her own good, so at the end of the day she may cry and scream and call me a controlling authoritarian monster, but she has to follow this structure.
Tone of voice is essential to maintaining this balance. Everything I ask her to do I say in a sharp, strict tone, that contains within it the threat of consequences. This also makes it less likely that she questions me, even though I welcome her questions and answer them to the best of my abilities: but sometimes when the ‘why’s’ go on for really long I will just shout ‘BECAUSE!’
It may seem then that she in fact does not like structure but she does and she doesn’t know it. Consider what happens if she sleeps late: she’ll be cranky the whole day and that’ll affect her schedule which will make her more cranky etc. So it’s best if she follows this schedule.
At the end of the day, it’s all for her own good!”
What is this outrage? Arrest this misogynist, this sexist, this dictator, this bully, this sociopath, psychopath, almost murderer! Shame him, cancel him, hound him till he moves to another country and changes his name! Track down his entire extended family and tell them his true nature—shun him, expel him from civil society, even throw his friends in jail!
Replace ‘wife’ with ‘child’ and suddenly all objections seem to go away.
Not only that: if a parent does otherwise, it is frowned upon.
What justifies this? Is it because you know more than a child?
Does a person with more knowledge have the right to control those with less knowledge? Not with adults of course: I don’t want a nutritionist to control what I eat or a film critic to control what I watch, or the government to control what I say.
So why is it right to do this with children?
“Because if you don’t control them they will die.”
Who said that? Somebody, I’m sure.
Is it true? In a way. Children know less about the world and its dangers.
But just as you would do with an adult, the solution to this is not imprisoning them in a cage (unless you think children are naturally violent psychopaths): it is to explain. A child wanting to touch the hot stove is a problem that needs to be solved:
Here are some ways to handle this:
- Make it a no-go zone by just saying: ‘Never go near the stove’.
- Ignore it, wilfully or from neglect, till the child touches the stove and then scream at them or punish them so they don’t do it again.
- Let them touch it and suffer and learn from their mistake.
- Explain to the child that hot surfaces cause pain and should be avoided.
Let’s go over these point by point:
No-go zones never work: they go more. Human minds (especially children’s minds) are creative problem solvers and authority is the antithesis of creativity and problem-solving. Authority will always be rejected either explicitly or inexplicitly. If you see a child obeying authority it is either because they trust the parent (this is our aim) or it is out of fear of consequences.
Punishment and screaming don’t work: if they did every child on earth would never be doing the things they are screamed at not to do. It is clear that doing it once doesn’t work (you know this because your child seems to do the same ‘bad’ thing over and over)—so how many screams or punishments are needed to teach a child something? 20? 343? 6 million two hundred and seventy-three point eight three nine?
Suffering can be traumatic. There are always creative ways to solve any problem and suffering can be avoided.
So only one remains: Explain.
- Explaining does not mean only reasoning using language: it also included showing, creative demonstrations, and inexplicit knowledge formation. In the case of the stove, maybe pretend to touch and exclaim in pain, put something on the stove that changes dramatically with heat, and show her videos of things getting burnt. A child can form inexplicit knowledge about things and understand far more than their language shows.
- Carefully move her hand closer to the stove till it gets hot enough to be uncomfortable but not enough to hurt.
Learning does not happen by shovelling information into minds—it happens when minds make connections and solve problems. Sometimes, learning happens inexplicitly, without the mind even knowing it is happening. A good indication that inexplicit learning is occurring is if the mind is interested in something. Practically speaking, ‘showing’ is a way of explaining that uses more than just language.
What about strictness? Strictness implies non-negotiables, authority, and threats of punishment. ‘I am strict but I also reason with my child’—but does the child have the option of saying no? What if the child doesn’t ‘get it’? What then? Then you resort to coercion because you think you know what’s good for the child.
“But I know what’s good for my child!”
Do you? You barely know what’s good for you! Now you’re saying you know what’s good for a whole different, unique human being? We are all fallible! We may be wrong! All of our theories, ‘beliefs’ and philosophies contain errors and mistakes.
The thing you find so important and essential for the well-being of a child may not actually be that important. Half of it is in your head. Do you really want to govern the life of your beloved child by what may turn out to be a misconception or a delusion or a powerful case of OCD?
Here is a counter-argument:
“My parents were strict with me but I turned out fine.”
Maybe you did but others did not. You got lucky. Many hate how strict their parents were with them. The point is to not force your ideas on your child because you may be wrong about what it does to them.
What non-coercion is not:
- Neglective or passive: Problems are actively solved.
- Self-sacrifice: Self-sacrifice is coercing yourself to do something you don’t like. Instead, solve the problem creatively. Self-sacrifice has no innate benefit that makes you a good person and it will not magically make your child happy or successful.
- Making them serious: treating them like adults, not giving them comfort, or not helping them with something because you think they should be doing it on their own.
Parents need to use creativity to solve problems of a child not doing something he or she needs to do—for example, having a bath, eating medicine, etc.
Example 1: Suppose a toddler starts hating baths. We might make it a bubble bath in which they play with colourful stones.
- Non-negotiable bathing: Child can’t refuse under threat of punishment or shame.
- Fear is the primary motivation of the child to listen to their parents.
Example 2: One morning a toddler wants me to blow balloons, which I do. After a while I don’t want to blow any more. Instead of saying, ‘No, that’s it,’ I make a fun game out of putting the balloon to my lips, pretending to blow and then making funny faces and shooting it out of my mouth with a loud sound. This results in hysterical laughter and the toddler forgets all about the demand for more balloons.
- Setting arbitrary limits on number of balloons blown.
- Just saying ‘no’.
What does a child need to navigate our world?
A way to solve problems that they encounter. How are problems solved? With knowledge and creativity. How does knowledge grow? By conjecture and criticism. Freedom of mind is needed. Coercion and authority limit the growth of knowledge and stunt minds.
The best way to limit knowledge growth is to tell children that they can’t do things under the threat of shame or violence or punishment.
People solve problems on their own way in the environment of their own unique mental makeup. You have to go to where they are—not expect them to understand everything as soon as they pop out.
Non-coercive parenting means recognising that children have the same rights as adults and are full people.
You start with this and all else follows.
- Clarification of what I mean by ‘coercion’
- Is the purpose of taking children seriously to avoid the harm coercion would do?
- What is the psychological impact of not taking children seriously?