Identifying coercion is itself a creative task

Overt coercion is less likely to corrupt children’s interpretation of what is happening to them. But given that part of our self respect as parents taking our children seriously comes from being non-coercive, it might well be that the coercion we inadvertently engage in is interpretation-corrupting double binds. So we need to be particularly aware of the subtle mind-messing forms of coercion.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: The original post was posted on 19th February 1999

A parent wrote:

“The reason I think very young children are good at recognizing coercion is not that they know anything about what the parent is doing or anything about ‘coercion,’ it’s that coercion causes distress necessarily.”

Very young children are not good at recognising coercion. Admittedly there is some truth in the statement “the coerced state of mind is necessarily distressing.” It is. But that is misleading in a number of ways.

For example, the distressed state of mind need not happen at the time of the coercion-producing act on the part of the parent.

Take the hypothetical Taking Children Seriously family, Mel, Day and their two children, Jack and Jill. Jack loved science and had chosen to go to a science-oriented school with very high academic standards. But he was not getting high grades. So Mel said to Jack, “If you don’t like that school, feel free to choose any other school you like.” Now that might in another case have been a perfectly non-coercive offer, but in this case, Mel was really saying implicitly that if Jack gave up on that school then he was a failure, because to Mel, academic success was the criterion by which she judged people’s value. Mel had suffered similar academic pressure at the hands of her own parents and was now inadvertently doing the same to Jack. At the time Mel said that, Jack took it as an offer which he chose to refuse (by staying at that school, which he increasingly hated), in order to satisfy what he thought were his values. Only many years later did Jack recognise that those values were actually alien to him and that his reaction to that “offer” had been distress.

Similarly, Sal had chosen to learn ballet, and at the time thought that it was her free choice to continue with lessons. Decades later, though, she realised that in fact she had been acting under coercion. She realised that she had felt unable to stop the lessons, and she realised why: her mother had said that the ballet school required them to give a term’s notice when stopping, and because Sal “agreed” with her parents’ coercive “wasting money” theory, she did not at the time recognise the coercion under which she was acting. Sal’s mother did not consciously realise that she was coercing her either. She thought that she was just sharing her theory and that Sal readily agreed with it.

Parents can make their children agree with their values at one time—say, that they should not buy things they want because it is selfish or a waste of the family money—and then apply it at another time, when their children don’t agree.

A related mechanism is that parents can make their children identify with some coercion—like children who say “We should only be punished if we are naughty”—so that the children come to apply the coercer’s values, or the standards of the punishment itself, as if that was morality.

Someone on the Taking Children Seriously list [the Taking Children Seriously forum] once suggested that he had not been distressed when being beaten at school. The idea of not showing distress when beaten is often one of the values inculcated by a regime of beatings. If one does show distress one is punished severely, for instance by being labelled a coward. If one shares those values (as it is natural to do, if one is growing up in a culture in which they are taken for granted), then a typical reaction is to conceal one’s distress from oneself as well.

The more there is a double bind, as in the case of the child thinking that she was choosing to continue with her ballet lessons because the only apparent option open to her was to break the contract or waste money, neither of which seemed a good thing to her, the less obvious it is that the source of the coercion is the parent, and the less likely the child is to recognise that she is being coerced and is distressed.

Although being in a coerced state of mind will be painful and distressing, the amount of pain and distress that the parental coercion causes is not related in any simple way to the amount of psychological conflict. For example, if the child has a strategy of closing off entire areas of thought, then those areas of thought may not be causing much distress at the time, it is just that the child already thinks of herself as being useless or deserving of punishment or has lost her hopes or aspirations or thinks she’s stupid or whatever, and therefore doesn’t feel the foregone opportunities as opportunities at all because she never realises them.

It is true that zero distress can only be achieved by zero coercion but sometimes very large amounts of coercion can give rise to things like nameless despair and other feelings which are not readily identifiable by the person himself as distress.

It is too optimistic to think that just because you are a Taking Children Seriously parent you will avoid making children suppress their distress entirely. It might be that the child is not keeping a stiff upper lip but that the child herself does not feel that there is anything to complain about. Except where they are in immediate physical pain or fear or hunger, etc., children only make a fuss if they think they have a grievance. But not all distress or unpleasant states of mind make one think that one has a grievance. For example, young Lilith’s mother tends to self-sacrificially nurse Lilith every night. Lilith doesn’t recognise the coercion because ostensibly she has got what she wanted. Nevertheless, she is psychologically at a dead end, and therefore quite distressed, because she detects her mother’s resentment and psychological anguish, even though her mother does her very best not to show it. (And then, this distress may be making Lilith even more desperate to nurse … and so on!)

