“There are some issues on which I am authoritarian”

“Mixing coercion with explanation merely makes it less likely that the child will form a good understanding.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: The original post was posted on 18th December 1995

“I try to fit this style … but there are a number of issues on which I become authoritarian … The primary one is Safety. When it comes to the safety of my children, what we as parents say goes … no ifs ands or buts … Now this is direct safety issues … like near hot stoves etc. The less tangible safety issues like our kids in the shopping mall, we are open to negotiation, but if we cannot reach a safety standard, then what we say goes. Often time is a critical issue in the matter of safety.”

If you (and this is the norm, of course) just assume that coercion is necessary in certain circumstances, then you will never bother to spend the time and effort thinking about how it might be possible to avoid coercion in these situations, and if you never make any effort to think of ways of avoiding coercion, you are unlikely to find them. They do exist. There is an enormous amount one can do to protect one’s children from physical harm, for example, but most people just don’t think about it. Where the issue of safety is concerned, one can do a lot just by providing information—from babyhood. Obviously one has to think about how to explain things to tiny crawling children—one has to think of ways to show them that they will understand, and one has to keep thinking up new ways to explain things, as their understanding develops.

I would feel very uneasy about using coercion in situation where a child’s safety were in doubt, since coercion has unpredictable results and is useless at conveying ideas. What I want is for my children to be safe by virtue of understanding the dangers, not because they fear chastisement if they disobey an order. Relying on orders seems to me singularly ill-advised, if it is safety you are worried about. Mixing coercion with explanation merely makes it less likely that the child will form a good understanding, and so is equally ill-advised.

Perhaps there is some confusion about coercion and safety. It is sometimes argued that non-coercion means not telling children about dangers, or not taking any action if a person is about to do something that will probably result in injury or death. That is no more true of children than it is of our own friends. Unless the person has told us that he intends to injure or kill himself (and this is so unlikely as to be inconceivable—for a non-coerced child anyway) one would assume that the person’s theory about the action is mistaken, and that he has no intention of harming himself, but is acting out of ignorance. So, just as one would do with a friend, one would momentarily, tentatively, stop the child, to ensure that the child knows what he is doing and is aware of the putative consequences. What happens in these safety cases where one momentarily stops the child or friend, is that the child or friend is very relieved and pleased that one has saved him from harm.

What is happening here, in my terms, is that the child or friend has had a mistaken theory about the facts of the situation or whatever, and one has offered a better theory about the facts, and the child or friend has, through his own thinking, replaced his false theory with this truer one. He is now in a state he prefers to his previous state. This is not coercion.

However, if when we tentatively stopped him, the child or friend then confirmed that yes, he knew what he was doing and can’t bear to live any more, then yes, to stop him killing himself would be coercion. But note that I am only mentioning this because it has to be the extremes which define the theory, not because I think it is going to happen. As I say, it is inconceivable.

“Occasionally, as has recently happened with our 11 year old, her behaviour since the start of the school year went down the tubes … we suspect friends … but we became authoritarian and did the thing we intensely dislike and grounded her.”

Next you’ll be saying it hurt you more than it hurt her…

If you intensely dislike grounding her, that suggests you are in conflict about it. Resolving the conflict in your own mind and acting upon the results of that thinking process might feel better to you.

“We made it clear why [we grounded her].”

Did you? Did you tell her the truth? That is very unusual. The usual “clear reasons” parents give are that punishment X is a consequence of behaviour Y. In fact of course, that is not true. The truth is that the parent wants to hurt the child. Or to give the parent the benefit of the doubt: they think that children learn through being hurt—and the pain to which I refer is psychological, whether as a result of physical punishment or other forms of punishment like imprisonment (or “grounding”, as parents euphemistically call it). Funny how parents never seem to believe that they too learn through pain, isn’t it? When it comes to themselves, most parents favour reason over violence.

“… and explained that SHE has control of her temper and that when she showed she could control it, then she would have her freedom restored.”

Well first of all, whilst we all have free will, we do not have direct control of our inexplicit ideas, by definition, and sometimes we make mistakes in enacting our good explicit theories because of these inexplicit theories. Anyway, instead of punishing a child, why not talk to her instead, and find out why she was angry, and do something about it—at such times, she needs love and help, not punishment! (I do not mean “professional” help—just help from loved ones, in her thinking process.) Punishment just compounds the problem. This is a person we are talking about, not an animal (and anyway, even animal trainers say that animals respond better to positive treatment than punishment). Think about yourself: do you improve your ideas and behaviour by being hurt? Do you really? Or are you more likely to realise the error of your ways through reasoned argument with someone who cares about you and wants to help you to feel better not worse?

“We noticed amongst other children that grounding occurred too often and was therefore ineffective.”


“It also represented a big stress on the parents.”

Coercive parenting requires being in a state of semi-war with one’s children so it is hardly surprising it seems stressful. Coercion is stressful because it conflicts with most people’s wider ideas about morality, human relationships, and how to run a society, etc. Unless one mentions children or parenting, everyone agrees that consent-based solutions are better that coercion every time. That theory is held on some level by most people. They just suppress it in their parenting (and other relationships too sometimes).

“So our children know that when their freedom is taken away it is a “BIG” thing and we are upset.”

Wouldn’t their understanding of this “BIG thing” be better if you talked about it rather than hurt them? You are not giving reason a chance. What good is it to entrench the putative right theory irrationally, through coercion? What if the theory you are trying to entrench is not actually right? If you do succeed in entrenching it in a child, you will have done the child objective harm. Either way you will have damaged her mind, and diminished her creativity, her ability to solve problems, to think, in that area. Give me reason any day. It may take time and effort, but ohhh, the rewards are great.

“I’m not sure that I could ever become the non-coercive parent that Sarah advocates …”

I think it will take more than a generation… but I think the children of would-be non-coercive parents now, will improve upon our parenting, and that their children will improve upon theirs, and so on.

“as my children get older though, they are definitely becoming our friends as well as being our children.”

Good. That is a significant improvement upon the parenting of earlier generations. Perfection today is not possible. Improvement is.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘“There are some issues on which I am authoritarian”’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/there-are-some-issues-on-which-i-am-authoritarian/

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