Is coercion always wrong?

“Is coercion always wrong? What if one child attacks another with a cricket bat? If I intervene, I’m not taking my children seriously??”

No. This is a slight misconception about Taking Children Seriously. It is not that coercion is always wrong. There are situations in which it is right. It is right to foil terrorist attacks, for example. Self-defence and the defence of others is right. Otherwise evil could win. Whether it is immoral or not in a given case depends on the situation and in particular on the obligations that the parties have towards each other.

If one child is attacking or about to attack another with a cricket bat, it is vital to intervene to protect the (potential) victim, even if that is against the will of the cricket-bat-wielding child. The point is, though, that that sort of situation is all about damage limitation – trying to preserve any knowledge-creating the victim was engaged in, and the knowledge-creating institutions of the family. But the aggressor is unlikely to be helped by the (justified) coercion.

Protecting the victim should not involve intentionally punishing the aggressor, either physically or by even frowning at the aggressor. Nevertheless, sometimes, protecting the victim does mean physically separating the parties, by removing the aggressor, for example.

Sometimes, in the heat of such a moment, we may not have the knowledge of how to quickly turn what is already a coercive interaction into a non-coercive one (then again, it is not as impossible as it might seem – see this post!).

By the time we are at the cricket-bat-wielding point, something has probably already gone wrong (a problem unsolved). We are not omniscient infallible gods. We mean well but mistakes still happen. That does not imply that problems are not soluble and that there was no possible way of avoiding this in the first place. Problems are soluble. But the fact that we do not always succeed in the moment does not mean we are wicked. We are human! And who knows, next time might well be different. And often is. And the more problems we solve (i.e., non-coercively), the more we can solve!

If the approach I am suggesting seems no different from the conventional approach, what is the difference? If we are not viewing children through the usual lens of paternalism, we are not merely firefighting in the moment such an incident happens, we are looking at what led up to the incident, we are wondering what might have gone wrong at a much earlier point, and we are definitely not taking the view that such incidents are inevitable and that firefighting in the moment is the best we can do. All such incidents have a history. What is that history? Could it be that our beloved child was growing more and more frustrated about something, and we did not notice, or could not work out what the trouble was, or was it that our child really does not want to be going to the child minder and we are not hearing them, because we need them to be safe while we are at work, etc etc etc?

It is like if you are happily married and your beloved partner suddenly says or does something untoward. Even if at first sight it might seem as if they have launched an unprovoked attack, say, you are not going to be thinking, “My partner is bad and wrong and needs to be taught a lesson.” You realise immediately that your partner must be suffering, to be behaving so unusually badly, and your impulse is to be there for them in their hour of need, as opposed to being to subject them to ‘corrective’ coercion that would only add to their suffering. The difference is how we view the other person: as a fallible human being making a mistake in a distressed state, or as a monster needing to be punished or corrected.

For more details, see: How do you intervene non-coercively when one child is attacking another?

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘Is coercion always wrong?’,

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