Another coercion-causing but very subtle error that Taking Children Seriously parents might fall into is that of raising expectations there is little possibility they can then meet. We all want our children to get what they want, but there is a great danger that we parents who believe in taking our children seriously (in particular those who tend to fall into self-sacrifice) may, instead of seeking truth and finding real solutions, make finding solutions with their children impossible by apparently willingly agreeing to everything their children suggest despite their strong wishes to the contrary.

Instead of expressing their actual prima facie theories, such as, “Er, hang on a minute, that sounds like a really bad idea, because X, Y, Z,” or “Actually, I really want to do Z now,” they hide their actual theories and say, “Oh, how about doing such-and-such instead”—which fails to give their children the information that they need and would want, in order to be able to find a common preference. If you say “Sure, honey” to everything, even when your insides are screaming, “Oh God, if I don’t get some time to myself I’m going to die” (BTW, if you are feeling like that then that is a clear sign that you have been self-sacrificing left, right and centre, instead of finding real solutions.) how are your children ever going to take your wishes into account?

What happens in these cases is that the family is failing to find real solutions, and the problems are simply not being solved. And because of that, and the fact that the parents are hiding their true theories from the children and the children are frustrated by interacting with these cardboard cutouts of people instead of the real people their parents are, everyone is in a terrible state of coercion, and no one, least of all the young children in the family, recognise that coercion. After all, they are “getting what they want.”

“From birth there seems to be a natural tendency to express one’s feeling with one’s face and voice.”

The idea that a child has a natural tendency to express her distress implies that distress is a fixed attribute of a mind which is recognisable without any kind of errors and not subject to interpretation. But actually, all human thought and actions are subject to interpretations. If the child interprets something she is feeling as being inevitable, or not being the parent’s fault, or not being bad at all, then she won’t express any distress. As soon as what the baby is doing is complaining then she is interpreting. Babies often cry and their parents find it hard to work out what they are crying about. As soon as it is obvious to all concerned that the crying is about something—as soon as the crying is something other than an automatic reaction—then it involves interpretation by the baby, and that can contain errors, and coercion can entrench some of those errors.

Children do not have a reliable means of detecting coercion. It is only reliable in cases where the interpretation is uncontroversial. But there are some types of coercion where warping the child’s interpretation of what is happening is the whole essence of the coercion, such as double-bind coercion.

“One has to acquire knowledge in order to start hiding one’s distress therefore the less knowledge they have (for example fear of retribution from adults) the more evident is their distress;”

That is only true of some kinds of distress. Hiding their distress (including hiding it from oneself) is only one way that the distress might not be noticed. It also might be falsely interpreted by the child.

“therefore necessarily, the easier it is to recognize when one coerces them.”

That is only true when the interpretation is uncontroversial between parent and child. If they agree on an interpretation then it is indeed easy to tell the difference between distress and not-distress. (So, ironically, there is a certain type of harm that parents whose chosen form of coercion is beating or smacking—rather than more subtle coercion—are not doing.)

The forms of coercion that are overt usually have little tendency to corrupt children’s interpretation of what is happening to them. But in the case of liberal parents, and those of us who favour Taking Children Seriously especially, it might well be that the coercion that does occur tends to be of this interpretation-corrupting double bind type. Remember that part of a Taking Children Seriously parent’s self respect comes from being non-coercive. So those of us taking our children seriously need to be particularly aware of the subtle mind-messing forms of coercion.

Where you have a system of values which you are presenting to the child honestly but where the system of values itself has the property that in order to meet it, you have to tread a very very narrow path which you are unlikely to tread of your own free will, that is coercive because it is very unlikely that this will be what meets your problem situation. But if the parent also has an overt ideology of not forcing the children onto any path, then children can be in the situation in which they are being forced onto the path but must acknowledge that as far as they can tell, they aren’t. And that is a case where their interpretation of the situation has gone wrong, and the fact that it is mistake is itself part of the coercion.

If the child is being coerced by a third party then the parent can usually tell easily that the child is being distressed. But the parent may have an interpretation of this distress that says that it is being caused by a third party, when in fact it is his fault—and that won’t be at all easy for him to recognise. For example, he might be in a hidden way endorsing the coercion of the third party (as often happens with music lessons). Then, even if the child’s distress is overt, and both the parent and child can see that the child is distressed, it could still be true that the parent is the source of the coercion but doesn’t know it.

“My current guess is that a great deal of brutality is required (conventional parenting should do) in order to bury this natural tendency.”

