The constraints of childhood

“When a constraint is imposed upon a child without her understanding, she can’t apply it in novel circumstances, or know when to ignore it, or use it to acquire some new idea. Instead, it becomes fixed in time, unable to improve, a lifeless feature of her world. What’s worse, this constraint will grate against other ideas that she has, but since the parent has resorted to coercion, she is on her own to try to resolve the conflict that this grating represents.”
– Aaron Stupple


“Kids need structure.” The first time I heard this, I was a camp counselor struggling to keep 9 and 10 year-olds in line. The head counselor explained that kids actually want structure, despite their protestations against it. Later, “kids need structure” became a guiding mantra of my tenure as a middle school teacher, and then as sage advice as a new parent.

But do kids need structure? Chaos is clearly terrible, but so is total control and domination of a child’s every action. It is common to place chaos and total control on a spectrum and look for some optimal middle ground. The best path must be something with some structure and order, but not too much. And hence we have the framework of basically every parenting philosophy, a series of deliberations on where to draw the line between giving your child space but not letting her get out of control.

Contrary to the Buddha’s teaching, there is a better way than the middle way, and that involves a closer look at how constraints feature in our world.

The constraints of nature

To get away from the typical thinking, let’s examine a set of constraints that apply the same everywhere, regardless of parenting styles—the laws of nature. When a child learns that gravity pulls things down, that speeding cars smash things, that the sun burns skin and bug bites itch, they are better able to navigate the world. A large part of growing up is simply learning what is and is not physically possible, and the capacities and limits of how the body interacts with the natural world. Most of this learning is inexplicit, unable to be put in words, but it must be learned nonetheless. A large part of being a parent is helping children learn about these constraints safely and effectively.

There is something fascinating and counterintuitive at work here. When we learn the laws of nature, how certain transformations are not possible, our freedom and potential actually increase, often dramatically so. When the Wright Brothers discovered the narrow range of conditions under which a certain amount of lift could be generated from a given velocity, wing size and shape, humans could fly. When Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease showed how the vast range of presumed causes of infectious disease could be limited to microbes, humans were able to reliably prevent and cure untold suffering. When Michael Faraday discovered the limited ways in which electric current could be generated in a wire by moving it in the presence of a magnet, the door to the modern, electrically powered world was thrown open.

The same applies to the child learning how to climb the stairs. Once she discovers the limitations—so much pressure applied at this angle will slip, but at this angle the foot will hold, and straightening the leg will propel you upward—then she is not only able to climb the stairs, but she will master them at a run, while talking on the phone or carrying a load up snowy steps at night. The conforming to the constraints of the stairs literally opens up new heights. The finer our detailed knowledge about the constraints of the natural world, the more potential we have.

Can the same be said of human-made constraints? Does imposing limits on human behavior lead to a growth in freedom and potential? Yes and no. When we limit which side of the road people can drive on, traffic flows much faster and safer. When we raise the cost of violence, the subsequent peace enables much greater cooperation and flourishing. And when we narrow the range of sounds we make to the phonemes of a given language, and narrow those further still to the rules of grammar, our capacity to communicate over time and space just explodes. However, when we declare that children should be seen and not heard, their potential is reduced. Similarly, when girls are limited from science or sports, or boys are limited in expressing emotion, we can see clearly that some constraints are unproductive.

How can we distinguish productive from unproductive constraints in human affairs?

Here is the key—there is no way to distinguish constraints that increase our potential from those that limit it. Whether or not a constraint is productive, like language, or unproductive, like sexism, is not inherent in the constraint itself. Instead, what matters is how the constraint is acquired. Specifically, is the constraint acquired by coercion, or is the recipient free to modify or abandon the constraint at will?

Here’s a quick example. The seen and not heard constraint seems like it is always harmful, but it could be used in a way that is not. Suppose a group of children use it in a game of house, where the child pretending to be the mother imposes it on her pretend children as part of the game. This constraint might make the game more fun, but only so long as the players have the option to quit the game. If for some reason they could not opt out, the constraint would change from fun to torturous, merely by the means in which it is applied.

