What Taking Children Seriously means to me—the freedom to make mistakes

“When I remember… occasions from my childhood [when I was coerced], I recognise the rightness of non-coercion, and it spurs me on to keep doing my best to provide a more conducive environment for my grandchildren—one in which they have the freedom to make mistakes.”
– Peter Corteen


Until recently I had not heard of ‘Taking Children Seriously’ with its general theme of non-coercion, but I had had many experiences that had already collectively brought me to conclusions that resonated strongly with this non-coercive approach to being with children.

Thinking back, probably my first experience of a non-coercive teacher, or maybe better to say guide, was Mr Brooker who taught art in the 6th form of the grammar school I attended. He was far less coercive than I had been used to. He would talk to us about the history of art and then give us free rein when it came to the practical aspect and would merely make suggestions as he went around the class perusing our work. I remember how disappointed and saddened he looked after the head Xaverian brother of the school obliged him to remove the full-length abstract female nude that some of his students had painted on the front door to the art rooms: Catholic school or not, it was after all the Woodstock era for teenagers around the world!

I am a parent of a child who is now an adult with two young children of his own. My granddaughter is just three years old and my grandson is just over one. When we raised our son our approach was very much informed by the experiences we had had from being students together on a lengthy teacher-training course about the Alexander Technique. If you have never heard of it, it is a system of re-education focused on improving a person’s ability to move around and be in the world in a free and open way. On the face of it some might say it is about posture but that would be to overlook the importance of attitude and mood in the face of our everyday habitual ways of doing things. A fellow student once said that she saw Alexander Technique as a means of self-expression.

One thing that we realised pretty soon on the course was that coercion was antithetical to the aims of the Alexander Technique: you cannot be open and free under coercion and you cannot learn properly under coercion. Naturally we wanted to raise our son with these ideas in mind and, in general, we did not stand in the way of him doing what he wanted, and we tried to encourage him in that. We never told him to say thank you, and we didn’t smack him or otherwise punish him. Many times we fell short of our ideals but nevertheless those were the ideas that we were drawn to and returned to.

Due to the pandemic I did not see my granddaughter for most of her first year. She was very shy with me at first—maybe she saw the tension in me, for I was anxious that she would like me or at least not be scared of me. So I stood back and allowed her to get used to me in her own time. Pretty soon we were playing with her toys together and laughing and playing hide and seek. It was a marvellous and uplifting feeling to know that such a young person could enjoy being with me and laugh with me.

We parents and grandparents tend always to be looking to notice when our children learn something new: the first time they smile, their first word, when they take their first steps. But we should be wary of this kind of thinking, because it risks making children self-conscious and pushes them to learn things they might not find interesting. Such thinking on our part puts an undesirable expectation on the child: “How is she doing? Is she hitting the milestones at the right time? Is she late learning this? Look how clever my child is, learning that so early.”

Taking children seriously allows them to do as they want without interference and with our support and involvement in ways they want. That’s a tall order because parents feel responsible for their children, we want to help our children and save them from harmful mistakes, yet it’s inevitable that both parents and children will have accidents and make mistakes. But as parents or grandparents, we should take heart from the old maxim that we only learn from our mistakes. I used to say that to my students of the Alexander Technique but the same applies to both adults and children including very young children.

I found out recently that that maxim is central in Taking Children Seriously thinking. I knew that Sarah Fitz-Claridge was interested in the writings of the philosopher Karl Popper and I had bought one of Popper’s books, Conjectures and Refutations. You can imagine my surprise to find that that little maxim I used to tell my students is mentioned in both the Preface to the first edition and the Preface to the second edition as Popper’s main aim in writing the book. As he says in the Preface to the second edition:

“Having tried, in my first Preface, to sum up my thesis in one sentence—that we can learn from our mistakes—I may perhaps add to it a word or two here. It is part of my thesis that all our knowledge grows only through the correcting of our mistakes.”

– Karl Popper, 1965 edition, Conjectures and Refutations, Preface to the second edition, 1965

Recently, my granddaughter started at a pre-school. I meet her as she leaves pre-school and we walk home together. She dawdles and climbs trees on the way, and I, not feeling bound by the responsibilities and necessities of a parent, feel no need to stop her doing those things, so she is (under my watchful eye) free to a great extent to make her own mistakes.

When we get home she wants to re-enact some of the scenarios that have happened at pre-school; and I hear her saying things like “Sit there and think about it” or “I’m the teacher and you sit on the floor” or “You’re not part of this group.” I usually go along with these character plays she likes to do but on one occasion recently, for some reason (maybe my joints were feeling a bit tired), I said “I don’t want to sit on the floor.” She was quite disappointed but still had the creative idea of offering me a cushion. Unfortunately I did not, at that moment, notice the opportunity to help her review those events, and I did not see the importance of the game she wanted to play. But we can learn from our mistakes.

The aim of Taking Children Seriously, as I see it, is to give children all the space they need to choose the activities they want to do themselves and to let them make their own mistakes. This does not mean not mentioning possible adverse consequences you think might occur if a child is proposing to do something dangerous or otherwise unwise. You would tell an adult friend your concerns if they were unaware of a possible risk of something they were intending to do. And your adult friend gets to ignore your advice and make his own mistake if he chooses. We don’t impose our will on our adult friends—not if we want to keep their friendship anyway. Taking children seriously accords children the same right to make their own mistakes instead of just forcing them to do what we think best.

As you put this non-coercive approach into practice you soon notice how many aspects of modern life conflict with your aim of informing but not forcing your child. I find myself having to make accommodations, some of which sometimes seem so big that I fear my aim of not forcing is futile, and I sometimes feel frustrated at my inability to avoid occasionally obliging or coercing my grandchildren. Sometimes it does not seem as easy with children as it seems with adults.

Perhaps you will think back to your own childhood and remember how it felt when you yourself were bullied or forced to do something against your will. Maybe you remember your parents sometimes preventing you from doing something they thought would be a mistake, or you recall being told “Stop that and do your homework” while you were in the middle of something you were really enjoying. When I remember such occasions from my childhood, I recognise the rightness of non-coercion, and it spurs me on to keep doing my best to provide a more conducive environment for my grandchildren—one in which they have the freedom to make mistakes.

See also:

Peter Corteen, 2023, ‘What Taking Children Seriously means to me—the freedom to make mistakes’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/what-taking-children-seriously-means-to-me-the-freedom-to-make-mistakes

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