Who am I to criticise someone else?

“Despite my best efforts to take my kid seriously her whole life, now she’s an adult she’s not in agreement with us about rationality and criticism. She says ‘Who am I to criticize anyone else?’ Help! She’s gone to the dark side!”

Could it be that your child actually might be not quite as far off the mark as you think, and that perhaps you yourself (totally understandably, given some of the stuff I wrote in the past) have a slight misconception about criticism in the rational Taking Children Seriously scheme of things?

Had your child said it the other way round (that is, “Who are they to criticize me?”) I myself might (possibly) wonder if perhaps you might be right that your child disagrees with Taking Children Seriously. But she did not say it that way round, and what she said may be alluding to one of the most well-known features of Taking Children Seriously, namely, non-coercion, and trying not to impede the growth of knowledge.

One of the misconceptions some of my earlier statements seem to have caused is that criticising someone else is necessarily and always good. It is not. There is nothing magic or sacred about criticism in itself. Whilst it is true that without criticism, errors cannot be corrected, it does not follow that any and all criticising of other people’s ideas is good. Indeed some of it actually interferes with the person’s own criticism in their own mind and thus introduces staticity (stuckness, areas in which thought is frozen, entrenched, static) and errors that were not there before. Criticism of others can be (either intentionally or unintentionally) coercive. It can sometimes (quite possibly entirely inadvertently!) derail fruitful (knowledge-creating) thinking – which is the last thing we want! Wanted criticism is valuable. Unwanted criticism, or criticism at the wrong time such as when one is in mid-flow, can be coercive and destructive of knowledge-creating processes that are happening.

Imagine if instead of taking care not to give unwanted answers to unasked questions without first checking with the child that they want to hear what you have to say, we were to just plough in with our criticisms willy nilly?

What if we were to take the view that the child shouldn’t be derailed or upset by us coercively subjecting him to our criticism, and that if he is, he is being irrational and should be rational instead? Doesn’t that sound eerily similar to the position of an old school parent who is coercive and proud of it – the kind of parent who believes in subjecting her children to coercive education and (infallible, presumably?) ‘correction’ whether they like it or not? Such a position would be very likely to be coercive and harmful, wouldn’t it? It is not kind. Think how it would affect the relationship between parent and child. It is not Taking Children Seriously.

But it is not just a matter of that position (“it is irrational of him not to welcome all my criticism at all times”) being unkind. Unwanted criticism throws a spanner in the works of – actively interferes with, impedes and impairs – the valuable critical thinking of the child himself. It says: stop working through your own conjectures and criticisms of your own problem situation in a way that addresses your own problem situation, and coercively override that creative critical process that was going on, by installing in your mind this piece of information that does not address your own problem situation, and that is not actually relevant criticism at all. So this seemingly pro-rational, pro-criticism position is actually working against criticism that is actually valuable, and is actually harming the knowledge-creating going on, just like any other coercive education does.

So actually, I think you are mistaken if you think your child has gone to the dark side. On the contrary, it looks to me as if her position may be about taking care not to ride roughshod over the creative rational thinking processes of others (i.e., about not throwing a spanner in the works of the growth of knowledge). And if so, her position is very much consistent with Taking Children Seriously.

Perhaps the mistake is in thinking that if we parents don’t subject our children to all our unwanted criticism, they will somehow never learn? As if somehow our children were born unable to criticise themselves, and we need to be pouring our superior knowledge into their empty bucket minds?

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘Who am I to criticise someone else?’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/who-am-i-to-criticise-someone-else/

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