“When, instead of trammelling others’ freedom to be the way they themselves prefer—correcting them, punishing them, trying to mould and shape them to our own preferred specifications—we view our loved ones as sovereign people whose lives are their own, and we love and enjoy them just the way they are, and however they grow and change, their creativity can fly free, problem-solving flows, and knowledge creation is unhindered.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
“Could you clarify what kinds of things are coercive and what the non-coercive alternative would look like?”
“What do you mean by non-coercive? What is the difference between coercion and non-coercion?”
For those who are mystified about how non-coercive relationships might be different from coercive ones, the Internet says that Werner Erhard said:
“Love is granting another the space to be the way they are and the way they aren’t so they can change if they want to and they don’t have to.”
What that unsourced alleged quotation calls love is a very good description of what it means to be non-coercive. The way you interact with the other person is such that, from the other person’s point of view, they feel and are completely free to be exactly the way they are, and the way they are not, and they can change if they want to, and they don’t have to. You want the best for the person by their own lights. You are not telling them what their lights should be saying. You are not scrutinising them from above and giving them your unsolicited analysis of their alleged flaws and mistakes and respects in which they could improve. You are not trying to educate them whether they like it or not. You will not be looking sad or stoical or disappointed or annoyed if they change, or if they don’t change. They are free. Deeply free. Free to be the way they are. Free to evolve the way they are evolving. Free. In relationships like this, creativity and problem-solving flow. Nothing is impeding the growth of knowledge. Progress flourishes.
Coercive: double-binding—putting others in no-win situations—using your ingenuity to actively prevent problems being solved. Authority. Interacting hierarchically. Looking down on. Example: if you are in a relationship with someone, and that relationship matters to the person (such as if you are a parent and the other person is your child), using the fact that the other person wants or needs the relationship with you to double-bind the person by abusing him, correcting him, criticising him, trying to change him against his will. He can’t get out of the double bind, because he needs you. You misuse the power you have over him by virtue of his need of you, to coerce him, to compel him to change against his will, and in a way that does not address his problem situation and forcibly sabotages his own creativity and critical processes. The paternalistic parent-child relationship is brutal in its anti-rational double-binding coerciveness.
Non-coercive: instead of double-binding those you love, you love them exactly the way they are, and they can change if they want to, and they don’t have to. However they are in each moment, and however they have changed or not changed, and however they are changing, you still keep on loving them exactly the way they are in each moment rather than trying to change them, correct them, educate them, coercively steer them in a different direction, or otherwise throwing a coercive spanner in the works of their creativity. Equals. Horizontal, side-by-side relationships.
Coercive is binding or double-binding, thwarting, correcting, moulding and shaping, intruding, trying to change/correct/steer/teach the other person (without their consent, against their will), having an agenda for them that is independent of their wishes and impervious to their wishes; interfering, scrutinising and judging, psychologising, violating their privacy, looking down on, superior, authoritarian, win-lose. Manipulating with praise or rewards—that carrot carrying with it the implicit threat of the stick of your potential displeasure. Guilt-tripping. Quid pro quo: “I did all that for you, [so you must do X for me in return whether you like it or not, whether that was what we originally agreed or not, and if you don’t do what I want, I am going to make your life miserable].”
Non-coercive is not doing those things. Solving problems rather than preventing problems being solved. Not throwing spanners in the works of the growth of knowledge. Creating new knowledge. Win-win. Not merely letting others be, but positively loving and embracing how they are. And not in a way that says they are not allowed to change. Connecting with them in a way that they themselves enjoy or otherwise find productive—side-by-side, as equals. No manipulation. Being straight with each other. No hidden agendas.
Coerced is bound or double-bound; no-win; confined; forced; compelled; shackled; unfree; trammelled; stuck; seized up; manipulated.
Not coerced is complete freedom to be who and how you yourself want to be, to evolve and change the way you yourself want to evolve and change, solving the problems you yourself find interesting. Free, untrammelled, unbound, free to be and free to act as you think best by your own lights. Free to conjecture, free to criticise your conjectures according to your own standards, free to drop ideas and candidate solutions that seem mistaken to you. Free of unwanted interference. No carrots or sticks. Flying free.
When we do not reduce others’ freedom to be the way they themselves prefer, when we love and enjoy our loved ones just the way they are instead of (against their will) criticising them, teaching them, correcting them, punishing them, trying to mould and shape them to our own preferred specifications, and otherwise trying to change them, their creativity can fly free, problem-solving flows, and knowledge creation is unhindered.
We parents love our children so much, whatever ideas we have about how to treat our children. But when we operate from a paternalistic view of children, feeling dutybound to mould and shape them, our love is coercive, trammelling, constricting, manipulative, binding and double-binding; and that throws a spanner in the works of the growth of knowledge, and has many other unfortunate unintended consequences, not least damaging our precious relationship with our beloved child.
When we are not coercive, does that mean we cannot influence our children? No! We influence one another all the time, and that is wonderful. Does it mean we have to just grin and bear it when they are doing something we dislike? No! Not at all! We can raise problems non-coercively by checking with the child that they want to hear about a problem or criticism, and that now is a good time, before we state it. A charming friend of mine, who has probably never heard of Taking Children Seriously, has this endearingly non-coercive habit of checking before saying something critical or even before just making a suggestion, by saying, “May I offer you something?” It feels so deeply respectful and non-coercive and loving. And I can see that he is checking my face for micro expressions indicating a lack of consent before he proceeds. It makes it so easy to hear whatever he has to say.
The coercive leaning on the other person to pressure them to change, the trying to mould and shape them or teach them or correct or criticise them against their will, the manipulating them with carrots and sticks—is not actually trying to solve a problem with them, it is trying to foist your own idea on them by authority, using your power over them. It is trying to pour your own preference into their bucket mind, and punishing them when you fail to force your preference into their bucket mind. The question is: are we trying to correct or change the person? Are we trying to channel the other person into our own agenda for them independent of their wishes? Are we giving the person “unwanted answers to unasked questions”? Are we asking unwanted questions?
If you are in any kind of close family or love relationship and you have a habit of trying to get the other person to change according to your own idea of how they should be, instead of loving them exactly the way they are, that is coercive, and it is unlikely to go well. The way to address an issue non-coercively is to check with the child that they would like to hear your request, criticism or problem before stating it, like my friend does. And even if they say yes, still be sensitive to whether or not they are still wanting to hear it as you go along, like my friend is.
Sometimes, the thing we want addressed is really our own issue, not the child’s. In good relationships between adults, even if it is your own issue, the other person may well be happy to make a change for you, especially if you are approaching the person in a responsible spirit, tentatively asking if the other person would be willing to…, as opposed to approaching them with an entitled, self-righteous attitude and trying to get them to change.
But in most cases of such issues with our (especially younger) children, it is too likely that the child will experience even a responsible, non-entitled, non-self-righteous, tentative request as a coercive one, and it is too likely that we will be deluding ourselves that what we are requesting is not coming from paternalistic thinking in which we are not respecting the child as a sovereign individual whose life is their own. So in general, given the logic of the situation with our children, being non-coercive requires us to be a lot more responsible for our own issues than we might be in adult relationships in which there is zero possibility of us inadvertently operating paternalistically.
- Equal relationships with our children?! How are parents and children are equals?!
- What do you mean by ‘problem’?
- Surely coercion is ok when the parent is right and the child is wrong?
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘What do you mean by non-coercive? What is the difference between coercion and non-coercion?’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/what-do-you-mean-by-non-coercive-what-is-the-difference-between-coercion-and-non-coercion/