“Sometimes parents feel so sure they know what is best for their children that they fail to take them seriously. In some cases they even attribute a child’s stated wish to irrationality or a psychological problem.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
From the archives: The original post was posted on 12th February, 2000
(When a hypothetical parent gets Taking Children Seriously horribly wrong)
What follows is a little story about real life not-perfectly-rational-but-well-intentioned Taking Children Seriously folks. Ginny wants to go to school, but her father, Stephen, is not listening. He does believe in listening to children, but he is so sure he knows what is best for his daughter that he fails to take her seriously. If you are not listening to your children, you are not taking them seriously.
Little Ginny: Hey, guess what Dad, I’ve decided to go to school!
Stephen (worried): Really? Why?! School sucks! School is very coercive you know. It could cause untold damage to your mind, Ginny.
Ginny: Dad, I know school is coercive. You have already told me 503,201 times. I’ve got the message, OK? But I still want to go!
Stephen: Ginny, remember, your proposed educational change is a proposed solution to a problem, so let’s try to address that problem another way, one which won’t suck the life out of you and leave you a mindless vegetable (or a robot if you are very very lucky, and let me tell you, that would be lucky). Now, what is the problem you are trying to address here?
Ginny (becoming a little exasperated): Da-ad! I don’t know! I just want to try school, Dad, not go to bootcamp.
Stephen: It’s OK, Ginny, I’m sure we can find a solution to your problem that you will prefer to going to school. Now, why not tell me what the problem is, so we can work together to find a better solution? School is a very dangerous institution. You should think very carefully before taking such a grave risk with your mental health.
Ginny: Stephen, you just don’t get it do you? …
Stephen: Ginny, if this is a result of my evil coercive parenting, I am deeply sorry and please allow me to make amends. Now let’s discuss how best to solve your problem. I’m sure we can find a solution. Is it that you want more friends? Well honey, we can help you find more friends without horrible old school. Is it that you want to study something? Let’s buy a correspondence course! Or find you another mentor! Or hire the top expert in your chosen field to take you on an expedition to the South Pole. Whatever it is you want, sweetheart, we can solve the problem. You don’t have to go to school.
Ginny: Stephen, will you listen to me? I want to go to school. I…
Stephen: It’s oh-kay, Ginny, really it is. I understand. It seems like the best solution to you now, but once we have talked about it together, we’ll come up with something even better, sweetheart.
Ginny: I can’t stand this! Why don’t you listen to what I’m saying, goddammit! I want to go to school. I am not unhappy. I am not mentally disturbed, I just want to try school, OK?
Stephen: But Ginny, sweetheart, you know that that is just a prima facie theory you have there. We can find a better one together! Now, Ginny, you know, if I I didn’t know better, I might think that you are holding that silly school theory in an irrationally entrenched way!
Ginny: ARGH!!!! I come to you thinking “Yeay! How exciting! I’ve decided to try school”, and hoping for your support, and what do I get? The third degree, and you are totally disregarding my explicit wishes, discounting them as stemming from an irrationality or coercion. Don’t you see, Stephen? This is dehumanising me! I just want my father to give me a little help and support in executing my decision. I just want you to be happy for me, because I am excited about it.
Stephen: But… but… I’m only trying to help you, Ginny.
Ginny: Yes, I don’t doubt your good intentions, Stephen. However, at this moment, I am finding your approach to this situation extremely annoying, and I wish you would just be there for me in my decision about my life, instead of trying to propel me into your predetermined vision of how I should live.
Stephen: No, Ginny, it really isn’t a predetermined vision. I am just stating a theory or two, in a rational search for truth. You know I’m fully supportive of whatever you want to do. I just wanted to talk through the dangers and find a better solution that you would prefer. You seem to be entrenched in your prima facie position darling. That’s not a good sign now is it?
Ginny (now crying): Stephen, I know I could be mistaken about this being the right thing to do, but I really want to do it. I can’t exactly explain why, but I really really want to. I am asking for your support. Will you help me? Or are you going to keep going on at me until I give in? I am too upset to talk about this now Dad, but if you are worried about coercing me, worry about what you are doing now.