Taking Children Seriously
A new child-rearing movement believes parents should never coerce their kids
Four years ago, I subscribed to an e-mail list for “attachment-style” parents. With my new baby son warming my lap, I devoured discussions about gentle discipline, sleeping with the baby, choosing a sling, and breast-feeding past a year. We were all united in the belief that there existed a superior way to raise children, and by examining other cultures we could throw off our Western thinking and discover it. We also believed that our children had an intrinsic wisdom and as parents we must be protectors of their inalienable human rights.
One day a mom posted a message saying that she was having trouble getting her toddler son to take his daily, life-saving medicine. The parents felt they had no choice but to hold him down and make him swallow it. She was looking for ways to make this less traumatic for her son. Most of the suggestions were what one might expect, like hiding the medicine in food or bribing the baby with candy. Then a woman named Sarah Lawrence posted something entirely different. She accused the mother of abusing her child by forcing him to do something he didn't want to do. “If you were my mother,” she finished, “I would kick you with a hobnailed boot!”
The list exploded. Though at first the uproar centered around Lawrence's tone, the argument eventually shifted to whether children should have to do whatever they're told to do. Is it better to raise children without coercion? Could using coercion in any form—no matter how lovingly presented—be damaging to children?
As it turned out, Sarah Lawrence and her allies weren’t merely like-minded individuals who happened to find themselves in the same chat room. They were, in fact, proponents of a radical parenting movement known as Taking Children Seriously (TCS). Founded in England by Lawrence, who now goes by the name Sarah Fitz-Claridge, a writer, lecturer, and former editor of a homeschooling magazine, TCS is her attempt to extend her libertarian political philosophy into the realm of child rearing. Just as libertarianism is based in the idea that the state should not interfere with the freedom of its citizens (except to protect the rights of others), so TCS believes that parents shouldn't curtail the freedom of their children.
Fitz-Claridge defines TCS this way: “Its most distinctive feature is the idea that it is possible and desirable to bring up children entirely without doing things to them against their will, or making them do things against their will, and that they are entitled to the same rights, respect, and control over their lives as adults.”
Along with TCS co-founders David Deutsch, an Oxford University physicist, and author Kolya Wolf, Fitz-Claridge is a follower of the 20th-century European philosopher Karl Popper. Borrowing his arguments on how we actually acquire knowledge, Fitz-Claridge and others believe that children must be allowed to make their own conjectures about the world, then see for themselves if their theories hold up against experience. In their view, to “coerce” children disrupts this crucial process by forcing them to act in accordance with their parent's perceived truth as opposed to their own. Only if children are allowed to refute or verify their own ideas are they free to learn.
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