“Are our questions actually about discovering why she wants what she wants so that we can actually solve the problem such that she prefers the outcome including over her initial want, or are our questions a way of fobbing her off without us appearing to be the bad guy?”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
“What if you and your seven-year-old child get in the car to go somewhere, and your child wants to drive?”
When this question is asked, the paternalistic approach is to say “no” and possibly not even to give an explanation.
Another approach often suggested is to offer your criticisms of the child’s idea. For example, you might mention that it would be illegal for the child to drive on the road, and list the possible consequences of doing so (and how likely each consequence is); and you might explain that trying to drive the car could be dangerous given the circumstances (you are on a busy road in London, not on a deserted rural road hundreds of miles from anywhere), explaining what could happen and how and why. Giving such information is perfectly reasonable if you think the child does not know those things and wants to be informed about them.
But sometimes we can be mistaken in thinking that our child wants to hear our criticisms. And if she does not, ploughing straight in with criticisms is interfering in and quite possibly sabotaging her problem-solving. It is not meeting the child where she is (her problem situation from her point of view). It is as if we have no interest in where she is, except to resist and correct her wish decisively.
See: Surely criticism is always good?, for more on this.
Another idea would be to try to find out what the child’s reason is for wanting to drive—what problem that would be addressing, what the child is curious about with respect to driving, want the child’s purpose, aim, goal, wish or intention is, what experience the child wants—to see if there is another, safer and legal way for the child to get that.
For example, if the child actually wants to learn to drive (which is not necessarily the case of course), how about if we start teaching her on Saturday when we will be staying at our friends’ farm with lots of land, where it will be safe and legal?
However, again, this might still be coercive. Does the child want a big discussion about her reasons? Does she even know her reasons? Does she want us poking about in her mind? Have we checked before ploughing in, uninvited, with our questions? Does she feel as though she is being interrogated? Or that she has to pass our unstated test? Or justify her wish? Are our questions actually about discovering why she wants what she wants so that we can actually solve the problem such that she prefers the outcome including over her initial want, or are our questions a way of fobbing her off without us appearing to be the bad guy? Even if our questions are genuinely about solving the problem to our child’s satisfaction, questions can still be unwanted, and if they are unwanted, they may well be impeding the growth of knowledge.
It is not just “unwanted answers to unasked questions” that are a problem (potentially coercive, possibly coming from a paternalistic mindset, possibly veering into boorishness or haranguing); unwanted questions are also problematic, as indeed is any unwanted conversation, discussion or any other unwanted interaction. So we do need to be sensitive to our child’s wishes in this regard. What are her facial micro expressions saying? What is her body language saying?
Maybe the child just wants to drive, and definitely doesn’t want all this discussion, and we, with our explanations and criticisms and all the questions to discover her reasons, are JUST NOT HEARING HER.
Sometimes we critical rationalists seriously overthink things (get stuck in conscious, explicit arguments) and entirely miss what is important (including the inexplicit and unconscious stuff).
Here is another approach:
Child: “I want to drive!” (climbing into the driver’s seat)
Parent: “Well I guess you could safely start the car…” (not prejudging the issue, not freaking out, confident that if safety becomes an issue, adult and child will find a solution, because child has no wish to die, suffer injury, cause parent to be arrested, or indeed to damage the car).
Child: “What do I do? Is it this key here?”
Parent: (after checking that the car is in neutral and the handbrake on) “Yes, you turn it clockwise and then let go.” (child starts the car)
Child: “Could you push my seat forward as far as it will go?”
Parent: “Sure.” (does so).
Child: “What does this pedal do?”
Parent: (explains accelerator and brake, and then…) “Try it.”
Child: (revs engine using the accelerator) “Cool! Oh. If I reach the pedals, I can’t see through the windscreen, and if I can see through the windscreen I can’t really reach the pedals. Hmmm, I think it would be better if you drive (moving over to the passenger side). Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if there were child-sized cars?”
Parent: “Well there probably are, in some form. Shall we try to find out where you could learn to drive safely?”
Child: “Maybe. Actually no. I don’t think so. Not yet. I’ll learn to drive when I’m a teenager probably.”
Notice how effortless and quick it can be to meet a child’s wish, versus how effortful and time-consuming (not to mention stressful and exhausting!) it can be to put up roadblocks and resist a child’s wish.
And whilst just saying “no” would have been faster than either option—at what cost? Being at war with our precious children is so unbearable that parents have to numb themselves. And what of the child on the sharp end of the “no”? What is the cost of being coercively controlled by someone who says they love you?
- Surely criticism is always good?
- If criticism is valuable why not be more critical?
- Self-coercively overriding your own ideas is shutting down your critical processes