Conversely, even a productive constraint can be problematic if applied coercively. Driving on one side of the road works well, but it works even better if a driver can occasionally opt out of it, such as to pull into the oncoming lane when overtaking cyclists in one’s own lane to give them enough space. And if these changes are found to improve the overall function of driving, they may become incorporated into law. Of course, not all adaptations of a constraint are beneficial. But some of them will be.

How does coercion lead to unproductive constraints?

Simply put, coercion disables improvement, growth, growing up, and maturity. Coercion is only needed when the child refuses despite a parent’s best efforts to explain. It is levied at the point where explaining and teaching are abandoned. Therefore, by definition, the child is left without an understanding of why they are enacting this behavior. Technically, they may be able to offer a good guess of what the parent’s reasoning is, but if coercion is applied, then this reason must conflict with one or more ideas the child has.

When a constraint is imposed upon a child without her understanding, she can’t apply it in novel circumstances, or know when to ignore it, or use it to acquire some new idea. Instead, it becomes fixed in time, unable to improve, a lifeless feature of her world. What’s worse, this constraint will grate against other ideas that she has, but since the parent has resorted to coercion, she is on her own to try to resolve the conflict that this grating represents.

For example, a non-negotiable bedtime means that her idea to stay up and watch TV or play games simply grinds against the parent’s theory that laying quietly in bed is best for her. This grinding may get particularly strong each night, possibly lasting for hours every day. And since the basic operation of a mind is to conjecture new ideas that resolve a conflict, the child will inevitably consider sneaking around the constraint, perhaps by hiding a book or tablet in her bed, or by slinking downstairs. She may decide that her parents are out to make her life unpleasant and begin to build a stock of resentment. Or she may decide that might makes right, and impose her might on her little brother, eventually damaging that relationship over the long term. She may decide that her parents are adversaries, imposing constraints arbitrarily such that she needs to constantly have her guard up, ready to fight back at the slightest suggestion of a limitation.

A common objection is that bedtimes are good for kids. If they don’t get enough sleep, they will be tired and miserable the next day, unable to perform in school, and ultimately grow up to be adults who are angry and bitter that their libertine parents enabled bad habits and bad performance. Isn’t it a parent’s duty to avoid this? The trouble with this position is twofold. First, there’s no way of knowing that imposing the bedtime constraint won’t backfire in the ways described above. All of the research that’s done on the effects of sleep on this or that outcome do not factor in things like a life spent resenting one’s parents or a personality plagued by crippling defensiveness. Any constraint that is touted as so beneficial as to warrant coercion needs to be compared against these types of damage which are impossible to capture in a scientific study.

Second, and perhaps more important, figuring out when to sleep and for how long is one of the most important things to learn in life, and it changes on a daily basis. Should I stay up late and finish this project, or should I sleep now and work on it in the morning when I’m rested? But, if bedtimes are coerced, there is no opportunity to learn. The more important it is that the child conform to the constraint, the more important it is that the child understand the constraint.

An alternative approach is to suggest to the child that getting a certain amount of sleep can help to feel well-rested the next day. If they feel miserable after a late night, instead of rubbing the child’s nose in it, the parent can do everything in their power to make the child feel better in the moment; and then perhaps later, or next time the parent thinks the child might not be taking into account the possible consequence of getting insufficient sleep, the parent can tentatively draw the child’s attention to the fact that a lack of sleep can sometimes result in us feeling bad the next day. The parent could ask the child if they think whatever they stayed up to do was worth feeling tired the next day without turning it into a coercive I-told-you-so lesson. The parent could talk about how there are times when we rightly choose to do without sufficient sleep even knowing that we might well feel terrible the following day, because what we are doing is worth it. And sometimes it is worth changing the plans of following day in order to sleep later after a late night.

This process helps the child see the constraint that our requirement for sleep imposes and learn to adapt to it, in much the same way that a toddler on the stairs is learning the constraints imposed by gravity and friction. In both cases, the parent can offer support without gumming up the process by introducing coercion. This is not a compromise between leaving the child to her own devices on one hand vs. taking absolute control on the other, this is getting involved to maximize freedom. As a parent, this is quite freeing as well, because we can shift from policing boundaries to fostering and celebrating new capacities and opportunities. It’s more effective and more fun.

See also:

Aaron Stupple, 2022, ‘The constraints of childhood’,

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