“What if the thing that the child wants to risk is specifically a matter of not being able to easily get out of the situation? What if Jane wants to go pack-packing in the wilderness without a phone or radio? What if she does not want an escape route?”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
From the archives: The original post was posted on 7th April, 2000
What if children want to risk doing something that you think might be distressing for them? For example, what if they want to spend the weekend with their very coercive grandparents, or play with a neighbourhood child who is rather violent, or go to boarding school, or play Truth or Dare?
The answer is that parents taking their children seriously:
- try to ensure that their children know the risks, dangers, options, and so on (giving them as much information as they want to hear),
- think ahead to what might go wrong, and make contingency plans,
- ensure that the children have an escape from the situation in the event that they want that,
- thoroughly support their children in their choice to take this risk,
- if the children change their minds later, their parents then support them in that, helping them effect a rapid escape.
If Jane wants to go back-packing in the wilderness, for example, her parents will ensure that she understands the risks and make it possible for her to get out in the event that she wants to escape. They will equip her with a phone or radio, etc.
But what if the thing that the child wants to risk is specifically a matter of not being able to easily get out of the situation? What if Jane wants to go pack-packing in the wilderness without a phone or radio? What if she does not want an escape route?
In that case it would be wrong to take such precautions against the child’s will, so, taking her seriously, Jane’s parents would honour her wish not to have a phone or radio in her backpack.
If Jane wants to risk not being able to change her mind this is not necessarily a bad sign. No doubt there are many children in the world for whom such a choice is a product of irrationality, but it would be a grave mistake to assume that if Jane (whose parents take her seriously) is making such a choice she must have a Deep Psychological Problem, or worse, to take it as evidence of <shudder> Coercion Damage and pack her off to a therapist.
In such a case, it is not that Jane actively wants to be coerced, or to put herself in a state of coercion. (That would indeed be a sign of irrationality.) What the child actually wants in such a situation is to create knowledge, and creating knowledge always involves risk, i.e. risk of coercion. Some risks in the pursuit of knowledge are more obvious than others, but all creativity, all knowledge creation, carries risk. That is why I often point out that “the risk-free life is no life at all”.
Parents taking their children seriously should expect that there may be times when a child positively wants, as part of the experience, to risk not having a way out. And instead of second-guessing their child, or overriding her choice “for her own good” (or <ugh> because they think that Taking Children Seriously requires it), they should bend over backwards to facilitate her choice. I am of course assuming here that the parents have non-coercively offered their best theories, arguments and concerns to the child, and that they are not ignoring the inexplicit communications from the child: the child seems not to feel conflicted about the idea (vs. it seeming to be the kind of angst-ridden prove-you-love-me-by-saying-no irrationality that we see in a few children not taken seriously).
In most everyday risky situations (such as visiting the grandparents or playing with the child down the road) children do want and need a means of escape if things should go wrong, and arrangements do have to be made to provide this. But there certainly are times when having an instant way out would systematically prevent the very knowledge creation a child was seeking, and so would ruin the experience. Take the case I mentioned earlier, of having an exciting adventure camping in the wilderness without a phone in sight. Most people in that situation would consider themselves better off if they had a phone or a radio in their backpack so that they could call for help at any time. But for some, having a phone or a radio present could make the whole experience profoundly different, and so make the knowledge being created significantly less rich, complex and deep. It is like the difference between going white water rafting and going on a white-water rafting fairground ride. For some people, at some stages in their learning, that difference makes all the difference, one way or the other.
It is a bit like the difference between reality and virtual reality: sometimes virtual will not do. What children are doing when they are creating knowledge is virtual reality rendering in their minds, but sometimes this rendering, this knowledge creation, requires certain external risks to be real, and if they are merely pretend, the entire intricate rendering may be lifeless, and generate nothing of value.
Readers who are not familiar with the idea of virtual reality rendering in one’s mind might like to read David Deutsch’s book, The Fabric of Reality. In chapters 5 and 6, he discusses the relationship between virtual reality and ‘ordinary’ reality as part of the deep, unexpected structure of the world that this absolutely fascinating book is about. He explains that all reasoning, all thinking, and all external experience, are forms of virtual reality. He points out that just as a virtual reality generator must be able to override the normal functioning of the senses, in some sense, so do all techniques of representational art and long-distance communication. “Even prehistoric cave paintings gave the viewer some of the experience of seeing animals that were not actually there.” he says. “Today we can do that much more accurately, using movies and sound recordings, though still not accurately enough for the simulated environment to be mistaken for the original. […] Imagination is a sort of virtual reality. But what may not be so obvious is that our ‘direct’ experience of the world through our senses is virtual reality too. […] We realists take the view that reality is out there, objective, physical, and independent of what we believe about it. But we never experience that reality directly. Every last scrap of our external experience is of virtual reality. And every last scrap of our knowledge—including our knowledge of the non-physical worlds of logic, mathematics and philosophy, and of imagination, fiction and fantasy—is encoded in the form of programs for the rendering of those worlds on our brain’s own virtual reality generator. So it is not just science—reasoning about the physical world—that involves virtual reality. All reasoning, all thinking, and all external experience, are forms of virtual reality.”
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