Why no ‘common preferences’?

“Most problems are solved without any explicit communication. To the extent that people think of ‘finding common preferences’ as requiring or implying the need for explicit discussions, that is an understandable but very unfortunate misunderstanding: it leads to coercion.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


This page is not for those new to Taking Children Seriously; it is for those who are wondering why the phrase “common preference” seems to have disappeared from Taking Children Seriously.

“Why are you not using the phrase ‘common preference’ any more? Isn’t finding common preferences what Taking Children Seriously is all about?!”

The phrase seems to have been (understandably!) misunderstood in some significant ways:

“In my opinion Taking Children Seriously is not a practical solution in situations with kids under 3 or so. My daughter was a late talker and is no where near verbal enough to discuss common preferences with me…”

Misunderstanding 1. Seeing “finding common preferences” as a method of problem-solving. When you are trying to solve a problem by applying a method, you are highly unlikely to be able to solve the problem. There is no mechanical method by which problems can be solved. It takes creativity. There is no recipe for creativity. And when we try to apply a method, what we are doing is more likely to be actively interfering with our ability to solve the problem, than solving the problem.

Misunderstanding 2. Defining Taking Children Seriously as “finding common preferences” (and there is even a book seeming to imply that Taking Children Seriously is synonymous with “finding common preferences”). This misunderstanding tends to go along with some of the other ways in which the phrase is misunderstood, resulting in children being taken less seriously and easily-solved problems going unsolved.

Misunderstanding 3. The idea that to solve an interpersonal problem requires an explicit discussion. That is false. Most human problem-solving is not done consciously at all, let alone through a discussion. The trouble with thinking that solving interpersonal problems necessarily requires an explicit discussion is that people are then likely to be making what I call the “rationalist mistake”—the mistake of fetishising the explicit and ignoring everything else. For more about this, see the following post: The rationalist mistake.

The explicit mind is the mere tip of the iceberg. Most of the iceberg is below the water line: the “everything else” is almost everything! So when you reduce interpersonal problem-solving to an explicit discussion, that hinders, sabotages or prevents problems being solved. (And in the case of those who do not yet have explicit language such that they can have a discussion, now what?! Pretty soon, people arrive at “coercion is inevitable and necessary because babies are not rational, as evidenced by their lack of ability to have a rational discussion” or the like.)

When parents think that “finding a common preference” implies having an explicit conversation (and nothing else), what happens? Suppose their child expresses a wish. Instead of having a Taking Children Seriously generous-hearted can-do attitude and thinking outside the box and finding a creative solution (quite possibly without any words being spoken!), the parents subject the child to what they mistakenly think is a ‘rational’ discussion or ‘finding a common preference’.

What it is actually happening is that the parents are fobbing the child off, pouring cold water over the child’s wish, and bulldozing the child with ‘rational’ arguments. So of course the child stops expressing the wish—not because the problem is solved, but because the child has given up, realising that getting the wish met is futile given the parents’ intransigence. And the child will think twice about expressing a wish next time. And the parents honestly think that they have ‘found a common preference’ and solved the problem.

The ‘solution’ has not made the child’s eyes shine, or her face light up with joy, and she is not dancing with delight, but she is not crying or looking particularly glum, so the parents mistakenly think that that is evidence that a common preference was indeed found. As William Blake wrote:

“And because I am happy, & dance & sing
They think they have done me no injury…”

If it was not a real solution, why is the child looking OK with it? Because she has a brilliantly rational creative mind and she has not yet lost the ability to let unpleasant stuff go and live in the moment, so instead of focusing on the unmet wish and feeling awful, she has let it go and is making the best of it by turning her attention to more pleasant things. That the child has this kind of resilience that so many adults lack does not mean that no harm was done.

I myself often made this mistake of thinking everything was fine because no one seemed upset, BTW. And I only really saw that I had been selling out on relationships (and making the Libertarian/rationalist mistake) in 2018, when I asked for and received some straightforward criticism. (I talked about that in this podcast.) Even if we very much want to be taking our beloved children (and everyone else) seriously, we can be making such mistakes and be oblivious to that fact for years (or decades in my case). That is the human condition. We don’t know what we don’t know. We are fallible, and we lack knowledge. There is no way to jump to perfect knowledge, unfortunately. But we can correct our errors and learn. And we do.

Misunderstanding 4. The idea that one is entitled to a discussion irrespective of what the child wants. This mistake compounds the mistake of thinking that solving a problem requires an explicit discussion. Note that, because parents have created obligations to their child by choosing not to have the child adopted, if it were a child wanting a discussion, then of course the parents will want to have the discussion the child wants, and in the vast majority of cases it would not be taking the child seriously to ignore or refuse that request.

That is not to say that there are no possible circumstances in which the solution would involve the parent not having a discussion right then. There are such circumstances (though fewer than most parents seem to think!), and the child, being perfectly reasonable, would understand in those exceptional cases.

In any close, knowledge-creating relationship, such as a marriage or friendship, if one party wants to talk, that wish will inform the knowledge-creating process. Another vital thing that informs the decision-making is whether or not the other person wants to talk. Consent matters. It is perfectly possible (trivially easy in most cases!) to solve a problem in which one person’s initial wish is to talk, whilst the other person feels the need not to. Adult relationships in which one of the parties has a pattern of haranguing the other person to talk, as if that were an entitlement, tend not to survive such coercive patterns.

When parents do this to their children, and in the name of “Taking Children Seriously” or “finding common preferences” too—I despair. The idea that if you want someone else (your child, spouse, friend, someone on the internet) to have a discussion with you, then you are thereby entitled to such a discussion, is a mistake. Consent matters. The idea that such a forced discussion could possibly be “finding a common preference” or in any sense solving a problem is a mistake. Coercion impedes and impairs problem-solving. The idea that if your child, spouse, friend or anyone else does not submit to your coercive demand for a discussion, they are ipso facto “being irrational” and “coercing” you is backwards. To the extent that you do this to your children or anyone else, you yourself are being coercive.

Most problems are solved without any explicit communication. To the extent that people think of ‘finding common preferences’ as requiring or implying the need for explicit discussions, or even as being only about what happens between people rather than a more universal thing including just in our own minds, that is an understandable but very unfortunate misunderstanding.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, ‘Why no “common preferences”?’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/why-no-common-preferences/