Unfortunately not—unless you measure brutality according to its eventual ability to cause intractable conflicts, in which case that is vacuously true. But if you mean by brutality uncontroversially recognisable coercion then it isn’t true. There is no limit to how subtle the way that the parent is making the child miserable could be. Suppose young Mat is “choosing” to do music lessons. It may look from the outside as though Mat’s parent is not applying any pressure. It may look as though all the pressure is coming from the music teacher. It may look as though the parent is powerless to prevent that pressure, because Mat insists that she wants to continue. But actually, all along, the coercion is entirely the parent’s doing. For instance, the music teacher may simply be giving honest opinions about how well Mat is doing and what she needs to do if she insists on becoming a concert violinist. The teacher might say that he is not sure that Mat is good enough but that if she really does want to become a concert violinist, she will have to practise for eight hours a day. Mat may hear that as “You must practise 8 hours a day whether you like it or not, and if you don’t you are a failure as a human being.” The only reason a child would hear that honest opinion as that coercive command is if her parent had already prepared her to hear it like that. In theory (though this is unlikely to be the case in real life at the moment) the music teacher could be completely innocent.

“My conjecture is that when a parent allows this free expression as much as they are able, the remaining coercion is not enough to staunch the free flowing expressions of distress.”

Again, unfortunately, that is not true. It is only true of coercion whose source is uncontroversial between all parties. If the coercion is recognised by all parties concerned including the child, then what my correspondent says here is true. While it is true that for a non-Taking Children Seriously family, that is a significant fact, we are talking about Taking Children Seriously families here! It is true that among other things, parents taking their children seriously need to eliminate overt coercion. It is also true that making sure that the child feels all right about complaining is one part of doing that. And it is probably true that our children are better at complaining under those circumstances than are other children. But that does not mean that our children arrive in the world with good complaining knowledge. For example, there are likely to be kinds of coercion which they are especially bad at complaining about because the coercion is a double bind or otherwise distorts their interpretation of what is happening to them.

These are the sorts of coercion parents who favour Taking Children Seriously may well fall into—forms of coercion providing a semblance of non-coercion—because of their deep desire not to coerce. If we don’t face that fact, we may be blind to the very coercion that is harming our children. Think about the logic of the Taking Children Seriously situation, about how deeply we want not to coerce our children, how much we want to find real solutions, and how bad we feel when we fail. The logic of our situation exerts a pressure in the direction of incredibly harmful, mind-messing coercion which provides the semblance of non-coercion. And if we succeed in this semblance of non-coercion, how in the world are our little children to recognise that we are coercing them?

Moreover, note that ‘freely flowing expressions of distress’ are themselves a warning sign. The situation we should be aiming for is that casual expressions of distress are already corrected and that freely-flowing ones never arise. Our children should ideally never be in states such as implied by “freely-flowing distress.”

If our young child were in bad state of mind such as is implied by “free flowing expressions of distress”, that in itself would be a refutation of my correspondent’s theory. Because if it were true that a child could easily recognise coercion, etc., then it would never get to the stage of being “free flowing.” The child would simply say “Don’t do …” and “Don’t have this complex dispute about… and I’ll be happy” but he can’t say that because he does not have a clue about how it affects him or even what he feels exactly.

“I’ll go even further to say that I think Taking Children Seriously children will get better at recognizing their distress”

I feel very uneasy about this “recognising their distress” idea. That is not what we should be aiming for, and I urge anyone who thinks it is, to read the article by Janet Reiland entitled “So Much For Psychology”, in Taking Children Seriously 27.

Suppose Lilith is distressed and that it appears to her Taking Children Seriously father, Karl, to be the result of coercion on the part of a third party. Karl might think that he is supporting Lilith by helping her to recognise and triumph over the wrong done her but in fact be causing coercion. He is a fallible human being, not a perfectly non-coercive parent, and he thinks that what we are aiming for is for children to “recognise their distress”. Suppose that Karl is outraged by the actions of the third party, and is telling Lilith how bad and wrong the third party is and “validating” Lilith’s distress and inviting Lilith to fight back or shout at the third party or something. Karl is likely to be contributing to the coercion on the part of the third party, and stirring up distress in his daughter instead of helping her to solve the problem and not be coerced in the first place.

Had he reacted differently and helped Lilith to laugh the interaction off, say, and forget it, she might never have got so upset or angry about it. But Karl made the interaction take on a significance and threat in Lilith’s mind that it would never have done had he not taken the attitude he did. If this is a pattern in the interactions between Karl and Lilith, then Karl may be setting Lilith up against the world either with a victim mentality or with a defensive “don’t mess with me” attitude which in themselves cause coercive clashes with other people and make it impossible for her to form good relationships with other people. Lilith is highly unlikely to recognise that her father is coercing her in that case, but he is. So here we have another potential source of subtle but incredibly harmful coercion which neither parent nor child are likely to think has its source in the parent, and yet it does.

