“Children’s behaviour is not random. It is meaningful. Therefore there was a reason for this incident.”
– David Deutsch
From the archives: The original post was posted on 11th July, 1997
“In a hypothetical situation in which a middle school age person (with unconsciously coercive parents for 9 years; consciously attempting non-coercive parents since then) loses the family’s AOL account because of vulgar and sexually explicit language after a week of unlimited, uncensored access a coercive parent might:
1. ground this person”
Which you rightly reject because it would make the parent a tyrant.
“2. overreact and think that the lack of any remorse or responsibility for this means this person is going to the dark side; future=jail”
Which would be a very harmful falsehood. Of course, all four of these coercive options are “overreaction”.
“3. engage in emotional blackmail and make this person feel guilty”
Which you rightly reject because it would make the parent a creep.
“4. ban internet usage for life”
Which (apart from being tyrannical) would be beyond the parent’s legal powers. Life doesn’t end at 18!
“A non-coercive parent might:
1. laugh this off as typical middle school behaviour—no big deal”
It’s no big deal, not because it is “typical middle school behaviour” but because there is nothing morally wrong with it. (At least, you have given no hint of any morally wrong aspect—such as deliberately barging in on the “Grannies’ in Sheltered Housing, Teatime Discussion List” and calling them all a bunch of fucking tarts.)
But there may also be a danger in this “no big deal” theory—the danger of not taking the child seriously. Children’s behaviour is not random. It is meaningful. Therefore there was a reason for this incident. If the reason was that the child was simply unaware of the conventions that one is expected to follow on the internet (or whatever sub-culture of it he was interacting with), then I’m not sure why you are asking the question. It was a simple mistake, or at worst it was a piece of negligence on the parents’ part. If, on the other hand, the child intended what he did, and at least some of the consequences—stating his views forthrightly, striking out in a new life-style direction; or else offending people, offending the internet provider, losing the account, or whatever—then that raises all sorts of issues. Was he right to intend these outcomes? Could he have obtained the outcome he intended without other outcomes he did not intend?
“2. berate aol for such coercive policies”
No. It is their right to carry or refuse to carry information according to any criterion they like. What you could do is publicise their intolerant policies and urge like-minded people not to use their services. (However, in this particular case, that reaction would have unfortunate side-effects, since the Taking Children Seriously List is hosted by AOL!)
“3. get another aol account under the other spouse’s name”
Well—why not explain to aol that the offending postings were made by someone who is no longer going to use the account, and then get the child his own account with a more tolerant provider.
“4. share best theory that person needs to learn time and place for such creative expression…”
“5. discuss with person and come to an agreement for use of family account”
Well—yes. But what is strangely lacking in this list of non-coercive options is any hint about the reason why it all happened, and any hint of the child’s own view about what should be done about it.
Hmm. I see I haven’t really given any ideas—only some bits of tentative analysis. Sorry.
Follow-up posted by David Deutsch on 11th July, 1997, at 16:38:02 +0100
Another poster suggested, a propos the hypothetical child who “loses the family’s aol account because of vulgar and sexually explicit language”:
“Oh, and one more suggestion. If he’s so inclined, he might want to write to AOL and explain what he’s learned from the situation and ask for a second chance.”
I think that this is unlikely to be a good idea. First of all, from the little information that we were given, is seems that he has nothing to apologise for, and nothing to “learn” from being rejected except something about the accidental attributes of AOL. On the contrary, if anything it is he who deserves some slight apology, from AOL for being so uptight, and from his parents for not briefing him fully enough.
Even if he had genuinely wronged AOL, I think it would be quite dangerous to advise him to enact this stereotyped pattern of grovelling insincerity to authority. I’m not saying it is always wrong—sometimes one needs to behave manipulatively towards those in power, and sometimes (very rarely) it is expedient for a child to do this manipulation on his own behalf—I’m just saying it’s dangerous. In this particular case, I can’t imagine how it could be expedient because there are so many other internet access providers to choose from.
- What do you have against gentle coercion?
- Surely children are not born knowing right and wrong?
- Why not say that the policy is non-coercion except on important issues?