Rank pessimism

“Wherever we are on the scale of moral evolution today, we can always go up a rung tomorrow. Unless we prefer to turn away from growth and start claiming there are no more rungs, of course.”
– Alice Bachini


From the archives: 2003

Taking Children Seriously is an educational theory. It asserts it is possible and desirable to raise children without intentionally coercing them. But it doesn’t say that such a thing is easily or immediately available to all parents who want to translate this theory into practice in their own homes. Wanting helps, but it needs to be the right kind of wanting, and it needs to be sustained with the right kind of critical input.

Many people are attracted to the idea of non-coercive parenting. Hurting our children hurts us too. Many parents do not at all want to feel obliged to hurt their children, and feel sad and depressed that “treating them like crap seems to be the only way to get them to behave decently”, (as I heard a parent say the other day). They don’t understand why things are like that. They can’t see why what appears to them to be their own reasonableness doesn’t ‘work’, i.e., produce the results they want it to produce.

They don’t realise that more good ideas do exist out there, some yet to be invented and others pre-tested but perhaps unconventional, and that, as parents, we can seek and create those ideas rather than giving up to compromise and misery. They don’t realise that what seem to them good outcomes may actually be objectively undesirable, and that in failing to differentiate between truth and their own idea of it, they are ironically setting themselves up as infallible non-learning beings before the children they wish to see learn. In trying to contain the chaos they perceive their children as embodying, they surrender their confidence in the world, in problem-solving, in good possibility. Life becomes an uphill struggle with good bits, rather than a great and wonderful gift. Better to make a person your friend than to imprison and anger him, even for five minutes a day.

Parents are trapped in the conflicts of conventional parenting dynamics almost as badly as their children are. Surely all of us would take a magic pill tomorrow if it transformed us from being fallible flawed people with a mixture of good and bad ideas, to being parents with the power to transform ourselves and our offspring into moral reasoners so great and good that we nevermore came into conflict, caused damage to ourselves or others, or encountered any other painful obstacle to learning! Who would be crazy enough to reject that? Does Taking Children Seriously offer such a utopian Brave New World as the magic pill, if only we try hard enough?

It does not. Taking Children Seriously is just a theory asserting that coercion-free parenting is possible in principle. Where? How? For whom? Under what circumstances? It has some ideas about those things, but no mechanical answers. When? “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some days” is about the best we can do. Compared to other theories of parenting which (falsely) promise eternal stability and control, which advocate (false) mechanical solutions and (false) absolute moral rules, Taking Children Seriously can seem a bit, well—unsatisfactory. Nobody knows for sure where, how, for whom or under what circumstances: all they can advise is to start the search forthwith. Because, if it is possible to treat your children like real rational caring human beings, then it is also certain that hurting them instead will work against that, and against you and your family relationships into the bargain. And we can see the results of that everywhere we look.

The theory of knowledge is not science or mathematics; nor is moral philosophy. But where a controversy boils down to how good humans are capable of being, it makes practical sense to come down on the optimistic side. Those who think that Taking Children Seriously is wrong if it can’t be demonstrated to ‘work’ in practice are missing the point: that practical Taking Children Seriously is nothing more than good parenting. Solving problems rationally characterises good parenting (and people), and command and control and punishment characterises the opposite, and this was true long before anyone invented such a thing as educational theory. To argue that there can never be such a thing as parenting and people so good that they don’t ever resort actively to hurting their own immediate family(!) is rank pessimism. Wherever we are on the scale of moral evolution today, we can always go up a rung tomorrow. Unless we prefer to turn away from growth and start claiming there are no more rungs, of course.

See also:

Alice Bachini, 2003, ‘Rank pessimism’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/rank-pessimism/