“in that they soon become better able to predict it and use measures to prevent it before it starts—measures which are not like the strategies people use to hide their distress, but which are directed at correcting the source of the problem (parents, usually).”

Well… maybe… in that Taking Children Seriously parents are indeed likely to theorise about the human condition and to recognise in theory that coercion can exist in subtle forms. But the trouble is that this will break down precisely at the places where their children are being coerced, if it is a double bind type coercion or any kind of coercion that messes with their minds. Because that is the nature of it—that its effect will be to make it hard for the person to think in those areas. So even people who are very perceptive about the human condition and who can easily recognise the equivocations and compromises in other people’s personalities cannot recognise it in themselves. (Which is why I ask all my friends to please, PLEASE draw my attention to coercion in which I am engaging.)

I had previously written:

“There are forms of subtle and perhaps on-going coercion which produce problems, syndromes, and distress which are not so easy to identify and correct. There are forms of subtle coercion that produce distress that appears unreasonable and unrelated to anything the parent has done.”

A second poster wrote:

“I’ll second that. Just because a child is expressing distress doesn’t mean a parent will be able to figure out what is going on.”

This is true, and it really does contradict the thrust of my correspondent’s post and in particular, the following sentence (which is false) —

The second poster continued:

“But it is a simple enough matter (though fraught with bad things) to err on the side of the child and hopefully ease their distress until one figures out what is going on.”

If it is difficult to find out what the parent is doing wrong, then although it is of course highly desirable to comfort the child and to try to ease the immediate distress, that won’t solve the problem or remove the coercion. And if you don’t find out what the problem is, it won’t be solved. And if it is difficult to find then maybe you won’t find it for a long time, and that situation you will then be in is the one my correspondent says shouldn’t occur with children being taken seriously. But it can.

The first poster asked:

“What am I missing? I understand that this strategy can easily result in parental self-sacrifice, but as I said in an earlier post, the child has to know that the parent is distressed before they can be bothered by it.”

Children need to form complex theories about their parents and in particular, about their values. I don’t think that it is possible for a parent to hide feelings of resentment etc entirely. As soon as a child has a clue about the self-sacrifice—which they will get even when very young indeed—it will present a problem for the child. And from then on, the parents’ efforts to hide this will merely make matters worse, not better.

Secondly, even in the inconceivable case that you were a perfect actor and could perfectly hide it, there would still be two disastrous effects going on:

  1. You would not be generating the knowledge that you would otherwise be generating by finding real solutions, and therefore the child would be getting a worse and worse parent and the family life would be worse and worse through this knowledge not being created;
  1. The child would be interacting with a cardboard scripted character that the parent is acting rather than a real human. And the parent would be lying. And then there would come a time—in real life that would be sooner rather than later—when the child will say, “But you said you enjoy coming to the swimming pool” and then you’ll have a major catastrophe on your hands.

I had previously written:

“This applies just as much in the case of young children as it does in the case of older children. The sources of this coercion may be very difficult to identify; where would a child get that knowledge from so easily?”

The poster replied:

“They can’t get it easily, but they don’t need it if they have a parent who takes their reliable expressions of distress seriously and does whatever they can to correct it, I conjecture.”

That won’t work in cases where the distress comes much later or if it is hidden or misinterpreted, as I have said.

I had previously written:

“For example, recently, a parent asked why I had said that self-sacrifice is not just self-coercive, but in itself directly coercive of the child too. Self-sacrifice is just as coercive and distressing in the case of young children as it is in the case of older children, but it is often subtle.”

The poster replied:

“So, assuming my theory that children naturally express their distress is true, it should be fairly easy to tell if one’s self-sacrifice is damaging one’s very young children.”

Yes, but your theory is not true! Exactly this is in itself a powerful engine for a double bind! The parent is hurting the child, feels guilty about it, pretends that it is not happening, and self-sacrifices to change the situation to pretend that everything is all right. The child is then faced with a situation in which his best bet is to cooperate with this pretence because otherwise he will stir up the parent’s expression of distress, which he does not want to see. So the parent and the child are then cooperating in a game of hiding the fact that they are not enjoying what is happening.

And pure self-sacrifice can’t work because you won’t be solving the problem in question. If the child’s preconception is false then self-sacrifice alone can’t change the facts. You can say “If I go to the swimming pool with you today I may lose my job but OK, I’ll take you. You’re more important and I don’t mind.” If that is true, if you then do lose your job then the child will suffer. This is not a case where you have jointly decided that it is worth it; it is that you have decided not to think about it. Your little sacrifice is nothing compared to what the family has jointly sacrificed—namely the real solution.

“For example, if they seem happily oblivious to it, how can it be directly damaging them?”

In the ways I have just said. First, they may seem happily oblivious to it but not be. As William Blake wrote:

And because I am happy, & dance & sing
They think they have done me no injury…

This parent is ignoring the fact that children have a powerful incentive to play along with this. What can they do? Are they supposed to say “Come on, admit it; you feel lousy and resentful.”

They may not be old enough to articulate that, but that is irrelevant! Any little way that they show that they can tell that their parent is self-sacrificing, will be punished. It will be punished by more pain and resentment on the part of the parent if nothing else. But furthermore:

Suppose you have done this self-sacrifice thing but the child still does not feel good about it, and the fact that you are seething with resentment has spoilt it for him. Now, if he shows that you have spoilt it for him, he is going to be making the situation even worse for you. The parent has self-sacrificed to take the child to the swimming pool and the child isn’t even enjoying the trip. So now the parent has the ingratitude as a burden as well! That will add to the child’s burden, even if the parent doesn’t show it. Moreover, when one adds to the parent’s burden, there is always a danger that the parent will break at that point and will reveal his distress, resentment and perhaps even anger. Even if there were not that danger, if the child reveals that he is distressed by that resentment, he will increase the resentment and be distressed more.

So in the cases where the parent is self sacrificing, the child has a very strong incentive to go along with the pretence that everything is all right. Therefore the fact that when children “win” such a battle of wills, they show no sign of being distressed by the suffering they have caused is no evidence whatsoever that they have not been or are not distressed by it.

The poster wrote:

“(I understand that self-sacrifice inhibits the parent’s creativity, but that is not the direct effect we are discussing here).”

There is an indirect effect that self-sacrifice inhibits the parent’s creativity and makes the parent a worse person in the future, true. That is one thing. But it also prevents the problem in hand from being solved.

I had previously written:

“It just isn’t that easy for the child to untangle the complex web of events and recognise that although she has ostensibly got what she said she wanted, and although her parent has no conscious intention to thwart her, the parent is nevertheless doing so. To recognise that form of coercion requires, among other things, an explicit theory about the coerciveness of self-sacrifice. I should have thought that such a theory must, if anything, be less likely to be found in a young child. And even with a deep explicit theory, it is still difficult to recognise!”

The poster replied:

“So all this stuff doesn’t seem to matter if the child is just naturally and reliably recognizing and expressing their distress and the parent uses their knowledge to try to fix the situation.”

See above.

“Parents’ knowledge is what needs to improve to address situations like these, not the child’s, I think.—It seems to me that a group of people who are much more knowledgable about and place much more of a priority on PEOPLE HAVING FUN would prevent 99% of the problems, for example.”

Well it would, but the remaining 1% would become 100% of that child’s problems, and there is no reason whatever to think that that is insignificant or not harmful.

I had previously written:

“If one thinks that one’s children can always tell when they are being coerced, one runs the risk of failing to seek out the less overt, deeper coercion that is there, and risks giving one’s children the impression that there is only the overt coercion. This is risking blindfolding them to the truth, that one is inadvertently devoting creativity to harming them, and that most of this is not easy to identify and even less easy to do anything about. Admittedly, it is a painful truth to face. But surely it is better to face the painful truth and to try to do something about it than to stick one’s head in the sand?”

The poster replied:

“If my head is in the sand I sincerely hope someone can show me how. If you will, explain how I am mistaken in thinking that young children do not have a natural tendency to recognize and express their distress, or how they quickly lose this ability by the time they are two or three.”

First, there is the issue that the distress may come later or in a different area of life from that of where the ostensible coercion is being applied.

Secondly, when people complain, it is always via interpretation. What this parent is in effect saying is that the child’s noticing his own distress and correctly measuring its intensity is an example of a theory-free observation. But in fact, this observation, like any other, is theory-laden. Again, as in other cases, there are many areas in which the theory in question (about whether the child is distressed or not, or whether a given action on the part of the parent is coercive or not) is uncontroversial. In those areas, my correspondent is right, but they are a small fraction of the situations of concern.

I hope that that makes this point more clear, because it is a vital insight for those of us taking our children seriously to understand.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1999, ‘Identifying coercion is itself a creative task’,

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